There’s a Question My Confederate Ancestors Taught Me To AskRoundup
tags: slavery, Civil War, politics, Antebellum South
David French is senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s also a columnist for Time. He’s the author of Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore, and the forthcoming Divided We Fall, among others.
Many readers may not know this, but today is a significant day in Civil War history. On April 26, 1865—17 days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox—Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston surrendered the Army of Tennessee at Greensboro, North Carolina. The last major Confederate combatant command stacked its arms.
I think of this day not merely because of its national historical significance but also because of its personal family importance. My ancestors fought for the Army of Tennessee. In fact, my ancestors marched across the very ground where my house sits and fought for their lives in the very town—Franklin, Tennessee—where I now live. Other ancestors fought for the Army of Mississippi. I’ve walked their battlefields at Shiloh and Vicksburg.
And I must confess, the older I get, the more I’m haunted by their legacy.
I don’t mean that in a guilty way, as if I’m somehow responsible for the actions of men who took up arms for an unjust cause more than a century before I was born. Instead, I mean that I’ve often asked myself, “What would I have done?”
Slavery was a monstrous evil. Yet generations of Americans grew up in communities that accepted it, defended it, and even celebrated it. How many abolitionist arguments did a child of the antebellum South ever hear? If they heard abolitionist arguments, did they hear them portrayed fairly, accurately, and sympathetically?