Christmas 2021: A lesson the Civil War taught us
Published 3:15 pm Tuesday, December 21, 2021
BY JAMES FINCK
As I have considered how I wanted to end this year, I knew I wanted to try to bring a message of hope and unity. We are truly living in dark days, where it seems we have lost any pretense of civility towards anyone who thinks differently than ourselves. There have always been political differences, but in most cases, we have found ways to accept these differences, at least enough to co-exist. Currently, however, it seems that we do not even attempt tolerance, but instead instantly go to hate. Unfortunately, it is our political leaders modeling this behavior for us. Instead of standing above the fray and trying to unify this great nation, they are complicit in the hate for political gain. One thing that has taken a hit from this political feud is our history, as we are battling about what should and should not be taught. The historical episode that has become the largest casualty is the Civil War. However, as it is Christmas, I want to look at a particular Christmas and maybe we can learn a lesson and give us something to hope for.
The Civil War brought some of the darkest days to our great nation as it split in two over one of its founding documents. 700,000 men gave their lives to determine what The Declaration meant by, “All men are created equal.” By the time this conflict was over, no family was untouched by this war. Everyone had lost someone or something important to them. A fourth of the population were buried in graveyards from national cemeteries to unmarked ditches across the South. At least another fourth were permanently disabled or suffering from diseases, drug addiction, or PTSD. Reminders of the war were everywhere, from men without limbs to property destruction. Politically, the war was the major topic of debate for the next 50 years as the two parties waved the “Bloody Shirt” accusing the other for its conception.
Many in the North held a grudge. They were forced from their farms and factories to hold the nation together because the South decided it could not live under Republican rule. They feared how a Republican president might harm their way of life and the nation. For many of you today, this might not seem as much of a stretch as thousands of demonstrators marched in the streets shouting “Not my president” or stormed the Capitol to stop the last election. In 1860, Southerners selfishly believed the Republicans would harm their particular institution, their practice of slavery that they had built their economy on. To Northerners, Southerners had turned their back on the nation and the Constitution and had committed treason, a crime punishable by death. After four years of fighting, these Northerners, rightfully so, wanted to seek a measure of retribution for their own pain and suffering. The difference between their dark days and ours might be in leadership.
Whenever you discuss positive presidential leadership, you almost always start with Lincoln. In the midst of heartbreak and pain for the thousands of lives lost, Lincoln took on the attitude of reconciliation. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln closed with, “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.” Lincoln understood that even the bitterest of enemies could and needed to come together to strengthen the nation and just as much to heal their own personal wounds. Yet for the purpose of this story, it is not just Lincoln I want to discuss, but the man who would replace him.
More than 2,000 years ago, the Bible reports that angels appeared to the shepherds announcing the birth of the Christ child. In their proclamation, they declared, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” The problem has been, in the years since, the world has seen very little peace and today it seems like there is nothing but hate. I have spent the past few years trying to bring historical examples of peace through Christmas, the World War I Christmas truce, or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” that dealt with the death of his son in the tragic Civil War. One more time I want to share an example of peace and unity. Political leadership does not come to mind when we consider President Andrew Johnson. After all, he was the first president impeached. Yet, he chose Christmas Day 1868 and the spirit of that day to issue his Christmas Day Declaration pardoning all Confederate Troops. He wrote, that “a universal amnesty and pardon for participation in said rebellion extended to all who have borne any part therein will tend to secure permanent peace, order, and prosperity throughout the land, and to renew and fully restore confidence and fraternal feeling among the whole people, and their respect for and attachment to the National Government, designed by its patriotic founders for the general good.”
Johnson was an interesting president and had as much of a reason to hate Southerners as anyone else. He was a Southern slaveholder but grew up a poor kid from the mountains of east Tennessee. He hated the elitism of the planter class and completely disagreed with secession. He was the only senator from the South to retain his seat but, being from a Confederate state, he was never able to return home during the war. Also, during the fighting the Southern leaders labeled him a traitor, destroyed his property, and drove his wife and kids from the state. He despised what the South had done to him and his nation. In today’s world, he probably would have sought retribution. Instead, he followed the example of his predecessor and decided that on Christmas day he would do what was best for the nation and not for himself.
This Christmas may we strive to follow their example. May we try a little bit harder to find the good in those who we may not agree with. When it comes to history, if those who lived through the war could forgive, we should be able to do the same 150 years later. As Lincoln said, “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
From the Historically Speaking family, I want to wish you all a very Merry Christmas.
(Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha. He is Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at www.Historicallyspeaking.blog.)