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Reflections: Suppressed Civil War history the real threat to our nation

A company of 4th Regiment U.S. Colored Troops. Nearly 94,000 African-Americans from the South fought for the Union in the Civil War.
A company of 4th Regiment U.S. Colored Troops. Nearly 94,000 African-Americans from the South fought for the Union in the Civil War.

During the past year or so, we’ve heard accusations that communities’ decisions to remove statues honoring Southern soldiers and various Jim Crow-era actions designed to intimidate African-Americans run the risk of “erasing history.”

Honoring those who had committed treason against their government seems like an odd thing to do – you don’t see statues of Nazi generals in Germany, after all.

Taking down statues and monuments that were originally aimed at intimidating a large percentage of American citizens, and which still are considered offensive by them does not, of course, “erase history.” The history is still available for anyone interested in finding out about it, especially in this era of the Internet and efficient search engines like Google.

Instead of worrying about fictional threats to the nation’s history, I’d like to suggest that we might want to worry more about the real threats to our nation’s historical knowledge represented by real actions to suppress important parts of it, especially what happened during the Civil War.

Immediately after the war, the South, in the persons of former generals and politicians, embarked on a propaganda effort to obscure the real causes of the war as well as what actually happened during the conflict. In the end, while the South lost the war, their propaganda effort was an eventual and rousing success resulting in establishing the myth of “The Lost Cause” as the truth of what had happened from 1861 to 1865.

Some years ago while touring the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, I was struck by a small exhibit that listed the number of soldiers who fought for the Union from each Southern state – with the exception of South Carolina. The Palmetto State, of course, was the main hotbed of treason before and during the war, and where state troops began the war by attacking the U.S. Army at Fort Sumter.

I had no idea so many white Southerners had worn blue uniforms during the war. I, like everyone else my age, grew up learning all about The Lost Cause myth as retold in our history books and in popular movies and TV shows. Sure, we were told in our history classes, slavery was a part of what caused the war, but it was states’ rights that was the major cause.

Southerners – men and women alike – all valiantly fought against overwhelming odds in an unsuccessful effort to repel Union troops who had, apparently for little or no reason at all, invaded the home of courtly Southern plantation owners and their legions of happy, contented slaves.

Sure, it was probably wrong for the Confederates to have rebelled, but they were good people fighting for their homes, greatly put upon by evil Northern Carpet Baggers and even more evil Southern Scalawags. After all, Johnny Yuma was a Rebel who roamed through the West, and he was a good guy, right? At least he had a really cool sidearm.

But the fact is, upwards of 100,000 white men fought for the Union and against the Confederacy during the Civil War from 10 Southern states. The numbers ranged from 400 Georgians to 42,000 Tennesseans, and included 25,000 from North Carolina. Which has made me change my mind after griping for years that Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s boys in blue were too easy on the Tar Heels as they were fighting the last skirmishes of the war.

Given the results of the special U.S. Senate election in Alabama last December, it might also be worth pointing out that 3,000 Alabamians loyally fought for the Union, including the 1st Alabama Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, a bunch of tough customers who marched to the sea with Sherman – in fact, Sherman picked them to be his personal escort during the march. During its service from 1862 to 1864, the regiment suffered five officers and 482 enlisted men either killed in action or mortally wounded.

Since the war was largely fought over the issue of slavery, you wouldn’t think it too surprising that a large number of African-American Southerners fought for the Union, enlisting as soon as they were given the chance. In fact, nearly as many black Southerners fought for the Union as white Southerners.

According to the numbers I’ve been able to track down, nearly 94,000 African-Americans from the South fought under the Stars and Stripes during the War of Southern Aggression, as writer and historian Col. Robert Bateman (retired from the U.S. Army) describes it.

But, really, it is surprising that so many served so enthusiastically, especially when you consider how black soldiers were treated when they were captured. If they were captured. It was not unusual for rebel troops to murder out-of-hand black Union troops who surrendered, send them into slavery, or otherwise mistreat them. The South made no secret of how it treated black soldiers, assuming it would dampen their enthusiasm for serving.

While they didn’t face issues quite as serious as their black compatriots, white Southern Union troops had their own problems, facing discrimination after the war and risking ostracism from friends and family during the conflict.

Gen. George H. Thomas, a Virginian who, unlike Robert Lee and others, remained loyal to the oath he took to the U.S. Constitution, became one of the Union’s best generals. His nickname was “The Rock of Chickamauga,” after his corps held up a rebel advance during that battle, averting a total Union disaster. For his loyalty, Thomas was disowned by his family, who never forgave him for abiding by his oath.

Next Wednesday, we’ll celebrate Independence Day, a time to reflect on our nation and those who have made it a country that – at least until recently – has been a beacon of freedom that drew the best of the rest of the world to dream of living in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

It might also offer us a chance to consider establishing some new monuments to those who, under the most severe conditions, chose to fight for instead of against their country and their Constitution.

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