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Integrity, Truthfulness, Purity, and Singleness of Purpose: Winfield Scott Hancock and what the United States Needs Today

hancock

 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I visit Gettysburg a lot and I also write about it a lot. When I make those visits I am always humbled and learn something new. I only wish that most Americans and our leaders of both political parties as well as most media types and pundits could grasp what I experience on each visit to the “hallowed ground” of Gettysburg.

Quite honestly I do not think that the vast majority Americans regardless of their party affiliation or ideology  understand, appreciate or value in the slightest the sacrifices of the men who fought and in many cases died to preserve the Union at Gettysburg. Even among those who do I think that the object of their appreciation are the military aspects of the battle often taken in isolation, not the profound strategic dimensions of what this battle as well as the fall of Vicksburg in the west at the same time had on the war.

Nor do I think that they appreciate the massive political, ideological and social effects bought about by those Union victories in ending the war and how those effects redound to us today. This is especially true of the pundits, politicians and preachers, the “Trinity of Evil” as I call them whose shrill voices urge on divisions between our people; including some that call out for violence to maintain their groups social, economic or religious advantages over others. Quite a few even lament the fall of the South and the institution including the washed up rock and roll musician of the political right Ted Nugent who wrote in the Washington Times in July 2012: “I’m beginning to wonder if it would have been best had the South won the Civil War.” More recently when President Trump talked of the moral equivalence of the opposing sides at Charlottesville I was reminded of just how hateful and morally bankrupt such feelings are, I am sure that General Hancock would be appalled that an American President would make that kind of stand.

All of that concerns me as an American and a historian; because I realize how dangerous such historical ignorance and visceral propaganda is in the life of any nation. Thus when I go to Gettysburg, or for that matter any other battlefield of our American Civil War the sacrifices of those men and what they fought to maintain are again imprinted on my heart.

Abraham Lincoln eloquently noted about those soldiers who fought to turn back the Confederate tide at Gettysburg in his Gettysburg Address:

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

While I am an idealist I am also a pragmatist. I respect the right of others, even those that disagree with things that I very much believe in and support. Like it or not the keystone of our governmental system is one of compromise. That being said having relatives that fought on both sides of the American Civil War that I am not a sectionalist. Nor am I a person that attempts to use the political system to ensure that others have to follow my religious beliefs or to enrich certain groups. The democracy that is part of our republic’s system of government is not a perfect system by any means. In fact as the great English Prime Minister Winston Churchill noted “democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others.”

Thus I appreciate military men who maintain their oath to the nation in times of great conflict not abandoning it to support causes that they know are wrong because the people of their state, or interest group seek to divide that Union. Winfield Scott Hancock was one of those kind of men, as was George Meade, and John Buford, all of whom played key roles in defeating the Confederates at Gettysburg.

Hancock, who earned the title “Hancock the Superb” was the commander of the Union Second Corps at Gettysburg. Upon the death of John Reynolds early on the first day of battle Hancock was appointed by George Meade as commander of the Federal Left Wing, in effect becoming Meade’s deputy commander for the rest of the battle. He was seriously wounded as Pickett’s Charge came to its bloody end at “the Angle” even as his dear friend Confederate General Lewis Armistead lay mortally wounded a few hundred yards away.

Hancock is an interesting character. He was from Pennsylvania but was a Democrat. He was not a Republican like Lincoln. Hancock was not a political ideologue but was since he was a Democrat he was suspect by leaders in the party establishments of both parties; Republicans for being a Democrat, and Democrats for serving under Lincoln. As such he never was given independent command of an Army but remained the beloved commander of the Union Second Corps.

As the nation split and friends went their separate ways Hancock gave some advice to his best friend, Lewis Armistead and their commander, Brigadier General Albert Sidney Johnston who were preparing to leave the Union in early 1861. In response to the states rights arguments of his friends he made himself clear. He fully believed in the principal of states rights, but he could not compromise his faithfulness to the Union. He told his friends as they departed company on their way to their destinies during the Civil War:

“I shall not fight upon the principle of state-rights, but for the Union, whole and undivided.” 

During the war Hancock served with distinction. At Gettysburg he was influential in determining the choice of the Union defense, in helping to repel the Rebel attacks on July 2nd 1863 and the final repulse of Pickett’s Charge where he was severely wounded and his friend Armistead died. After he recovered from his wounds he continued to lead Second Corps until the end of the war. Ulysses Grant wrote of him:

“Hancock stands the most conspicuous figure of all the general officers who did not exercise a separate command. He commanded a corps longer than any other one, and his name was never mentioned as having committed in battle a blunder for which he was responsible. He was a man of very conspicuous personal appearance…. His genial disposition made him friends, and his personal courage and his presence with his command in the thickest of the fight won for him the confidence of troops serving under him. No matter how hard the fight, the 2d corps always felt that their commander was looking after them.”

After the war Hancock supervised the execution of those convicted of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Following that duty he served in various postings in the occupied South and attempted to mitigate some of the actions of those bent on vengeance against African Americans as well as others who tried to exploit the defeated Confederates for political or economic gain. His balanced attempt at justice was not appreciated by many people in the North or the South.

In 1880 Hancock ran for President and lost a narrow election to James A. Garfield. After his unsuccessful campaign he returned to the Army and died at the age of 61 in 1886 at his headquarters from complications from diabetes.

In death was praised by political supporters and opponents alike. Former President Rutherford B. Hayes wrote:

“if when we make up our estimate of a public man, conspicuous both as a soldier and in civil life, we are to think first and chiefly of his manhood, his integrity, his purity, his singleness of purpose, and his unselfish devotion to duty, we can truthfully say of Hancock that he was through and through pure gold.” 

