Paul Prather: Gettysburg visit leads to epiphany about Old South's 'Lost Cause'

Contributing columnistJuly 12, 2013 

Paul Prather

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July 1-3 marked the 150th anniversary of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War: Gettysburg, where 51,000 casualties fell.

Coincidentally, a few months before the sesquicentennial, my wife Liz and I spent a brief vacation touring Civil War-era sites, including Lexington, Va., and Harper's Ferry, W.Va.

And Gettysburg.

It was the fourth time I'd visited that hallowed Pennsylvania battlefield.

On this trip, however, I experienced what I've lately called my own private Paula Deen moment, although it occurred well before Deen's publicized meltdown.

Let me explain. Unlike Deen, evidently, I've understood for ages that white people should never, ever use the n-word. No problem there.

I've also understood that the office isn't a place for pornography or ugly jokes. (That's particularly true in my workplace, a church.)

No, when I say I had a Paula Deen moment, I mean I experienced an epiphany about the Old South, another subject she's had issues with.

I wonder why it took me this long. But as the saying goes, you don't know what you don't know until you know it.

I've been a Civil War buff as long as I can remember. Among the very first books I read were my schoolteacher father's books on the war. In the ensuing 50 years, I've read hundreds more volumes about that period, from accounts of battles to biographies of generals and politicians to diaries of common soldiers to a Depression-era oral history of former slaves.

I've formed opinions. I believe Abraham Lincoln was the greatest American ever. I believe Ulysses S. Grant not only defeated Robert E. Lee but also was the superior general and that Union Gen. George Thomas was better than Grant.

Maybe because I grew up in Kentucky, though, a border state where the inhabitants' loyalties were divided, one question I've waffled on is this: Had I actually lived in the commonwealth in the 1860s, which side would I have chosen?

I've mainly assumed I would have favored the Union, but I've also found myself drawn at times toward those daring, doomed rebels.

I've occasionally been seduced by the romantic aura that surrounds The Lost Cause. You know the myths, some based in fact, some fictional, many a blend of both.

There's the legendary chivalry of Lee.

There's the undeniable bravery of Southern troops, whose willingness to press the attack against overwhelming odds gained them nearly miraculous victories.

There are the gorgeous plantations and fiery heroes of Gone With the Wind.

But in April, along the highways between Gettysburg and Mount Sterling, the last of my illusions evaporated. I don't know why it happened when it did. Suddenly I understood, down in my gut: Any glory in that Lost Cause was and is a sham.

During the run-up to the war both sides were guilty of political miscalculations, extremist rhetoric and demagoguery. But by any rational measure, the Civil War was the handiwork of inflexible, vainglorious Southern hotheads.

Using the same logic that U. S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan used when in 2009 he allegedly murdered 13 people at Fort Hood, South Carolinians decided that, if they were opposed to federal policies or the results of a national election, it was their God-ordained duty to assault an American military base.

They and leaders in other Southern states tried to dissolve the United States itself.

If some splinter group carried out those same acts today, any thinking person would recognize their actions as high treason.

As their pretext, the Confederates cited the issue of states' rights.

However, the right that preoccupied them was their supposed right to own, sell, whip, starve, brand, maim, murder and rape millions of fellow human beings.

Four years after hooligans fired their cannons at Fort Sumter, much of the country lay devastated and 620,000 Americans lay dead, in a nation whose population was only 31.4 million in the 1860 census. The depth of suffering was horrendous. By far the worst cataclysm in U.S. history, the war still haunts us.

It's easy to see why abolitionists and radical Republicans wanted Jefferson Davis, Lee and the rest of the rebellion's leaders hanged for the treason they'd committed and the slaughter they'd instigated.

Obviously, kinder hearts influenced the post-war course. Before he was assassinated, Lincoln, almost divinely magnanimous, called for reconciliation.

Grant proved equally noble. As ever, though, he remained plainspoken and utterly unmoved by Southern apologetics.

Writing in his memoirs about Lee's surrender at Appomattox, he observed: "I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse."

There's no romance in that assessment, just clear-eyed fact: theirs was one of the worst causes ever, and the least excusable.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at

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