Shortly after I returned from my first tour in Afghanistan, several friends invited me over to watch the 2008 war thriller The Hurt Locker, about an Explosives Ordnance Team serving in the Iraq War. I couldn’t make it halfway. I walked out, got in my car, and sat there, staring off into space and breathing heavily for a few minutes before I mustered the motivation to drive home.

About five weeks into that Afghan tour, an IED killed or wounded several people I knew. Call it PTSD if you like (I never sought a diagnosis), but I’ve not had much nerve for films about the now defunct “Global War on Terror” since that first tour. Perhaps my reaction means The Hurt Locker is a good film — certainly a lot of critics say it’s one of the best war films of this century.

I had a similar experience when recently reading Battle Cry of Freedom, James M MacPherson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the history of the Civil War. Like other Abbeville contributors, I’m happy to acknowledge MacPherson’s talent.  As many reviewers noted after its 1988 publication, Battle Cry of Freedom is perhaps the most excellent and readable single-volume account of the Civil War ever written. Indeed, for anyone who has watched Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary The Civil War, it’s not hard to identify MacPherson’s influence.

But 600 pages into that 900-page tome, I had to put it down. It wasn’t because it wasn’t interesting (it was quite well-written and engrossing). Nor was it because it was obviously biased in favor of the North — it is, but to McPherson’s credit it’s also often sympathetic to Southerners.

No, I had to stop reading Battle Cry of Freedom for reasons similar to my experience with The Hurt Locker. Even if it was in some senses good, it simply hurt too much. That it did might surprise you — it certainly surprised me.

I’m not a descendant of Confederate veterans. The only ancestors of whom I am aware who served in the Civil War fought for the Union — my grandmother’s Irish grandfather joined up shortly after arriving in the United States in 1864, and served in Virginia in the final months of the war. (It’s unclear, at least from the documents I’ve seen, if he was conscripted.)

Nor am I new to studying the War Between the States. I majored in history at the University of Virginia, and took Gary Gallagher’s famed course on the Civil War (to my recollection, Gallagher didn’t assign McPherson, because almost all our readings were primary sources). I wrote my undergraduate thesis on black religion during the conflict. I have a graduate degree in social studies teaching and was a high school history teacher in the Old Dominion.

Nevertheless, the Civil War was for me never solely an academic pursuit. I grew up not far from the Manassas Battlefield. Nearby communities (and roads) were named after John S. Mosby, whose raiders terrorized the Union Army across northern Virginia. Every summer, I’d visit my grandparents in the Shenandoah Valley. My grandfather often took me to Newmarket, where I learned about teenage cadets from the Virginia Military Institute who were organized into a combat unit that saw action in 1864. I could imagine myself as one of the cadets who lost his shoes in the mud, or worse, took a bullet in the gut and bled out on the battlefield.

My wife is directly descended from Confederates through her father. An ancestor of hers served in a Mississippi regiment in the Army of Northern Virginia. He was captured on the first day of Gettysburg and spent the remainder of the war in a Union P.O.W. camp. I don’t know what manner of man he was, but he’s a part of my childrens’ history, and thus mine.

What does any of this have to do with McPherson’s award-winning book on the Civil War? Let me put it this way. An estimated 620,000 American soldiers died in that conflict, about 260,000 of those Confederates. Another 50,000 civilians died, mostly in the South. In today’s money, billions of dollars were spent fighting the war. Billions more in property were lost or destroyed (again, mostly in the South). The seceding states were impoverished by the war. My parents both went to college in Richmond in the 1970’s; as my father would remind me, the city’s economy at that time had still not recovered from the beating it took in 1864 and 1865.

At some point, the work of history ceases to be simply an intellectual exercise. It is about real people, some of whom we may know or share their blood. When I read about the Civil War, especially its latter years that were acutely disastrous for the southern people, I cannot help but think of the land I love, the family I know. People’s homes, livelihoods, and very lives were dashed upon the rocks of this horrific four-year conflict.