Another political opponent Republican General Francis A. Walker lamented not supporting Hancock in 1880 after the great corruption that engulfed the country during “Gilded Age” of the “Robber Barons” the 1880s. Walker wrote in 1893:

“Although I did not vote for General Hancock, I am strongly disposed to believe that one of the best things the nation has lost in recent years has been the example and the influence of that chivalric, stately, and splendid gentleman in the White House. Perhaps much which both parties now recognize as having been unfortunate and mischievous during the past thirteen years would have been avoided had General Hancock been elected.”

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I have stood by the monument to this fine man on East Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg many times. Each time I am struck by the bravery, courage and integrity of that remarkable man. Regardless of party affiliation I wish that we had more leaders like him today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“Integrity, Purity Unselfish Devotion to Duty” Reflections on Winfield Scott Hancock after another Gettysburg Staff Ride

hancock

“I shall not fight upon the principle of state-rights, but for the Union, whole and undivided.” Winfield Scott Hancock

I am back home after leading another trip to Gettysburg with a new group of students.

I always come away from Gettysburg with a new appreciation of the sacrifice that was made there by so many Americans. I am always humbled and learn something new. I only wish that most Americans and our leaders of both political parties as well as most media types and pundits could grasp what I experience on each visit to this “hallowed ground.”

Quite honestly I do not think that the vast majority Americans understand, appreciate or value in the slightest the sacrifices of the men who fought and in many cases died to preserve the Union at Gettysburg. Even among those who do I think that the object of their appreciation are the military aspects of the battle often taken in isolation, not the profound strategic dimensions of what this battle as well as the fall of Vicksburg in the west at the same time had on the war.

Nor do they appreciate the massive political, ideological and social effects bought about by those Union victories in ending the war and how those effects redound to us today. This is especially true of the pundits, politicians and preachers, the “Trinity of Evil” as I call them whose shrill voices urge on divisions between our people; including some that call out for violence to maintain their groups social, economic or religious advantages over others. Quite a few even lament the fall of the South and the institution including the washed up rock and roll musician of the political right Ted Nugent who wrote in the Washington Times in July 2012: “I’m beginning to wonder if it would have been best had the South won the Civil War.” 

All of that concerns me as an American and a historian; because I realize how dangerous such historical ignorance and visceral propaganda is in the life of any nation. Thus when I go to Gettysburg, or for that matter any other battlefield of our American Civil War the sacrifices of those men and what they fought to maintain is again imprinted on my heart.

Abraham Lincoln eloquently noted about those soldiers who fought to turn back the Confederate tide at Gettysburg in his Gettysburg Address:

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

While I am an idealist I am also a pragmatist. I respect the right of others, even those that disagree with things that I very much believe in and support. Like it or not the keystone of our governmental system is one of compromise. That being said having relatives that fought on both sides of the American Civil War that I am not a sectionalist. Nor am I a person that attempts to use the political system to ensure that others have to follow my religious beliefs or to enrich certain groups. The democracy that is part of our republic’s system of government is not a perfect system by any means. In fact as the great English Prime Minister Winston Churchill noted “democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others.”

Thus I appreciate military men who maintain their oath to the nation in times of great conflict not abandoning it to support causes that they know are wrong because the people of their state, or interest group seek to divide that Union. Winfield Scott Hancock was one of those kind of men, as was George Meade, and John Buford, all of whom played key roles in defeating the Confederates at Gettysburg.

Hancock, who earned the title “Hancock the Superb” was the commander of the Union II Corps at Gettysburg. Upon the death of John Reynolds early on the first day of battle Hancock was appointed by Meade as commander of the Federal Left Wing, in effect becoming Meade’s deputy commander for the rest of the battle. He was seriously wounded as Pickett’s Charge came to its bloody end at “the Angle” and his dear friend Confederate General Lewis Armistead lay mortally wounded a few hundred yards away.

Hancock is an interesting character. He was from Pennsylvania but was a Democrat. He was not a Republican like Lincoln. Hancock was not a political ideologue but was since he was a Democrat he was suspect by some in the party establishments of both parties and never was given independent command.

Hancock gave his advice to Armistead and others who were preparing to leave the Union in early 1861 including Armistead and his commanding officer Brigadier General Albert Sidney Johnston. He made himself clear:

“I shall not fight upon the principle of state-rights, but for the Union, whole and undivided.” 

During the war he served with distinction and Ulysses Grant wrote of him:

“Hancock stands the most conspicuous figure of all the general officers who did not exercise a separate command. He commanded a corps longer than any other one, and his name was never mentioned as having committed in battle a blunder for which he was responsible. He was a man of very conspicuous personal appearance…. His genial disposition made him friends, and his personal courage and his presence with his command in the thickest of the fight won for him the confidence of troops serving under him. No matter how hard the fight, the 2d corps always felt that their commander was looking after them.”

After the war he supervised the execution of those convicted of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and in various postings in the occupied South attempted to mitigate some of the actions of those bent on vengeance and others who tried to exploit the defeated people of the south for political or economic gain.

Hancock ran for President and lost a narrow election in 1880 to James A. Garfield. After that he returned to the Army and died at the age of 61at his headquarters of complications from diabetes.

He was praised by political opponents. Former President Rutherford B. Hayes wrote:

“if when we make up our estimate of a public man, conspicuous both as a soldier and in civil life, we are to think first and chiefly of his manhood, his integrity, his purity, his singleness of purpose, and his unselfish devotion to duty, we can truthfully say of Hancock that he was through and through pure gold.” 

