The last Civil War soldier died when I was a child, but the war over how we remember that war rages on.
Frederick Douglass could see it coming. As early as 1871, the famous abolitionist, who had been born into slavery, warned that the hard-earned lessons of the war were being lost.
“The spirit of secession is stronger today than ever,” Douglass said. “It is now a deeply rooted, devoutly cherished sentiment, inseparably identified with the ‘lost cause,’ which the half measures of the government towards the traitors have helped to cultivate and strengthen.”
Douglass didn’t earn his reputation for oratory by mincing words. Abraham Lincoln was the first U.S. president to invite a delegation of black men to the White House, but Lincoln used the occasion to pitch his pet solution to America’s racial divide: send all of the black people to Central America or to Liberia. A furious Douglass said that Lincoln was “showing all his inconsistencies, his pride of race and blood, his contempt for Negroes and his canting hypocrisy.”
America’s “foul and unnatural” Civil War was not caused by slaves, Douglass said, but by the “cruel and brutal cupidity of those who wish to possess horses, money, and Negroes by means of theft, robbery and rebellion.”
Douglass was a loyal Republican, because that was the party of emancipation, but by 1888 he was warning that his party was treating the freed slave as “a deserted, a defrauded, a swindled outcast; in law, free; in fact, a slave; in law, a citizen; in fact, an alien; in law, a voter; in fact, a disfranchised man.”
He wasn’t just being paranoid. Between 1868 and 1871, the Ku Klux Klan killed 400 people, most of them black. Within a few years, the Southern states had enshrined Jim Crow laws, ensuring second-class citizenship for black Americans for another century.
Douglass was particularly outraged by the “nauseating flatteries” of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee following his death in 1870. Douglass considered monuments to Lee and the Confederacy an insult to black Americans and to America.
“Monuments to the Lost Cause will prove monuments of folly,” he said.
One person who might have agreed was Lee himself. Replying to a request to help plan memorials at Gettysburg, Lee declined, saying it was best “not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.” Headstones to mark the graves of the fallen were the only memorials Lee favored.
Douglass was open to forgiveness but not to forgetting.
“I am no minister of malice,” he said in a Memorial Day speech at Arlington National Cemetery, built on land formerly owned by Lee. “I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant, but may my right hand forget its cunning, and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted and bloody conflict.”
Late in life, Douglass even visited his old slave master, by then aging and bed-ridden. The man who “had struck down my personality, had subjected me to his will, had made property of my body and soul” was no enemy, Douglass explained: “He was to me no longer a slaveholder either in fact or in spirit, and I regarded him as I did myself, a victim of the circumstances of birth, education, law, and custom.”
Victims of birth and circumstance filled the ranks in armies of both the blue and gray. Oliver Wendell Holmes, himself a combatant, wrote that “the faith is true and adorable which sends a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.”
But blacks bore the worst of the suffering. Writing for the London Times, William Howard Russell encountered a slave sale as he was walking to a meeting of the Congress of the Confederate States in 1861.
“I am neither sentimentalist nor black republican, nor negro-worshipper,” he wrote, “but I confess the sight caused a strange thrill through my heart. I tried in vain to make myself familiar with the fact that I could, for the sum of $975, become as absolutely the owner of that mass of blood, bones, sinew, flesh, and brains, as of the horse which stood by my side. There was no sophistry which could persuade me the man was not a man – he was, indeed, by no means my brother, but he was assuredly my fellow creature.”
In the draft riots in New York in 1863, angry protesters burned the Orphan Asylum for Colored Children, leaving orphans who were little more than infants to roam the streets, “prey to beings who were wild beasts in everything save the superior ingenuity of man to agonize and torture his victims.”
Union soldiers who marched into Richmond at the end of the war found little black children, “wretched little skeletons, clinging to their scanty skirts and crying with hunger and fright.” One heartbroken soldier turned over to them three days of rations and every dollar he had, with tears streaming down his cheeks and “swearing like a pirate all the while as a means of relief to his overcharged feelings.”
These are the people Douglass wanted to be remembered, not the politicians who clamored for war or the generals who led it.
“In my view there are no bygones in the world,” he said in 1883, “and the past is not dead and cannot die. The evil as well as the good that men do lives after them.”
And lives on. Just one year ago, a poll found that a plurality of white Texans favored secession if Hillary Clinton were elected president. More than a quarter said that Barack Obama founded Isis.
“Well the nation may forget,” Douglas said in 1888. “It may shut its eyes to the past, and frown upon any who may do otherwise, but the colored people of this country are bound to keep the past in lively memory till justice shall be done them.”
Mercifully, perhaps, he could not have known how long that justice would take.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Unlinked quotations in this article mostly come from “The Blue and the Gray,” Henry Steele Commager’s invaluable collection of original Civil War documents. Douglass’ remarks about Lincoln are quoted from “Lincoln and the Power of the Press,” by Harold Holzer.