The Civil War still tugs at our conscience

During late June 1863, two companies of the First Delaware Cavalry were dispatched from Baltimore to guard the critical rail line and roads that ran through the town of Westminster. The contingent of less than 100 Union soldiers, whose commanding officers included Capt. Charles Corbit, found Westminster quiet until the late afternoon of June 28 when three brigades of Confederate cavalry, under the command of General J.E.B. Stuart, arrived unexpectedly at the south end of town.

Despite the much larger Confederate force, the resulting skirmish was quite intense. Two Union soldiers were killed, along with two Confederate officers; one of whom, Lt. John William Murray, is buried in the cemetery of Westminster's Ascension Church. The Town of Westminster has commemorated what has come to be known as Corbit’s Charge with ceremonies held near the grave of Lieutenant Murray in the church cemetery.

The event took on further meaning when the grave of a previously unknown Union soldier was discovered near that of the Confederate officer. He was ultimately identified as Cpl. Samuel Butler, a member of the U.S. Colored Troops who had enlisted in early 1864. A decision was made to recognize Corporal Butler as part of this year’s proceedings, with a marker being added to his gravestone.

The head of the Baltimore Chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans was invited to speak. His remarks concerning the connection of the war to the issue of slavery prompted the color guard of the Maryland Sons of Confederate Veterans to turn their backs in a show of disapproval for the perceived association of their forebears with support for slavery. It was a small scene in the larger drama that continues to play out as we attempt to come to grips with our long ago but ever present Civil War.

The descendants of Confederate soldiers understandably take offense when the wartime service and sacrifice of their ancestors is branded as part of an effort to preserve the slave system, and argue that it is improper to paint all Confederate soldiers with the broad brush stroke of condemnation for the evil that was slavery. Indeed, many of those young men were not fighting to preserve slavery. As is common in wars, the poor and less privileged are enlisted to do most of the hard fighting. Those southern farm boys often came from modest circumstances and some from families that, at best, scratched-out a living on small plots. They were far removed from the slave-holding plantations and slave-driven economy. They had been convinced, however, that state's rights and the southern way of life were under threat, and they answered the call to defend the homeland and its heritage. And their sense of regional loyalty was an inviting target for the propaganda that so often accompanies a call to arms.

That there existed among the troops an honest sense of duty to home cannot, however, obscure the fact that that the Confederacy was fundamentally based on the continuation of race-based slavery in America, and the central "state's rights" at issue revolved around the right to enforce laws to protect a system of involuntary servitude. Indeed, Article IV of the Confederate Constitution essentially took the intent of the Fugitive Slave Act and gave it constitutional status.

Confederate evangelism sought to imbue the cause with a mantle of nobility and grace and to portray the war as a just cause carried out by heroic and honorable cavaliers who fought to preserve a glorious and genteel way of life. Romantic and appealing as a tool for wartime recruitment, it continued to be employed after the war with the more insidious intent of sanctifying the lost cause. And in that mythical form, it served to perpetuate the belief in the racial superiority that was at the heart of the institution of slavery and evolved into the basis for separate facilities, exclusionary laws and all of the other hallmarks of the Jim Crow America.

As the events in Westminster demonstrate, the Civil War remains with us, tugging at our conscience with its heroism and its horror, its gallantry and its shamefulness. And every day in Baltimore, we can see testaments to the damage done by a segregationist past. It is constantly evident in the marginalized, dilapidated and crime-riddled neighborhoods that have evolved from generations of exclusionary and discriminatory practices. And it stands as a manifestation of how much more work we have to do in order to, in Lincoln's words, bind up the nation's wounds.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a downtown law firm. His email to rburke@bakerdonelson.com.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
43°