Another political opponent Republican General Francis A. Walker lamented not supporting Hancock in 1880 after the great corruption that engulfed the country during “Gilded Age” of the “Robber Barons” the 1880s. Walker wrote:

“Although I did not vote for General Hancock, I am strongly disposed to believe that one of the best things the nation has lost in recent years has been the example and the influence of that chivalric, stately, and splendid gentleman in the White House. Perhaps much which both parties now recognize as having been unfortunate and mischievous during the past thirteen years would have been avoided had General Hancock been elected.”

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As I stood at the statue that marks Hancock on Cemetery Hill this weekend I again was struck by the bravery, courage and integrity of that remarkable man.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Never Ending Struggle Against Racism and Its Terrible Effects

ted-nugent-sotu-ap

On the 149th Anniversary of Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg washed up rocker and right wing political activist Ted Nugent wrote in the Washington Times: “I’m beginning to wonder if it would have been best had the South won the Civil War.”  I found his remark appalling and disgraceful but I have come to expect such comments from him and and others who voice similar sentiments. If Nugent’s rant was a one time slip of the tongue there might be some grace, but even last week he called President Obama a “subhuman mongrel” a term so load with Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow and Nazi imagery it defies imagination to hear it used today. When I hear such words spoken towards anyone I can only believe that the man that utters them is an unrepentant racist bent on the reestablishment of White Supremacy.

When I hear such sentiments, I think of men like Joshua Chamberlain. Chamberlain was a college professor who served in the Union Army and won fame and the Medal of Honor for the defense of Little Round Top at Gettysburg. There is a quote from the film Gods and Generals which I think about when I hear anyone suggesting that it would have been better for the Confederacy to have won the war:

“Now, somewhere out there is the Confederate army. They claim they are fighting for their independence, for their freedom. Now, I can not question their integrity. I believe they are wrong but I can not question it. But I do question a system that defends its own freedom while it denies it to an entire race of men. I will admit it, Tom. War is a scourge, but so is slavery. It is the systematic coercion of one group of men over another. It has been around since the book of Genesis. It exists in every corner of the world, but that is no excuse for us to tolerate it here when we find it right in front of our very eyes in our own country. As God as my witness, there is no one I hold in my heart dearer than you. But if your life, or mine, is part of the price to end this curse and free the Negro, then let God’s work be done.”

There is a spot near the Copse of Trees along Cemetery Ridge which is referred to as the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.” It is close to where Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Armistead fell mortally wounded as the decimated remains of his command were overwhelmed by Union forces shortly after they breached the Union line. It is a place immortalized in history, literature and film. It is the place that marked the beginning of the end for the great evil of slavery in America.

My ancestors lived in Cabell County which in 1861 was part of Virginia. They were slave holders along the Mud River, a tributary of the Ohio River just to the north of what is now Huntington West Virginia. When war came to the country the family patriarch James Dundas joined the 8th Virginia Cavalry Regiment in which he served the bulk of the war as a Lieutenant.  When the war ended he refused to sign the loyalty oath to the Union. As a penalty his lands, which are now some of the most valuable in that part of West Virginia were confiscated and sold by the Federal Government. James Dundas was a true believer in the romantic and confused myth of the “Lost Cause.”

Because he served I am eligible for membership in the Sons of the Confederacy. But that is something that I will not do. While some join that organization to honor their ancestors, others that take that devotion to places that I cannot go.  As much as I admire the valor and personal integrity of many military men who served the Confederacy I cannot for a moment think that their “cause” was just.

It has been said that the North won the war but that the South won the history.  I think this is true. Many people reduce the reasons for the war to the South protecting its rights.  Sometimes the argument for the South is “states rights” or “economic freedom.” Those that make these arguments frequently romanticize the valor shown by Confederate soldiers on the battlefield. But sadly they often ignore or obscure the racism and evil of the Southern economic system.

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The “rights” and the “economic freedom” espoused by those that led the secession and that are lamented by those like Nugent were categorically evil. Those rights and freedoms were built upon the rotten edifice of slavery. The South fought to maintain their rights to enslave and exploit Blacks to maintain an archaic economy based on agriculture, particularly the export of King Cotton. Thus I have no desire to become part of an organization enshrines the myth of the “Lost Cause” no matter what my family connections.

Some attempt to place the blame on the North, to turn the Northern States into economic predators’ intent on suppressing the economic rights of Southerners. These arguments serve to show the bankruptcy of the idea itself. The fact that the “economic and political freedom” of Southerners was founded on the enslavement of a whole race of people matters not because to such people the “cause” is greater.

The fact was that the longer the Southern economy relied on agriculture supported slavery it deprived itself of the means of economic progress. The same progress that propelled the North to prosperity. Because it cast its lot with King Cotton and slavery the South lagged in all industrial areas to include transportation infrastructure. Most non-slave owning whites lived at the poverty line. They were disrespected by the wealthy Plantation owners only enjoyed some elevated social status because the slaves ranked beneath them in the sociological and economic hierarchy.

To support its slave economy the South depended on cheap imports from England, which then was still considered an enemy of the United States. When tariffs to protect newly establish American industries were enacted in 1828 South Carolina attempted to nullify the Federal law and even raised troops and threatened to revolt in 1832.

The Southern economic system was immoral and antiquated. It enslaved blacks and it impoverished most rural Southerners.  The only exception to this were those that owned the land and the slaves, and small numbers of entrepreneurs. It was a hateful, backward and loathsome system which even Southern churches attempted to justify from Scripture.  Southern Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians all broke away from their parent denominations in the 1840s over the issue of slavery.

