A Rebel’s Duty

While researching the Southern Historical Society Papers on another topic, I came across the following passage from 1907:

When the question is asked what the followers of Lee and Jackson fought for, let the ringing, unchangeable and ever true response be given, that they fought against invasion and subjugation, and for their wives and children, their dear ones and their homes. As followers of our immortal Lee, in war, and in compliance with his admonitions after the surrender at Appomattox, for peace, we have had it demonstrated, indisputably, that we have not failed in our duty. This was proved in war, on every battle field, and the phenomenal recuperation of our dear Southland since, proves its truth in peace.[i]

William Whittle and S. S. Lee, Jr.

Shenandoah Lieutenants William Whittle (left) and Sidney Smith Lee, Jr. (nephew of R. E. Lee)

The occasion was a speech by former Lieutenant William C. Whittle, Jr., USN and CSN, to the Pickett-Buchanan Camp of Confederate Veterans and the Sons of Confederate Veterans at the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition, April 26 to December 1, 1907 in Norfolk, Virginia.

These are familiar sentiments to students of the Civil War. From a historical perspective, they reflect lost-cause romanticism, misplaced allegiance to a bad cause, and rationalizations for treason. But that is far from the whole truth. Whittle’s words are not irrelevant today and they are worthy of deeper consideration.

The speech caught my attention because I had come to know William Whittle while researching the Confederate commerce raider CSS Shenandoah, in which he served as first lieutenant and second in command.

From October 1864 to November 1865, he and fellow Southerners carried the conflict around the globe and to the ends of the earth through every extreme of sea and storm, completing spectacularly a mission that no longer mattered.

Shenandoah PaintingOn that journey, Whittle poured his heart and mind onto the pages of his journal, describing daily and in detail every difficult turn of events. Here is a quote from that journal of August 2, 1865, four months after Lee’s surrender. In mid-Pacific, Shenandoah encountered the English bark Barracouta, thirteen days from San Francisco with newspapers only two weeks old, which confirmed the worst.

The darkest day of my life. The past is gone for naught—the future is dark as the blackest night. Oh! God protect and comfort us I pray…. Our dear country has been overrun; our President captured; our armies & navy surrendered; our people subjugated. Oh! God aid us to stand up under this, thy visitation. There is no doubting the truth of this news. We now have no country, no flag, no home. We have lost all but our honor & self respect, and I hope our trust in God Almighty. Were it not for my dear ones at home, I would rather die than live…. My heart bleeds in anguish…. “I have been young, and now am old, but never have I seen the righteous man forsaken, or his children begging bread.” [Psalm 37:25] Let this be my motto until I can get safely to some port. Oh! God protect them for Christ’s sake. I am almost mad, and will lay down my pen.[ii]

I was privileged to read that journal along with the other journals, letters, and memoirs. Having closely followed these wayward Americans throughout the Shenandoah odyssey, I came to like and respect them. These Confederates served their country as they understood it with honor, courage, and sacrifice.

Whittle is emphatic throughout his writings about what he was fighting for. Setting aside slavery, which he almost never mentions, we can find those causes compelling. His compatriots in 1865 and undoubtedly his audience in 1907 agreed. Reading Whittle’s later speech brought the issues to life again in personal terms. It was like meeting an old friend.

But how do we reconcile the contradiction between respect for Confederates as individuals and the wrongness of the fundamental cause—slavery—we know they represented? We can’t, and we shouldn’t try. It is better to embrace that contradiction, comprehend it, and consider what it means for our lives and for our children’s future. It is necessary to be clear on the distinctions between their historical context, our contemporary context, and universal values bridging the two.

Public discourse today also reflects seemingly irreconcilable divisions, deep anger, and occasional violence on many issues, many of which are the same conundrums plaguing our ancestors. Although conditions for civil war are not apparent, moral and constitutional implications run every bit as deep as slavery. Opponents often are viewed as enemies; the future is uncertain and threatening.

Eerily similar questions are asked and arguments advanced on both sides: What does freedom mean? What is the role of government in a free society? How is the concept of federalism applied? Who are citizens, and who are not? Where does duty in citizenship lie? What does the Constitution really mean? Some Americans must be as wrong on some of these questions now as Southerners were then.

Whatever we conclude about the wrongness of William Whittle’s beliefs, he unquestionably believed them, and he was a good man in his historical context. Honorable people can choose for honorable reasons to fight for a bad cause. Then perhaps Southerners had legitimate concerns on some issues.

History is unequivocal that the right won the Civil War on principle. In the ongoing struggle for universal values, the future will judge on principle the rights and wrongs of current differences. All we can do is struggle in that direction as they did, working with fellow citizens of all opinions, building on the foundation they bequeathed us.

Abraham Lincoln said at the beginning: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” He said near the end: “The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.” In the first inaugural address, he referenced “The better angels of our nature,” and in the second he called for malice toward none and charity for all, “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”

William Whittle returned home to Norfolk in 1867, married Elisabeth Calvert Page (daughter of a Confederate general who was first cousin to Robert E. Lee), and raised two boys and four girls. For twenty years, Whittle commanded coastal steamers and superintended a fleet of them. In 1901, he helped organize the Virginia Bank and Trust Company, rising to vice-president and director, all the while active in Confederate veterans’ affairs. Whittle died in 1920 at age 82.

One final quote from the conclusion of Whittle’s 1907 speech: “We annually assemble, with no rancor in our hearts towards our late foes, but to keep in everlasting remembrance the fact that we have done our duty in war and in peace; and that those who come after may emulate the courage, loyalty and sacrifice of true patriots.”[iii]

Can we do less in our current troubles? Whatever their shortcomings, we can learn from them, perhaps come to respect and emulate them at least in this. Such history lessons are vital for coming generations. There are those who, in a false sense of moral superiority, would wipe our imperfect ancestors from common memory, but that would just rob the future of an invaluable heritage.

Reference: Dwight Sturtevant Hughes, A Confederate Biography: The Cruise of the CSS Shenandoah (Annapolis, 2015).

[i] Captain W. C. Whittle, “Merrimac and Monitor,” Southern Historical Society Papers 40 (September 1915), 301.

[ii] William C. Whittle, Jr., The Voyage of the CSS Shenandoah: A Memorable Cruise (Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 2005), 182.

[iii] Whittle, “Merrimac and Monitor,” 304.