Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Theology of Secession

Shiloh, Tennessee 
April 6, 1862

"........the first day at Shiloh..........in the last of many charges against Prentiss’ brigade, several units under the command of General John Breckinridge, weary and shattered by repeated encounters with the foe, were urged by a few of their officers to break out in the then familiar hymn “We Shall March Away to Battle” and, picking up the tune, rose as a man to follow those officers toward their apotheosis in sheets of flame. 

In that moment, they personified the Confederate South at a level of its experience and commitment which talk of constitutional punctilio and the rights of secession do not begin to explain—at a level where it could not be defeated unless or until it willingly agreed to its own ruin and distortion. When and whether that happened is a question for our time, not for the men who sang their way to death that spring afternoon in Tennessee in the woods, where the dogwood bloomed."


At the very deepest level there is a central truth about the War Between the States which is now, even by the best of Southerners, almost never mentioned, although their forefathers had once spoken of its importance continuously. Indeed, they put emphasis upon it long after the War was over. From 1850 until 1912, this explanatory assumption was a commonplace component of one understanding of the meaning of that great conflict. And to most Southerners, it seemed almost as self-evident as did the equivalent formulations to their Northern counterparts—especially in the years of Antebellum dispute over the morality of slaveholding and other distinctions of “character” separating the two original versions of American civilization. When Confederate Southerners stood ready to face death in the place where the battle was joined or when they came to write apologia for their conduct, they saw themselves as part of a struggle between “powers and principalities,” alternative conceptions of the human enterprise—not merely as adjuncts to competing schemes for gathering political power.

Southerners, of course, fought to defend themselves and their view of the Constitution. They fought out of a loyalty to “hearth and rooftree,” and to what had been achieved by Americans in general between 1774 and 1791. Further, they were animated by a sense of personal honor and were therefore unwilling to continue association with their detractors within the federal bond once condemned by their erstwhile countrymen to live under the insufferable burden of high-handedness and effrontery. But that is not all of the story concerning their reasons for secession—not even the most interesting part.

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