So many died and so much of the South was destroyed in the defense of  the “cause” that one has to wonder just why Southern political and religious were willing to defend such an inadequate and evil economic system. Perhaps it was an innate sense of racial superiority that ran deep in the South, perhaps it was a misplaced sense of political pride and honor. Regardless of the reason, the war that they brought about devastated their homeland. The radicals that ran “Reconstruction” after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln ensured that Southerners suffered terrible degradation and impeded any real efforts to promote reconciliation between the races and between the regions.  Their misguided and often brutal rule ensured that Southern blacks would have even more obstacles raised against them by the now very angry and revengeful whites.  It would take another 80-100 years to end segregation and secure voting rights for blacks.

I was raised on the West Coast but have lived in the South much of my adult life due to military assignments. I served in National Guard units that trace their lineage to Confederate regiments in Texas and Virginia. Despite my Confederate connections both familial and by service I can find little of the romance and idealism that some find in the Confederacy and the “Lost Cause.” I see the Civil War for what it was, a tragedy of the highest order brought about by the need of some to enslave others to maintain their economic system.

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Today there are many that use the flags of the Confederacy outside of their historic context. They are most often used as a symbol of continued racial hatred or of defiance to the Federal Government by White Supremacist or anti-government organizations.  Many that use them openly advocate for the overthrow of the Federal Government.  The calls for such “revolt” can be found all over the country even in the halls of Congress much as they were in the 1830s, 40s and 50s.

Some of this is based on libertarian economic philosophy which labels the government as the enemy of business. Some is religious opposition to some social policies, while some is based in xenophobic racial hatred, not just of Blacks, but also Latin Americans, Asians and Middle Eastern immigrants. The divisions in the country are probably as great as or greater than they were in the 1850s as the country lurched inexorably to Civil War.

I often see the symbols of the Confederacy, particularly the Battle Flag displayed in manners that can only be seen as symbols of defiance.  Somehow I find the display of that flag outside of its historic context revolting.

For such people the Federal Government is the enemy. I know that our system of government has its flaws. Likewise I cannot agree more about the corruption of many in political office, regardless of their political allegiance or ideology.

Today quite a few people on the political right call for revolt or secession. Some moderate politicians have attempted to compromise with such radicals, but those efforts only make things worse. Radicals are never satisfied and view compromise as weakness. Thus Thomas Jefferson said of the Missouri Compromise of 1824: “but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.”

We have allowed the issues of our time to become a fire of unbridled angry passion. We have allowed those with almost no historical understanding and who promote myth stake claims and promote ideas that are destructive to our union. Unfortunately I do not think that we have reached the high water mark of this movement. I fear like Jefferson that the hatred and division will only grow worse as some prepare for conflict.

A few months after the Battle of Gettysburg Abraham Lincoln made a few remarks at Gettysburg war cemetery.  Lincoln is reviled by men like Nugent and others that romanticize the Lost Cause. He is often demonized by many “conservative” politicians and pundits today, but his remarks are still remarkably pertinent:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Today with so many radicals doing all that they can to plunge us into yet another civil war we should remember Lincoln’s words. We need to rededicate ourselves to this Union.  Tony Blair the former Prime Minster of Great Britain remarked in 2011:

“It may be strange for a former British Prime Minister to offer thoughts on America when the country will be celebrating its independence from Britain. But the circumstances of independence are part of what makes America the great and proud nation it is today. And what gives nobility to the American character.

That nobility isn’t about being nicer, better or more successful than anyone else. It is a feeling about the country. It is a devotion to the American ideal that at a certain point transcends class, race, religion or upbringing. That ideal is about values, freedom, the rule of law, democracy. It is also about the way you achieve: on merit, by your own efforts and hard work.

But it is most of all that in striving for and protecting that ideal, you as an individual take second place to the interests of the nation as a whole. This is what makes the country determined to overcome its challenges. It is what makes its soldiers give their lives in sacrifice. It is what brings every variety of American, from the lowest to the highest, to their feet when “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played.

Of course the ideal is not always met – that is obvious. But it is always striven for.

The next years will test the American character. The world is changing. New powers are emerging. But America should have confidence. This changing world does not diminish the need for that American ideal. It only reaffirms it.”

I think that the Prime Minister got it right and that Ted Nugent and those like him or defend his hateful ideology are ignorant racist fools. But hatred, ignorance and the belief in myth are often quite powerful in the hands of those who desire to maintain their power at any cost. History proves this, thus we must always confront them and not back down until we truly know that “new birth of freedom.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Gettysburg at 150 and the Lingering Curse of the “Lost Cause” on the United States

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This week I will be writing a lot about the Battle of Gettysburg which happens to fall in the days before the celebration of our Declaration of Independence. Some of these will be articles that I published before and some will be new work. I think that the American Civil War and its consequences today is something that we need to look at as a society, and not from the romanticized “Lost Cause” revisionism that is so popular among many even today.

Last year washed up rocker and now political activist Ted Nugent wrote in the Washington Times “I’m beginning to wonder if it would have been best had the South won the Civil War.”  I find his remark appalling and disgraceful but I have come to expect such comments from him and and others who voice similar sentiments. But Nugent is not alone, an organization called The League of the South states its goals in very clear language: “The League of the South is a Southern Nationalist organization whose ultimate goal is a free and independent Southern republic.”

