What is the lost cause to a black man?

There is much to appreciate about the Civil War. I can’t get enough of it. Walking battlefields is an emotional (spiritual?) experience for me. Unfortunately, obsession with the Civil War is not entirely healthy. The nagging presence of the lost cause myth can turn Civil War “nerdery” into something sour.

As an authentic Civil War nerd, the lost cause is something with which I have to contend. To put it into the most general terms, the lost cause is the sentiment that the antebellum South was a bastion of Christianity, liberty, limited government, and virtue. In contrast, Lincoln’s “Black Republicans” promoted soaring deficits, massive federal agencies, and cities filled with degenerates.

I’m not going to debate the merits of the lost cause as such. In order to make things simple, I’ll grant that the antebellum South was a pretty great place—for white people.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like for a black man to visit the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library? Jemar Tisby , co-founder of the Reformed African American Network , provides the answer in this fascinating blog post.

Tisby laments the white-washing of our family friendly museums and the long-term consequences of the idealized lost cause.

Did the parents who brought their children to visit the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library point out that the museum’s designers rendered slavery all but invisible? Did they comment on the fact that the Confederacy represented chains and shackles and not freedom for people of African descent?

. . .

Did these white parents teach their white children about the lasting effects of slavery and segregation including thousands of lynchings, the convict-lease system, the Jim Crow racial hierarchy, generational poverty, red-lining of property, inequitable distribution of G.I. Bill benefits, the purposeful formation of ghettoes, the law and order rhetoric that relegated millions of black people to prisons, disproportionately high infant mortality rates, and the collective racial trauma African Americans continue to endure?

I’m going to hazard a guess and say, no, most white parents aren’t teaching their children about the Confederacy’s true purpose and the effects of glamorizing the antebellum South.

Tisby forces me to ask: what is the lost cause to my black brother? And, what is the lost cause to my Christian witness?

Whatever one’s subjective intentions might be for celebrating the Confederacy, the lost cause necessarily reveres men who fought for pro-slavery governments. Let’s not get distracted. At its best, the antebellum South was just a shadow of the kingdom to come. At its worst, it is a painful reminder of our nation’s original sin and of the blood shed as recompense.

Give thanks!

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is the purest of holidays.

As I get older, I tend to side with the old Protestants who aren’t excited about Christmas and Easter. Don’t we praise God for the incarnation and resurrection of the Christ on a daily basis or at least every Lord’s Day? Why do we need the mall to celebrate the virgin birth?

But, I digress.

In my view, Thanksgiving is the most religious of American holidays because it points all of us to God. If the universe is the product of a random occurrence in the black emptiness, gratitude is an irrational response to any of life’s blessings. If there is no design, we should feel lucky, but not grateful. Do you thank the slot machine for its benevolence?

Whether you recognize the sovereignty of God or not, you will feel a sense of gratitude when you survey all of the good things in your life: the smile of your child, your job that sustains, your loving wife,  and your home with a multitude of comforts. All we can say is wow, thank you!

If you think that my view is strange or unduly religious, I recommend that you read President Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. You’ll see that I’m just being faithful to the character and essence of the holiday. I quote a portion of Lincoln’s Proclamation below.

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

. . .

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans. mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.

Abraham Lincoln: “Proclamation 106—Thanksgiving Day, 1863,” October 3, 1863. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=69900.

Let’s reflect on the year and thank God for his blessings. We are a blessed people in a blessed country. Though many trials have and will come, the good things in life certainly do and will outweigh them. Give thanks!


James Garfield versus the slavers

I recently purchased The Early Life and Public Career of James A. Garfield from a used bookstore in Grand Rapids. Flipping through it, I found a fascinating story about James Garfield facing down slavers in Kentucky during the Civil War.

Before you read the story, it’s helpful to get a little background.

James Garfield was born into a farming family in Ohio. Like Abraham Lincoln, Garfield was too ambitious to stay on the farm.  Garfield managed to obtain a respectable education and would eventually pass the Ohio bar exam.

Garfield developed an interest in politics and was an anti-slavery Republican. After the outbreak of war, Garfield organized an Ohio regiment. He would eventually rise to the rank of major general. Notably, Garfield was Major General Rosecrans’s chief of staff for the battle of Chickamauga.

Garfield was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives while he was far away from home fighting the war. With the blessing of his superiors, Garfield resigned from the army. While traveling north after the battle of Chickamauga, Garfield encountered the aforementioned slavers. The details of that encounter are provided below.

James Sanks Brisbin, The Early Life and Public Career of James A. Garfield: Including Also a Sketch of the Life of Chester A. Arthur 236-37 (1880).

