' Letter to a damnyankee - Paul Greenberg

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June 24th, 2017

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Letter to a damnyankee

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published August 7, 2015

    Letter to a damnyankee

Dear Yank,

I can't say it was wholly a pleasure -- or surprise -- to receive your message objecting to my defense of Robert E. Lee, for I get a lot of those. Especially from above the Mason-Dixon Line.

Yet in my mind the Army of Northern Virginia (R.E. Lee, Commanding General) remains the last chivalrous force to take the field before modernity and the age of total war arose -- like those mushroom clouds above Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I hasten to apologize for my unreconstructed language in the headline above today's column. It's a holdover from growing up in the South when damnyankee was considered one word. The passions left behind by The War are slow to heal, as some of the more vitriolic passages of your own letter fully demonstrate. For example:

"I just cannot for the life of me understand why Southerners still believe there was something gallant and chivalrous and right about the Confederacy and its attempt to tear this nation apart so you folks could continue to enslave human beings for your own profit and convenience. I have never understood why the battle flag of that monstrous philosophy waves anywhere in America today -- and I realize it's only a symbol. But the ISIS flag is a symbol, too, and when we defeat those Islamic warriors who would destroy this nation, too, do you think it would be appropriate to fly their flag and build monuments to their memories? On public lands no less? You folks still can't seem to accept the monstrosity of your Old Cause and the destruction it caused to this nation. There was nothing honorable about it. Ever. Accept it."

Goodness. To equate the flag that led the Army of Northern Virginia into battle with that of the latest barbarians to appear at the gates, if not within them by now ... that's going some.

The sins of the South may be many (whose are few?), and heading them all may be the Peculiar Institution that was human slavery -- and the creation of a whole state, the Confederate States of America, dedicated to perpetuating it.

But there is no need to apologize for the personal conduct of the commander who led the Army of Northern Virginia, for he remained an officer and gentleman despite all the pressures and temptations of war. Which only mounted as that tragic conflict drew to its end, and the South's circumstances grew ever more desperate.

If you've got the time, and you're serious about not being able to understand what was so gallant and chivalrous about the army that Robert E. Lee led, you might cast an eye over his General Order No. 73. Compare it to the conduct of Sherman's troops as they were burning city after city, emptying hospitals, and seizing crops and everything else they could get their hands on as they proceeded on their March to the Sea.

Here is what General Lee told his troops as they crossed into Pennsylvania for their rendezvous with destiny at a crossroads town called Gettysburg:

Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia

Chambersburg, Pennsylvania

June 27, 1863

The commanding general has observed with marked satisfaction the conduct of the troops on the march, and confidently anticipates results commensurate with the high spirit they have manifested.

No troops could have displayed greater fortitude or better performed the arduous marches of the past ten days. Their conduct in other respects has with few exceptions been in keeping with their character as soldiers, and entitles them to approbation and praise. There have however been instances of forgetfulness on the part of some, that they have in keeping the yet unsullied reputation of the army, and that the duties expected of us by civilization and Christianity are not less obligatory in the country of the enemy than in our own.

The commanding general considers that no greater disgrace could befall the army, and through it our whole people, than the perpetration of the barbarous outrages upon the unarmed, and defenceless and the wanton destruction of private property that have marked the course of the enemy in our own country. Such proceedings not only degrade the perpetrators and all connected with them, but are subversive of the discipline and efficiency of the army, and destructive of the ends of our present movement.

It must be remembered that we make war only upon armed men, and that we cannot take vengeance for the wrongs our people have suffered without lowering ourselves in the eyes of all whose abhorrence has been excited by the atrocities of our enemies, and offending against Him to whom vengeance belongeth, without whose favor and support our efforts must all prove in vain. The commanding general therefore earnestly exhorts the troops to abstain with most scrupulous care from unnecessary or wanton injury to private property, and he enjoins upon all officers to arrest and bring to summary punishment all who shall in any way offend against the orders on this subject.

R. E. Lee

General

What a contrast the general's order makes with the vindictiveness of those who would now remove every trace of the Old Confederacy from American history and memory, including the battle flag that General Lee's troops followed with such devotion.

Abraham Lincoln suggested a better course in his immortal Second Inaugural: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Amen.

Fellow countrymen once again, let us forgive but not forget -- lest we risk repeating our tragic past. Let us forge a future better than our bitterly divided past. Let us respect one another, and leave our honored dead, their monuments and emblems and memory, undisturbed in their quiet graveyards scattered across the now peaceful expanse that is once again the United States of America.

Peace,

Paul Greenberg

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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