When I hear such sentiments and they are many now days I think of men like Joshua Chamberlain. Chamberlain was a college professor who served in the Union Army and won fame and the Medal of Honor for the defense of Little Round Top at Gettysburg. There is a quote from the film Gods and Generals which I think about when I hear anyone suggesting that it would have been better for the Confederacy to have won the war:

“Now, somewhere out there is the Confederate army. They claim they are fighting for their independence, for their freedom. Now, I can not question their integrity. I believe they are wrong but I can not question it. But I do question a system that defends its own freedom while it denies it to an entire race of men. I will admit it, Tom. War is a scourge, but so is slavery. It is the systematic coercion of one group of men over another. It has been around since the book of Genesis. It exists in every corner of the world, but that is no excuse for us to tolerate it here when we find it right in front of our very eyes in our own country. As God as my witness, there is no one I hold in my heart dearer than you. But if your life, or mine,is part of the price to end this curse and free the Negro, then let God’s work be done.”

There is a spot near the Copse of Trees along Cemetery Ridge which is referred to as the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.” It is the spot close to where Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Armistead fell mortally wounded as the decimated remains of his command were overwhelmed by Union forces shortly after they breached the Union line. It is a place immortalized in history, literature and film. It is the place that marked the beginning of the end for the great evil of slavery in America.

My ancestors lived in Cabell County which in 1861 was part of Virginia. They were slave holders along the Mud River, a tributary of the Ohio River just to the north of what is now Huntington West Virginia. When war came to the country the family patriarch James Dundas and my great, great grandfather joined the 8th Virginia Cavalry Regiment in which he served the bulk of the war as a Lieutenant.  When it ended he refused to sign the loyalty oath to the Union and had his lands, which are now some of the most valuable in that part of West Virginia confiscated and sold by the Federal Government.  He was a believer in the “Lost Cause” that romantic and confused idea about the rightness of the South in its war against what they called “Northern aggression.”

Because he and others on both sides of my family served in Confederate ranks I am eligible for membership in the Sons of the Confederacy. However it is something that I cannot do.  There are some that do this as a means to honor their relatives that served in the war and I do not make light of their devotion to their family, but there are some that take that devotion to places that I cannot go.  As much as I admire the valor and personal integrity of many military men who served the Confederacy I cannot for a moment think that their “cause” was just.

It has been said that the North won the war but that the South won the history.  I think this is true. Many people now days like to reduce the reasons for the war to the South protecting its rights.  Sometimes the argument is “states rights” or “economic freedom” and those that make these arguments romanticize the valor shown by Confederate soldiers on the battlefield but conveniently ignore or obscure the evil of the Southern economic system.

The “rights” and the “economic freedom” espoused by those that led the secession and that are lamented by those like Nugent were based upon the enslavement and exploitation of the Black man to maintain an archaic economy based on agriculture, particularly the export of King Cotton.  Arguments which try to place the blame on the North, especially arguments that attempt to turn the Northern States into economic predators’ intent on suppressing the economic rights of Southerners only serve to show the bankruptcy of the idea itself. The fact that the “economic and political freedom” of Southerners was founded on the enslavement of a whole race of people matters not because the “cause” is greater.

One interesting point that many turn a blind eye to is that in each of its campaigns above the Mason Dixon Line Lee’s Army rounded up blacks, mostly freemen and sent them back to the South in chains to be used as slaves. I have to wonder what Southern success at Gettysburg would have meant to African Americans today. Lee believed that his campaign in Pennsylvania would bring about a result that would change the political situation in the North and bring about a situation where the North would recognize Southern independence. He wrote in April of 1863 “next fall there will be a great change in public opinion at the North. The Republicans will be destroyed & I think the friends of peace will become so strong that the next administration will go in on that basis…”

Of course Lee was wrong and his campaign was flawed in large part because he did not adequately define his intent to his commanders. That much is obvious in the writings of the surviving participants after the war.

The overall situation for the Confederacy in June of 1863 was grim. There had been food riots in Richmond, Vicksburg was on the bring of falling and with it the Confederacy would be split in two along the Mississippi River, the Union blockade of Southern ports was working, the South had not been recognized by any foreign powers and the textile industries of Europe had found other suppliers for “King Cotton.” Despite this Lee held on to the hope that a military victory in the East could change the political calculus.

The fact is that the longer the South relied solely on its agriculture which was supported by the institution of slavery it deprived itself of the means of economic progress, the same progress that propelled the North to prosperity. The south lagged in all industrial areas as well as transportation infrastructure. The majority of non-slave owning whites lived at the poverty line and only enjoyed some elevated social status because the slaves ranked beneath them on the sociological and economic hierarchy.  The South depended on cheap imports from England, which then was still considered an enemy of the country. When tariffs to protect newly establish American industries were enacted in 1828 South Carolina attempted to nullify the Federal law even raising troops and threatened a revolt in 1832.

The Southern economic system was immoral and antiquated. It enslaved blacks and it impoverished most rural Southerners, with the exception of those that owned the land and the slaves. It was a hateful, backward and loathsome system which even the southern churches attempted to justify from Scripture. Southern Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians would all break away from their parent denominations regarding their support for the institution of slavery.

This does not mean that I think that the average Confederate soldier or officers were dishonorable men. Many officers who had served in the United States Army hated the breakup of the Union but served the South because it was the land that they were from. It was the home of their families and part of who they were.  To judge them as wanting 150 years later when we have almost no connection to family or home in a post industrial world is to impose the standards of a world that they did not know upon them. For those that gave up everything to serve one can feel a measure of sympathy.  So many died and so much of the South was destroyed in the defense of that “cause” one has to wonder just why the political and religious leaders of the South were willing to maintain such an inadequate and evil economic system one that hurt poor Southern whites nearly as much as it did blacks.