This brief story is so interesting because it not only displays Garfield’s courage, but it also reveals the dark reality of slavery in the northern states. The author correctly notes that the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply in Kentucky. The executive order only applied to slave states that were in open rebellion.

Garfield, of course, was no saint, but I appreciate his war service, anti-slavery views, and sound-money politics.

For an interesting look at the life and death of President James Garfield, I recommend the “American Experience” episode “Murder of a President.”




Celebrate our national parks

The National Park Service turns 100 today. Check out the centennial page and find your park.

I am a national parks conservative.

I love the idea of preserving our natural and historical treasures for public benefit. Our national parks instill pride and foster community. I’m glad that we have the parks, and I would support even more funding to expand the museums, displays, and preservation efforts of our National Park Service. The federal government does all sorts of silly and harmful things, but spending money on national parks is not one them.

All of my favorite vacations involve a trip to a national park.

After I completed eighth grade, my dad gave me the opportunity to  plan a few visits to Civil War battlefields, including Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, and Antietam, as part of our summer family vacation. We ended up stopping at nearly ten national parks. I dutifully stamped my “National Parks Passport” at each stop.


My sister has never forgiven me.


The national parks even have a Grand Rapids connection. Our own Charles Belknap was on the commission to create the first National Military Park at the Battlefield of Chickamauga.


I have visited the Chickamauga-Chattanooga park each of the last two years, and I could go back every year. It’s an amazing place. Oh, and don’t forget Gettysburg. It’s massive, and you can’t top it in terms of historical significance. I mean other than Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The Second Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitutional Convention. That’s amazing. Oh and . . . .

Here’s to another 100 years for the National Park Service.

Free State of Jones: a review

My wife and I were able to make a late night showing of Free State of Jones on Friday. I was excited to see a new Civil War movie. My wife was excited to see Matthew McConaughey. Both of us love good period dramas. 

Let me begin by saying that Free State of Jones is not an enjoyable movie experience. Free State of Jones is not a Michael Shaara/Jeff Shaara battlefield epic. Like Amistad, Cold Mountain, and Pharaoh’s Army, Free State of Jones asks us to examine and repent of our sins. It’s a gut punch of a story, and it’s protagonists don’t experience a final victory. Dehumanizing racism is alive in our country. 

The story of Newton Knight is captivating and full of controversy. I highly recommend that you read the “True Store of the ‘Free State of Jones'” in the Smithsonian Magazine prior to watching the movie.

Knight deserted the Confederate Army after the second battle of Corinth and formed an “army” of former slaves and former Confederates to fight against the Confederate authorities in the vicinity of Jones County, Mississippi. Knight would later aid the Reconstruction-era government by defending the rights of former slaves in an extremely hostile environment. Knight’s double-barreled shotgun was never far from his side, and he was certainly willing to engage in violence to achieve his ends.

Knight was similarly radical in his personal life. He separated from, but did not divorce, his first wife, with whom he had many children. He later had a long-time relationship with a former slave and had children with her. Knight’s white children and mixed-race children lived together on the same farm. As you can imagine, Knight’s family arrangement caused as much controversy as his political activities.

It seems to me that one’s view of Knight is contingent upon one’s interpretation of the Civil War. The story of Newton Knight threatens the myth of the lost cause. In the movie, Knight is the libertarian champion of the rights of men, fighting against the tyrannical Confederacy. The local Confederate authorities engaged in unjust taxation, theft, and murder. Knight promoted open rebellion and encouraged the use of firearms to defend one’s property from the government.

In contrast, the “lost causers” will point out that Knight was an adulterer, agitator, deserter, murderer, and traitor. They will argue that Knight did not have some over-arching moral vision, he was simply a law-breaker out for his own gain.

I’m sure that the debates over Newton Knight will continue to be partisan, tribal, and unpersuasive. The story hits too close to home for many of us to have a dispassionate and nuanced reaction to it. Our sense of identity is tied to the Civil War in a unique way. The past is very much alive.

As to the movie itself,  there is so much to say about Knight’s story that segments do seem rushed. The movie is ambitious and covers a ton of ground. The director uses actual Civil War photographs to connect the story to the grand narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction. It’s almost like Ken Burns drops in for 20 seconds every now and then. I find the documentary-style asides helpful, but I’m sure some will find them distracting.

The Free State of Jones is absolutely worth the price of admission. You won’t enjoy it, but it will be good for you. I also encourage you to stay away from the second civil war that is being fought on the internet. The partisan historians are bravely staking out positions in the comment sections. It’s a bloody mess.

Know Nothings are nothing new

In the 1850s, Whig politicians, such as Abraham Lincoln, were put in a tough spot. Nativist sentiment led to the formation of secret societies and new political alliances that challenged the old order. Anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic policies formed the core of the new Know-Nothing (“American”) Party. David Herbert Donald described the situation in Lincoln.

