It's Time for South to Honor Lincoln, Civil War Historian Says

Edward C. Smith
Special Columnist
for National Geographic News
July 3, 2001
This year marks the 140th anniversary of the advent of the American
Civil War. During the ensuing almost century and a half, nearly 65,000
books have been written on the subject and new material is published
every year. Indeed, only Jesus Christ has been written about more than
Abraham Lincoln.

After many years of reading and writing on the subject, I have become convinced that—after all of its convoluted complications, causes, and consequences have been carefully examined—the war essentially boils down to a conflict between Lincoln and Lee.

For the president the Union was an insoluble "marriage" and therefore secession was, pure and simple, a "divorce."

On the other hand, Lees loyalty went first and foremost to his state. Like Thomas Jefferson, and so many others before him, "my country," to Lee, meant Virginia, not the United States of America.

For those of his persuasion, the states voluntarily entered the Union and therefore they reserved for themselves the right to voluntarily exit from the Union.

Opposed to this, Lincoln passionately believed that whatever differences divided the country, they could be resolved through compromise between the contending political forces.

The Constitution is silent on the subject of secession, which is partly the reason why (after two years of federal incarceration) Jefferson Davis (wishing to do so) never stood trial. It would have been very difficult, in a court of law, to prove that he was a traitor.

Virginia—along with three other southern states—did not join the confederacy until after the firing on Fort Sumter. And of course it was to Lee—there was no better choice—whom Lincoln offered command of the army of 75,000 volunteers that he would raise and employ to suppress the rebellion.

Lee rejected his commander-in-chief's offer (after well more than a quarter of a century of military service) and subsequently resigned his commission. Within a few days he joined the army of the Confederate States of America.

Lest we forget, it was not until the near mid-point of the war that the expanded moral goal of abolishing slavery became one of the Union's military missions. Indeed, slavery was not abolished in the nation's capital until April 16, 1862, and the Emancipation Proclamation did not take effect until January 1, 1863. Suffice it to say, the vast majority of northern soldiers saw themselves as an army fighting for national reunification, not black liberation.

Additionally, in many respects, the Civil War was an American tale of two cities.

Richmond is only a hundred miles (160 kilometers) from Washington, and immediately after it was captured on April 3, Lincoln went there at great personal risk on April 4 and 5, while the city was still engulfed in flames. He came not to humiliate the decisively defeated foe. Instead he came in the spirit of forgiveness, which must come before reconciliation can take place.

Most Americans do not realize that Richmond pre-dates Washington by 20 years. It became the capital of Virginia in 1780 and although conceived in 1790, Washington did not become the capital of the country until 1800.

The State Capitol in Richmond was designed by Thomas Jefferson and is the first neo-classical building in the entire nation. Therefore, all of the beautiful Greco-Roman buildings in Washington (and throughout the country for that matter) are all "echo" structures of what Jefferson architecturally articulated so handsomely in Richmond.

The first capital of the Confederacy was Montgomery, Alabama. After Virginia left the Union, the capital was moved to Richmond.

This is symbolically significant on many levels. After all, Virginia produced four of our first five presidents. It was the "home" of the American Revolution. The author of the Declaration of Independence (Jefferson), the "father" of the Constitution (Madison), and the commander of the Continental Army (Washington) were all Virginians. Additionally, one of its favorite sons, Patrick Henry, captured the essence of what most colonists felt when he said to King George, "Give me liberty or give me death."

Jefferson Davis was named in honor of Thomas Jefferson. His Vice President was Alexander Hamilton Stephens. Given the tension and lack of cooperation that existed between their respective namesakes during the formation of the new republic, the anger and acrimony between themselves was easily predictable.

Davis's first year as a president of the Confederacy was provisional. He was inaugurated permanent president (for a single six-year term) on February 22, 1862. That day, purposefully chosen, was the 130th anniversary of George Washington's birthday. Let there be no doubt, the founders of the Confederacy saw themselves as revolutionaries not "rebels."

To the best of my knowledge there is no public statuary that commemorates Lincoln anywhere in the South. Therefore, the only image that Southerners see of Lincoln is on our national currency: the one cent penny and the five dollar bill.

I am of the opinion that the long-standing Southern bitterness directed toward Lincoln is due, in part, to the fact that when, in 1864, the character of the war changed dramatically from being "civil" to one of murderous, scorched-earth attrition, Southerners knew that generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan—in the exercise of their massive wave of boundless destruction—did so with the full blessing of their commander-in-chief who was determined to secure victory and reunion at all costs. This perception obviously reinforces the belief that Lincoln was solely the invader and conqueror instead of the restorer.

The most prominent Washington Memorials to Lincoln (located on the western terminus of the National Mall) and Lee (his former home at what is now Arlington National Cemetery) are joined together by Memorial Bridge which reunites North and South, never to be divided again.

I believe that it is indeed fitting for a statue of Lincoln to be erected on the James River landing where he arrived when he visited Richmond. His presence in the capitulated capital was not only a supreme act of courage, but compassion as well. As long as some in the South refuse to recognize Lincoln, the "war" continues to be waged in their minds and may never end.

Professor Edward C. Smith is the director of American Studies at American University and co-director of The Civil War Institute. He is a regular lecturer at the National Geographic Society and a regular columnist for National Geographic News.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.