ESSAY: American Slavery, and the Confederate Flag, Part Five
I watched him closely as he gazed upon Howard’s troops… His eyes burned with a brilliant glow, lighting up a sad face. His expression was one of intense interest, his face was colored slightly with the paint of approaching battle, and radiant at the success of his flank movement. To the remarks made to him while the unconscious line of blue was pointed out, he did not reply once during the five minutes he was on the hill, and yet his lips were moving. From what I have read and heard of Jackson since that day, I know now what he was doing then. Oh! beware of rashness, General Hooker. Stonewall Jackson is praying in full view and in rear of your right flank!
— Fitzhugh Lee, address to the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia, 1879
I know very little about the American Civil War, although I do remember spending several weeks working on a school report in sixth grade, entitled “The Blue and the Gray.” The report summarized, in careful handwriting on blue lined notebook paper and with illustrations done in colored pencil, some of the major American events that took place between 1860 and 1865.
I know even less about the South, but I gather from some recent research that, since 1904, the Commonwealth of Virginia has been celebrating the lives of two of its Civil War heroes — Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson — with a state holiday known as Lee-Jackson Day.
Lee and Jackson are generally portrayed as two of the most brilliant military leaders in America’s civil war, despite the fact that they fought on what was the ultimately losing side in that conflict.
Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson — reportedly an utterly fearless, and ruthless, commander — was mortally wounded by his own Confederate sentries on May 2, 1863, following a striking victory over Union troops at the Battle of Chancellorsville, the second bloodiest battle of the war. Jackson died of complications, eight days later.
Jackson was a devout Presbyterian, and his legendary fearlessness in battle has been ascribed to a pious belief that he was doing God’s work — and that the day of his death had already been chosen.
His family kept six black slaves during the 1850s, but his relationship with the black race was complicated. From Wikipedia:
Jackson was revered by many of the African Americans in town, both slaves and free blacks. He was instrumental in the organization in 1855 of Sunday School classes for blacks at the Presbyterian Church. His second wife, Mary Anna Jackson, taught with Jackson, as “he preferred that my labors should be given to the colored children, believing that it was more important and useful to put the strong hand of the Gospel under the ignorant African race, to lift them up.”
Upon hearing of Jackson’s injuries, General Robert E. Lee wrote to him:
“Could I have directed events, I would have chosen for the good of the country to be disabled in your stead.”
Lee fought for the Confederacy, but he opposed slavery, and long before the war, had freed the slaves he inherited from his wife’s estate. One of those freed slaves, William Mac Lee, chose to stand by Lee’s side throughout the war, serving as his cook and confidant.
In a letter written in 1856, five years before the beginning of the war, Lee expressed these sentiments:
“There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil. It is idle to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it is a greater evil to the white than to the colored race. While my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more deeply engaged for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and will prepare them, I hope, for better things. How long their servitude may be necessary is known and ordered by a merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influences of Christianity than from the storm and tempest of fiery controversy..
“The doctrines and miracles of our Savior have required nearly two thousand years to convert but a small portion of the human race, and even among Christian nations what gross errors still exist! While we see the course of the final abolition of human slavery is still onward, and give it the aid of our prayers, let us leave the progress as well as the results in the hands of Him who, chooses to work by slow influences, and with whom a thousand years are but as a single day.”
The abolitionists in the Northern states could not bear to wait a thousand years, however, and in 1865 — after the deaths of 750,000 young men, white and black — the slaves of the South were officially freed.
150 years later, students at Washington University staged a “die-in” to protest the shooting death of a young black man named Michael Brown. Many of them carried signs asserting that “Black Lives Matter.” How slowly those thousand years pass, for us living on this mortal plane.
In 1984, the Commonwealth of Virginia revised its holiday known as “Lee-Jackson Day” to include another famous Christian warrior. The newly renamed holiday was called “Lee-Jackson-King Day.”
In 2000, Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore proposed splitting Lee–Jackson–King Day into two separate holidays, after debate arose over whether the nature of the holiday which simultaneously celebrated the lives of Confederate generals and a civil rights icon was incongruous. The measure was approved and the two holidays are now celebrated separately as Lee–Jackson Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
How we love to separate ourselves, into black and white.