The war devastated the South and the radicals that ran “Reconstruction” ensured that Southerners suffered terrible degradation and that Southern blacks would have even more obstacles raised against them by the now very angry and revengeful whites.  It would take another 80-100 years to end segregation and secure voting rights for blacks. Thus I have no desire to become part of an organization that even gives the appearance of supporting the “cause” even if doing so would allow me to “honor” an ancestor who raised his hand against the country that I serve.

I was raised on the West Coast but have lived in the South much of my adult life due to military assignments. I have served in National Guard units that trace their lineage to Confederate regiments in Texas and Virginia. Despite my Confederate connections both familial and by service I can find little of the romance and idealism that some find in the Confederacy and the “Lost Cause.” I see the Civil War for what it was, a tragedy of the highest order brought about by the need of some to enslave others to maintain their economic system.

Today there are many that use the flags of the Confederacy outside of their historic context. They are often used as a symbol of either racial hatred or of defiance to the Federal Government by white Supremacist or anti-government organizations.  Many that use them openly advocate for the overthrow of the Federal Government.  The calls for such “revolt” can be found all over the country even in the halls of Congress much as they were in the 1830s, 40s and 50s. Some of this is based in libertarian economic philosophy which labels the government as the enemy of business, some based social policies which are against their religious beliefs and some sadly to say based in an almost xenophobic racial hatred.  The scary thing as that the divisions in the country are probably as great as or greater than they were in the 1850s as the country lurched inexorably to Civil War with neither side willing to do anything that might lessen their political or economic power even if it means the ruin of the country.

As seems to be the case around this time of year I have seen the symbols of the Confederacy, particularly the Battle Flag displayed in manners that can only be seen as symbols of defiance. July 4th will be celebrated this week and it seems to me that the flag that should be most prominently displayed is the Stars and Stripes not the Confederate Battle flag or even the Gadsen Flag which has become the symbol of the modern Tea Party movement.  Somehow I find the flag flown in rebellion to the country that I serve displayed in such an arrogant manner.

For people like the Federal Government which is the enemy. Now I know that our system of government has its flaws. Likewise I cannot agree more about the corruption of many in political office, regardless of their political allegiance.  While it is true that the Federal Government has taken upon itself many powers some never envisioned by those that crafted the Constitution, it has done so because leaders of both political parties have consented to it and even worked to strengthen the Federal Government with the consent of the American people that elect them again and again.

Despite this much of this has been accomplished by the Federal Government has been for the good for the country and people no matter what the critics say. Many of the things that we enjoy today are the result of the work of the Federal Government and not business as much as those that deify big corporations want to believe. There are the National Parks, laws against child labor and for safe workplaces brought about by Teddy Roosevelt, the infrastructure built in the 1930s and 1940s by the Franklin Roosevelt administration. The Roosevelt administration also brought about Social Security and banking regulations to protect Americans from corporations and banks that violated the public trust. The Eisenhower administration began the Interstate Highway system which is the backbone of our transportation system.  Likewise the Space Program and yes even the military have led the way in technological, scientific and medical innovation including that thing that we all take for granted today the Internet.

Today quite a few people are calling for revolt or secession if they do not get what they want be it socially, politically or economically. For years politicians on both sides have fought to minimize such talk and enact compromises with the usual discontent that comes with compromise.  Unfortunately many of those compromises have had the effect of widening the political divide much as the various compromises on the road to the Civil War.  Jefferson said of the Missouri Compromise of 1824: “but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.”

We have allowed the issues of our time to become a fire of unbridled angry passion where those with almost no historical understanding and whose history is often based on myth stake claims and promote ideas that will destroy this Union if they continue. Unfortunately we have not yet reached the high water mark of this movement yet and I fear like Jefferson that the hatred and division will only grow worse as both radical on the right and left prepare for conflict.

This week we celebrated the 236th anniversary of our Declaration of Independence.  It is a remarkable occasion. It is the anniversary that free people as well as those oppressed around the world look to as a beacon of liberty. It has been paid for time and time again, especially during that cruel Civil War which killed more American soldiers than any other war that we have fought.

A few months after Gettysburg Abraham Lincoln a man much reviled by those that have romanticized the Cause and who is demonized by many “conservative” politicians and pundits today as a “tyrant” made these brief remarks at the site of the battle:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Today with so many radicals, especially those on the political right, but some on the left such as the “Anonymous” group doing all that they can to plunge us into yet another civil war we should remember Lincoln’s words and rededicate ourselves to this Union, this remarkable Union.  Tony Blair the former Prime Minster of Great Britain remarked in 2011:

“It may be strange for a former British Prime Minister to offer thoughts on America when the country will be celebrating its independence from Britain. But the circumstances of independence are part of what makes America the great and proud nation it is today. And what gives nobility to the American character.

That nobility isn’t about being nicer, better or more successful than anyone else. It is a feeling about the country. It is a devotion to the American ideal that at a certain point transcends class, race, religion or upbringing. That ideal is about values, freedom, the rule of law, democracy. It is also about the way you achieve: on merit, by your own efforts and hard work.

But it is most of all that in striving for and protecting that ideal, you as an individual take second place to the interests of the nation as a whole. This is what makes the country determined to overcome its challenges. It is what makes its soldiers give their lives in sacrifice. It is what brings every variety of American, from the lowest to the highest, to their feet when “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played.

