Cocooned by peace, some dream of a civil war

Oddly, Americans often comported themselves with greater honor — with greater grace — during an episode of actual treason: “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort,” as the Constitution puts it, and General John Brown Gordon, as a Confederate officer, levied war against the United States with some enthusiasm. (“John Brown” must have been an awkward name for a Confederate general to bear.) To General Gordon fell the duty of leading the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. The victorious Union general, Joshua Chamberlain, made a famous gesture at that most delicate of moments, having his troops salute Gordon and his defeated men. As Gordon told the story: “One of the knightliest soldiers of the federal army, General Joshua L. Chamberlain of Maine, called his troops into line, and as my men marched in front of them, the veterans in blue gave a soldierly salute to those vanquished heroes — a token of respect from Americans to Americans.” Chamberlain, who had been a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin, told the story with some literary flair: “Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual — honor answering honor.”

At that moment, with battles still being fought and blood being shed around the divided nation — in a war in which 620,000 Americans would die — we began to honor Abraham Lincoln’s imperative: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”

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