Saturday, June 11, 2005

Taking the hard right instead of the easy wrong.

Having never served in the military, I cannot approach understanding how it feels to withstand enemy fire or to order others into harms way. Perhaps because of this, I struggle with the concept of "Moral Courage" as applied to military figures in American Civil War literature.

With the mention of 19th century moral courage, Abraham Lincoln easily comes to mind. His desire towards war's end to "let 'em up easy" certainly contradicted the fate many wished for the defeated Rebels. Had he lived, proposing this stance risked his own political harm as he sought to better the future of the Southerners in his care.

General Robert E. Lee's choice to serve Virginia and sacrifice the status and reputation gained through decades of United States military service certainly qualifies, doing so to avoid the prospect of taking arms against his own family. The opposite approach, taken by Major General George H. Thomas, a Virginian who chose Union but lost his Southern family, fits too. Confederate General Patrick Cleburne's proposal to free and arm slaves, the first from a major Confederate commander, also applies. General Lee's choice to surrender his command at Appomattox and seek peace, thus avoiding the brutality of guerrilla warfare, certainly deserves its place on the list as well.

Other examples include Colonels Strong Vincent and Patrick O'Rorke at Gettysburg, who risked possible court martial when they opted to defend Little Round Top without approval from their immediate superiors. Both paid with their lives. Saying "Damn your orders", Lieutenant Stephen F. Brown of the 13th Vermont, defied his commander and filled canteens of water for his parched men as they marched the hot, dusty roads towards Gettysburg. For his defiance, he was put in arrest. On varying scales, these are instances of such courage.

Other examples are less clear. Do Lieutenant General James Longstreet's protests against Lee's plans at Gettysburg fit? If not, perhaps his generalship once the fighting began on Day 2 was such an example. Putting aside his own objections, he did his duty.

What about Sherman's March to the Sea? Would the label of moral courage have been applied had his tactics been used against Northern cities? Had a Southern commander replicated Sherman's ruthlessly efficiency, Northerners who viewed Uncle Billy as heroic would now have demanded retribution.

The absence of moral courage allegedly contributed to Union Major General George B. McClellan's failings at Antietam. On the single bloodiest day of the war, critics state that McClellan lacked the moral courage to commit even more men to potentially end the war. Having the courage then, the explanation goes, may have avoided the long lists of casualties which necessarily stem from prolonged conflicts. His opposite in determination and temperament, General Ulysses S. Grant allegedly had the requisite degree of moral courage to pursue necessary ends. Grant's supporters valued his willingness to take the responsibility of ordering others to into harms way for a cause bigger than any one soldier. Sometimes described as butchery, his single-mindedness contributed immeasurably to the formation of the Union as it continues to exist today. Slavery, which may have died a slower more lingering death, would have continued with millions more paying the price. Instead of these millions, thousands bought their freedom with human currency, committed to this effort by those with the courage to do so.

Lincoln and Lee may provide the most accepted and comfortable examples of moral courage because of the ease with which many agree with the sentiments behind their actions. Federals and Confederates alike can respect them in spite of their divided loyalties. Debatably fewer accept Grant's and Sherman's actions. But that may perhaps say more about our own discomfort with accepting the gift of the re-United States which we know to have been purchased at such a high and bloody price. Yet how many who argue that the cost was too high would today have the moral courage to consider returning this gift already given?



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1 comment:

GettysBLOG said...

Well writ, and well put. It is a subject that some treat too lightly, and others with too much gravity.

I have alsways believed that, when faced with moral dilemmas, we need to fully examine the options, and ask a final question of ourselves before taking a decision: What kind of a person will I be afterwards, if I do this?

I believe that General Longstreet was highly conflicted at Gettysburg, both on July 2nd, and again on July 3rd. His absolute respect for his superior, Robert E. Lee, and his clearcut soldier's sense of duty and honor was in direct opposition to what he knew was going to happen to his men. He struggled with the decisions made by Lee, and was unwilling to order his men to their deaths and disfigurements in attacks that Longstreet was convinced had no hope of success. Eventually, he was forced to place his trust in the wisdom and experience of his commander. Moral courage? Yes, indeed. While suffering in this no-win dilemma, Longstreet had two options, to go ahead and order his men forward, or defy Lee. But defiance of Lee would likely have meant his replacement, and someone else would be forced to order the men forward. So Longstreet assumed the burden of the decision, and did what he could to give his men the best chance they could expect under the circumstances.

Moral dilemmas demand morally courageous responses. Longstreet's was such a response.