Of course the ideal is not always met – that is obvious. But it is always striven for.

The next years will test the American character. The world is changing. New powers are emerging. But America should have confidence. This changing world does not diminish the need for that American ideal. It only reaffirms it.”

I think that the Prime Minister got it right and Ted Nugent is an ignorant fool but he has the right to be one.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil rights, civil war, History, News and current events, Political Commentary

Protecting the Ideal: Reflections on Gettysburg, Freedom and Why It Matters

I have spent this week writing about the Battle of Gettysburg which happens to fall in the days before the celebration of our Declaration of Independence. This week on the 149th Anniversary of Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg washed up rocker and now political activist Ted Nugent wrote in the Washington Times “I’m beginning to wonder if it would have been best had the South won the Civil War.”  I find his remark appalling and disgraceful but I have come to expect such comments from him and and others who voice similar sentiments.

When I hear such sentiments and they are many now days I think of men like Joshua Chamberlain. Chamberlain was a college professor who served in the Union Army and won fame and the Medal of Honor for the defense of Little Round Top at Gettysburg. There is a quote from the film Gods and Generals which I think about when I hear anyone suggesting that it would have been better for the Confederacy to have won the war:

“Now, somewhere out there is the Confederate army. They claim they are fighting for their independence, for their freedom. Now, I can not question their integrity. I believe they are wrong but I can not question it. But I do question a system that defends its own freedom while it denies it to an entire race of men. I will admit it, Tom. War is a scourge, but so is slavery. It is the systematic coercion of one group of men over another. It has been around since the book of Genesis. It exists in every corner of the world, but that is no excuse for us to tolerate it here when we find it right in front of our very eyes in our own country. As God as my witness, there is no one I hold in my heart dearer than you. But if your life, or mine,is part of the price to end this curse and free the Negro, then let God’s work be done.”

There is a spot near the Copse of Trees along Cemetery Ridge which is referred to as the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.” It is the spot close to where Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Armistead fell mortally wounded as the decimated remains of his command were overwhelmed by Union forces shortly after they breached the Union line. It is a place immortalized in history, literature and film. It is the place that marked the beginning of the end for the great evil of slavery in America.

My ancestors lived in Cabell County which in 1861 was part of Virginia. They were slave holders along the Mud River, a tributary of the Ohio River just to the north of what is now Huntington West Virginia. When war came to the country the family patriarch James Dundas and my great, great grandfather joined the 8th Virginia Cavalry Regiment in which he served the bulk of the war as a Lieutenant.  When it ended he refused to sign the loyalty oath to the Union and had his lands, which are now some of the most valuable in that part of West Virginia confiscated and sold by the Federal Government.  He was a believer in the “Lost Cause” that romantic and confused idea about the rightness of the South in its war against what they called “Northern aggression.”

Because he served I am eligible for membership in the Sons of the Confederacy. However it is something that I cannot do.  There are some that do this as a means to honor their relatives that served in the war and I do not make light of their devotion to their family, but there are some that take that devotion to places that I cannot go.  As much as I admire the valor and personal integrity of many military men who served the Confederacy I cannot for a moment think that their “cause” was just.

It has been said that the North won the war but that the South won the history.  I think this is true. Many people now days like to reduce the reasons for the war to the South protecting its rights.  Sometimes the argument is “states rights” or “economic freedom” and those that make these arguments romanticize the valor shown by Confederate soldiers on the battlefield but conveniently ignore or obscure the evil of the Southern economic system.

The “rights” and the “economic freedom” espoused by those that led the secession and that are lamented by those like Nugent were based upon the enslavement and exploitation of the Black man to maintain an archaic economy based on agriculture, particularly the export of King Cotton.  Arguments which try to place the blame on the North, especially arguments that attempt to turn the Northern States into economic predators’ intent on suppressing the economic rights of Southerners only serve to show the bankruptcy of the idea itself. The fact that the “economic and political freedom” of Southerners was founded on the enslavement of a whole race of people matters not because the “cause” is greater.

The fact is that the longer the South relied solely on its agriculture which was supported by the institution of slavery it deprived itself of the means of economic progress, the same progress that propelled the North to prosperity. The south lagged in all industrial areas as well as transportation infrastructure. The majority of non-slave owning whites lived at the poverty line and only enjoyed some elevated social status because the slaves ranked beneath them on the sociological and economic hierarchy.  The South depended on cheap imports from England, which then was still considered an enemy of the country. When tariffs to protect newly establish American industries were enacted in 1828 South Carolina attempted to nullify the Federal law even raising troops and threatened a revolt in 1832.

The Southern economic system was immoral and antiquated. It enslaved blacks and it impoverished most rural Southerners, with the exception of those that owned the land and the slaves. It was a hateful, backward and loathsome system which even the southern churches attempted to justify from Scripture.  Southern Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians would all break away from their parent denominations regarding slavery.

This does not mean that I think that the average Confederate soldier or officers were dishonorable men. Many officers who had served in the United States Army hated the breakup of the Union but served the South because it was the land that they were from. It was the home of their families and part of who they were.  To judge them as wanting 150 years later when we have almost no connection to family or home in a post industrial world is to impose the standards of a world that they did not know upon them. For those that gave up everything to serve one can feel a measure of sympathy.  So many died and so much of the South was destroyed in the defense of that “cause” one has to wonder just why the political and religious leaders of the South were willing to maintain such an inadequate and evil economic system one that hurt poor Southern whites nearly as much as it did blacks.