A rising tide of immigration fed the endemic American nativist sentiment. In Illinois the large number of foreign-born who came to build the railroad network aroused fear of foreign tongues and behavior and of the Catholic Church, to which many immigrants belonged. Fear became resentment when the sharp recession of 1854-1855 put a temporary halt to railroad construction and threw immigrant laborers into competition with local blue collar workers. Native-born Protestants began to join secret societies, like the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, which advocated lengthening the term for naturalization and restricting the rights of the Catholic Church.

David Herbert Donald, Lincoln 169-70 (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks 1995).

The Know Nothings were especially fearful of foreign (Catholic) influence in government. This fear is reflected in the American Party platform of 1856, which states that:

  • Americans must rule America, and to this end native-born citizens should be selected for all State, Federal, and municipal offices of government employment, in preference to all others.
  • No person should be selected for political station (whether of native or foreign birth), who recognizes any allegiance or obligation of any description to any foreign prince, potentate or power, or who refuses to recognize the Federal and State Constitution (each within its sphere) as paramount to all other laws, as rules of political action.

American Platform of Principles | The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition (source).

In many ways, Abraham Lincoln was successful politically because he cast himself as the moderate among radicals. However, when asked about his rumored sympathies for the Know Nothings by an old friend, Lincoln responded with conviction and clarity.

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence [sic] of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].

Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 2. 1809-1865. (source).
It should be pretty obvious where I am going with this. Donald Trump’s nativist and protectionist rhetoric contains at least some passing resemblance to the Know Nothing movement of the 1850s. I could provide source material, but I think the examples are numerous and obvious.
With Trump’s vanquishing of Ted Cruz this past week, all Republicans are forced to respond to this new political reality. Trump’s coalition challenges the old order. Donald Trump will be the nominee of the Republican Party, and Trump’s positions will be the de facto party platform. The question will be asked. Are you a Trump Party person?

Following Lincoln’s example, my answer is clear.

I am not a Trump Party person. That is certain. How could I be?

William Lytle: the poet-warrior

William H. Lytle was a man of many talents. He was a well-educated lawyer, politician, and soldier; however, it was Lytle’s poetry that made him famous prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. His most famous poem being “Antony and Cleopatra.” Lytle’s poems were compiled and published in book form by William Venable. You can access the book on Google Books.

Lytle was a fighter and had proven himself on the field of battle. At Chickamauga, Lytle commanded the First Brigade, Major General Philip Sheridan’s division, Major General McCook’s Twentieth Corps. One of the regiments in Lytle’s brigade was the 21st Michigan, which was commanded by Col. William McCreery.

As fate would have it, Lytle’s brigade faced an impossible situation on the second day of the battle, September 20, 1863. A communication error created a gaping hole in the Union line just as Longstreet unleashed a massive assault on the Union right. Lytle’s brigade was thrust into action to fill the void, but there was no holding back the Confederate tide.

While rallying his brigade, Lytle was shot twice; the second, fatal, bullet struck him in the face.  Col. McCreery, of the 21st Michigan, remained with Lytle’s body. McCreery was wounded and taken prisoner for his trouble. The men of the 21st assumed that both Lytle and McCreery had been killed. In the post-battle reports, Union officers praised the performance of Lytle’s brigade.

The advancing Confederates immediately recognized Lytle and guarded his body. Indeed, Lytle carried on pre-war acquaintances with his Confederate foes, Brig. Generals Anderson and Deas. The sullen victors sent a lock of Lytle’s hair and his belongings back to Ohio and properly buried Lytle on the field.

Though the Confederates won a tactical victory at Chickamauga, both sides sustained terrible losses. Chickamauga is behind only Gettysburg in terms of total casualties sustained during a single battle. As with Gettysburg, the Union was capable of taking the losses; the Confederates were not.

The story of General Lytle’s splendid career from the day when Fort Sumter yielded to the day of his death on the field of Chickamauga—a period of less than two years and eight months—covers the events of three principal campaigns, each signalized by a terrible battle. . . .The time was short, but long enough to develop many heroes; but not one more illustrious than William Haines Lytle, the poet-warrior.

William H. Venable, Poems of William Haines Lytle 14 (1894). 


20160430_105304 (1)

SOURCE: Charles E. Belknap, History of the Michigan Organizations at Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Missionary Ridge 1863 (Second Edition 1899).

Additional Resources:

Peter Cozzens, This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga (1992).

Charles E. Belknap, History of the Michigan Organizations at Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Missionary Ridge 1863 (Second Edition 1899).

Civil War Trust: Chickamauga