Honor in the Civil War, Then and Now

John Kelly describes the Civil War as arising out of a failure “to compromise”; he also cautions against applying contemporary standards of ethics to historical events — “very very dangerous” — and contends that such application demonstrates “a lack of appreciation of history.” He is out and out wrong. All the way back to colonial times, numbers of Americans recognized the dignity inherent in every human being, and knew that such dignity needs to be protected, promoted, secured. The honorable course to take, then and now, was to fight for the rights of all human beings, black and white. In 1700, Judge Samuel Sewall of Newbury, Massachusetts published the first anti-slavery tract, The Selling of Joseph, in which he proclaimed “These Ethiopians, as black as the first Adam, the Brethren and sister of the last ADAM, and the offspring of GOD; They out to be treated with a Respect Agreeable.”

Before the Revolutionary War, lawyer John Lowell brought “freedom suits” on behalf of enslaved blacks. Arguing that “The precepts of revealed law, golden rule of the gospel, are that we are not to sell our brethren, that we are to do as we would be done unto…,” Lowell won suit after suit before Massachusetts juries. As John Adams noted, “I never knew a Jury by a Verdict, to determine a Negro to be a slave. They always found them free.” Lowell, joined by fellow colonists from Massachusetts charged with writing the constitution for the new state, ensured that language guaranteeing the freedom of all men, black and white, be included; their failure to secure such language in the federal constitution would haunt the country for the next 73 years.

The Civil War was fought over slavery. Before the election of 1860, James Russell Lowell wrote in The Atlantic Monthly, “The slaveholding interest has gone on step by step, forcing concession after concession, till it needs but little to secure it forever in the political supremacy of the country. Yield to its latest demand, — let it mould the evil destiny of the Territories, — and the thing is done past recall. The next Presidential Election is to say Yes or No.” Yes or no to slavery, and with the election of Lincoln, the southern states knew that voters had voted for abolition of slavery. Rather than face the end of slavery, the southern states, one by one, seceded from the United States.

On April 12, 1861, fighting between the Union and the Confederacy began when the Confederate Army fired on Fort Sumter, setting off more than four years of brutal, bloody fighting between the states. Young men across the North joined up without reservation, certain that the fight to end slavery was the honorable course to follow. As William Lowell Putnam wrote to his mother from his camp in Maryland in October 1861, “God grant…utter destruction of every vestige of this curse [of slavery]…Human beings never drew sword in a better cause than ours.”

William Lowell Putnam, age 21.

By month’s end, Lowell was dead, killed at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. Five more of his Lowell cousins would die fighting to end slavery. All young men, all abolitionists from an early age — and joined by hundreds of their friends and classmates with the sole purpose of ending slavery in the United States.

A close friend of Charlie Russell, Robert Gould Shaw, led the 54th Battalion made up of black soldiers. Shaw, along with eight hundred other Union soldiers, died at the battle of Fort Wagner, where his body and the bodies of the blacks serving under him were tossed into a common grave. The mass burial was intended by the Confederates to be seen as a degradation of the white officers killed in the battle. But as Frank Shaw, father of Robert, made clear, it was an honor to die fighting side by side with blacks. Shaw demanded that that the black and white men of the 54th, equal in death as in life, lay undisturbed in their mass grave, joined for all time in honor and in sacrifice.

John Kelly praises the “men and women of good faith on both sides” of the Civil War who followed their “conscience” in their fight, and considers Confederate General Robert E. Lee to have been an “honorable man.” Kelly talks a lot about honor and about understanding history through the lens of the time. But “honor” was clear then, and it clear now: true honor belongs to those who rise above their own needs and interests to do whatever it takes to ensure the freedom and dignity and safety of all Americans, black and white.