The war devastated the South and the radicals that ran “Reconstruction” ensured that Southerners suffered terrible degradation and that Southern blacks would have even more obstacles raised against them by the now very angry and revengeful whites.  It would take another 80-100 years to end segregation and secure voting rights for blacks. Thus I have no desire to become part of an organization that even gives the appearance of supporting the “cause” even if doing so would allow me to “honor” an ancestor who raised his hand against the country that I serve.

I was raised on the West Coast but have lived in the South much of my adult life due to military assignments. I have served in National Guard units that trace their lineage to Confederate regiments in Texas and Virginia. Despite my Confederate connections both familial and by service I can find little of the romance and idealism that some find in the Confederacy and the “Lost Cause.” I see the Civil War for what it was, a tragedy of the highest order brought about by the need of some to enslave others to maintain their economic system.

Today there are many that use the flags of the Confederacy outside of their historic context. They are often used as a symbol of either racial hatred or of defiance to the Federal Government by white Supremacist or anti-government organizations.  Many that use them openly advocate for the overthrow of the Federal Government.  The calls for such “revolt” can be found all over the country even in the halls of Congress much as they were in the 1830s, 40s and 50s. Some of this is based in libertarian economic philosophy which labels the government as the enemy of business, some based social policies which are against their religious beliefs and some sadly to say based in an almost xenophobic racial hatred.  The scary thing as that the divisions in the country are probably as great as or greater than they were in the 1850s as the country lurched inexorably to Civil War with neither side willing to do anything that might lessen their political or economic power even if it means the ruin of the country.

As seems to be the case around this time of year I have seen the symbols of the Confederacy, particularly the Battle Flag displayed in manners that can only be seen as symbols of defiance.  Wednesday was July 4th and it seems to me that the flag that should be most prominently displayed is the Stars and Stripes not the Confederate Battle flag or even the Gadsen Flag which has become the symbol of the modern Tea Party movement.  Somehow I find the flag flown in rebellion to the country that I serve displayed in such an arrogant manner.

For people like the Federal Government which is the enemy. Now I know that our system of government has its flaws. Likewise I cannot agree more about the corruption of many in political office, regardless of their political allegiance.  While it is true that the Federal Government has taken upon itself many powers some never envisioned by those that crafted the Constitution, it has done so because leaders of both political parties have consented to it and even worked to strengthen the Federal Government with the consent of the American people that elect them again and again.

Despite this much of this has been accomplished by the Federal Government has been for the good for the country and people no matter what the critics say. Many of the things that we enjoy today are the result of the work of the Federal Government and not business as much as those that deify big corporations want to believe. There are the National Parks, laws against child labor and for safe workplaces brought about by Teddy Roosevelt, the infrastructure built in the 1930s and 1940s by the Franklin Roosevelt administration. The Roosevelt administration also brought about Social Security and banking regulations to protect Americans from corporations and banks that violated the public trust. The Eisenhower administration began the Interstate Highway system which is the backbone of our transportation system.  Likewise the Space Program and yes even the military have led the way in technological, scientific and medical innovation including that thing that we all take for granted today the Internet.

Today quite a few people are calling for revolt or secession if they do not get what they want be it socially, politically or economically. For years politicians on both sides have fought to minimize such talk and enact compromises with the usual discontent that comes with compromise.  Unfortunately many of those compromises have had the effect of widening the political divide much as the various compromises on the road to the Civil War.  Jefferson said of the Missouri Compromise of 1824: “but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.”

We have allowed the issues of our time to become a fire of unbridled angry passion where those with almost no historical understanding and whose history is often based on myth stake claims and promote ideas that will destroy this Union if they continue. Unfortunately we have not yet reached the high water mark of this movement yet and I fear like Jefferson that the hatred and division will only grow worse as both radical on the right and left prepare for conflict.

This week we celebrated the 236th anniversary of our Declaration of Independence.  It is a remarkable occasion. It is the anniversary that free people as well as those oppressed around the world look to as a beacon of liberty. It has been paid for time and time again, especially during that cruel Civil War which killed more American soldiers than any other war that we have fought.

A few months after Gettysburg Abraham Lincoln a man much reviled by those that have romanticized the Cause and who is demonized by many “conservative” politicians and pundits today as a “tyrant” made these brief remarks at the site of the battle:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Today with so many radicals on both the political right and political left doing all that they can to plunge us into yet another civil war we should remember Lincoln’s word and rededicate ourselves to this Union, this remarkable Union.  Tony Blair the former Prime Minster of Great Britain remarked last year:

“It may be strange for a former British Prime Minister to offer thoughts on America when the country will be celebrating its independence from Britain. But the circumstances of independence are part of what makes America the great and proud nation it is today. And what gives nobility to the American character.

That nobility isn’t about being nicer, better or more successful than anyone else. It is a feeling about the country. It is a devotion to the American ideal that at a certain point transcends class, race, religion or upbringing. That ideal is about values, freedom, the rule of law, democracy. It is also about the way you achieve: on merit, by your own efforts and hard work.

But it is most of all that in striving for and protecting that ideal, you as an individual take second place to the interests of the nation as a whole. This is what makes the country determined to overcome its challenges. It is what makes its soldiers give their lives in sacrifice. It is what brings every variety of American, from the lowest to the highest, to their feet when “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played.

Of course the ideal is not always met – that is obvious. But it is always striven for.

The next years will test the American character. The world is changing. New powers are emerging. But America should have confidence. This changing world does not diminish the need for that American ideal. It only reaffirms it.”

I think that the Prime Minister got it right and Ted Nugent is an ignorant fool but he has the right to be one.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil war, History, Political Commentary