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Matters of Honor

Why are we all so obsessed with war? I get this question all the time from non- history folks, and I’m sure many of you do too. I usually begin by pointing out that it is not so much war, but history, that draws many of us so powerfully—and whether it’s a comfortable idea for some or not, there’s no denying that a fair share of human history has been written by war. I often continue by explaining that one of the things that I personally find so fascinating about war is its human element. War shows us at our best, our worst and everything in between.

As I read our features this month, I continually find the word honor—that so-very-human notion—entering my mind. Honor, like war itself, can awaken a range of emotions and actions in us. It motivates us—most often rightly, sometimes wrongly—to do things that we often would not otherwise do, and in the context of war the stakes are naturally much higher.

Honor can bring ramifications, but these are ramifications with which the individual is willing to live—or die. Take John Sedgwick at Spotsylvania. Sedgwick was a general who was not afraid to lead from the front, and he understood the powerful effect his conduct had on his men in terms of boosting or preserving their bravery. Duty and honor are what led him to the front lines on May 9, 1864—though not recklessness, as he believed he was well out of range of Confederate sharpshooters. He was warned that he wasn’t, and ultimately received confirmation of that fact. But then, some would rather die with honor than live without it.

It was undoubtedly honor that led Charles Stone to take on Charles Sumner after the latter verbally assaulted his character on the Senate floor in December 1861 following the Federal fiasco at Ball’s Bluff. He was fully aware of the power that Sumner and his Radical Republican allies wielded, and knew that confronting them just might be professional suicide. But Stone did it anyway—and I applaud him for it. Stone was hardly alone, then or now, in taking issue with the methods and motivations of Sumner and the members of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. He realized there would be ramifications, and he was in fact imprisoned. This general’s choice was to live with honor rather than remain free without it.

But as our second installment of “Hoodwinked” reminds us, honor wasn’t always caught up with such grave issues as death or imprisonment. More than one Civil War combatant found his honor bruised after falling prey to an enemy ruse. I laugh every time I think about the wide smile that must have adorned Nathan Bedford Forrest’s face as he listened to Abel Streight’s demand that he and his men be released and the fight resumed after realizing that Forrest had duped him into surrendering near Rome, Ga. Battlefield bluffs often seem to bring up questions of honor and fairness—but it’s hardly coincidence that the loudest accusations of foul play come from those who find themselves on the wrong end of the game.

Far less comical are the questions of honor raised by the last paragraph of Keith Miller’s Civil War gambling piece, concerning Chance Enterprises’ proposal for building a casino at Gettysburg. This is disturbing to me not because of any aversion to gambling, but because it represents the frightening willingness of some to subvert honor for financial gain. I’m also reminded of this every time I see a new housing development being built on battlefield ground. Clearly nothing is more disrespectful to the hallowed grounds of history than attempts to exploit it—or worse, destroy it—for commercial gain. There will be more on this to come in our new “Civil War Today” column next month.

And while we’re on the subject of Gettysburg and honor (or more specifically, dishonor), I feel compelled to mention the cowardly acts of monument vandalism that occurred there last February. Over $60,000 in damage was done to three different memorials in one night. We’ll have more on this next month as well, but in the meantime, please think about donating whatever you can to the restoration efforts at the park.

It seems like the honorable thing to do.


Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here