Yes, I get it, three million enslaved black Americans won their freedom because of the outcome of the Civil War. That’s no small thing, of course. If I were a descendant of plantation slaves, I’d be eager to hear the stories of how my ancestors won their liberty and began a new life, perhaps even serving in the same army that often secured the end of that bondage. But to exclusively celebrate that story is myopic. Even if the South represents the “bad guys” of our contemporary culture’s Civil War narrative, are its dead, its destruction, not terribly tragic?

Ours is a manichean age. There are heroes and there are villains. (Though perhaps even my Union-serving ancestor is not exempt from condemnation, given that he was not only white, and therefore still an entitled oppressor who likely held impolitic opinions, but even more damnably an Indian agent in Oklahoma after the war). The South, according to the sometimes-sympathetic narratives of McPherson, Ken Burns — or, far worse, the endless cottage industry of racially-obsessed historically revisionist writers — must play the villain. Fine.

I’ve heard it said that the great antebellum historian Eugene Genovese once remarked that no man should be compelled to spit on his ancestors’ grave. Nor, I would add, should any man be coerced to celebrate that ancestors’ humiliation or the plundering of his property. Hundreds of thousands of dead men and entire swaths of a country laid waste by an invading army are a high price to pay for any cause, even that of liberty.

So I ask my fellow Americans to forgive me if I struggle to read histories documenting the demise of the South I’ve come to inherit as my own. As Allen Tate’s great novel The Fathers relates, if we look closely such tales are never solely about the caricatures of exploitative, racist planters or Confederate battle flags flown by white supremacists, but about the suffering of vulnerable, ordinary people and the places they love. Look away, Dixie land.

Casey Chalk

Casey Chalk has degrees in history and education from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College. He is a regular contributor for New Oxford Review, The Federalist, American Conservative, and Crisis Magazine. He is the author of The Persecuted: True Stories of Courageous Christians Living Their Faith in Muslim Lands (Sophia Institute).


  • Paul Yarbrough says:

    There seem to be those (in my opinion) who take Christ’s words “let the dead bury the dead” to mean “continue to kill the dead.” I am a member of The Sons of Confederate Veterans and proud of it. But I do not worship them in death. I offer honor to them because they were willing to die for a just cause they (and I) believed in.
    This article of yours has paid honor to them as well as your contemporaries. Well done, Sir.

    • Vivian Turnage Leese says:

      I commend you, Paul, for your lineage that ties you to the Sons of Confederate Veterans. My brother is a past Camp Commander in Georgia. I hold nothing but profound admiration for this organization.
      My family arrived in America in the early 1600s. After much toiling and adversity, my ancestors finally saw success and bought more and more acreage; they became planters and planters bought slaves. If I had lived in the 1600s or the 17 or 1800s and had acquired a lot of land, I would have purchased slaves, as well. We remained Southerners throughout the trials and the tribulations of that life. What else was there?
      I could not be more proud of my lineage than if I lived back then and told them myself. I worship the Southern, Civil War soldiers and officers each day, in my appreciation for everything Southern; not in death, but in abundant life.

  • Billy P says:

    A sincere Thank You for your service, Casey.
    And, as a member of the SCV and a past Camp Commander, I will simply echo Paul’s comments above – because it can’t be said any better.

  • RBT says:

    Mr. Chalk,

    As usual, a very nice piece of writing. Thank you.

    Now, you wrote:

    “Yes, I get it, three million enslaved black Americans won their freedom because of the outcome of the Civil War. That’s no small thing, of course.”

    This seems a bit “off” to me. Yes, the 14th amendment was eventually passed, but the former slaves had no friends, really, in the North, and no resources left in the South. Their life expectancy plummeted and multi-generational poverty ensued. They were cynically used by Reconstruction governments, and generally left to rot along with everyone else. Of course, neither the slaves as persons nor their freedoms were the interest of Northern elements and their war machine in the first place.

    Actually, at one point in what you wrote, I expected you to link the defunct War on Terror, as a campaign, with the imperious activities of the Union. Neither campaign “won” anything for anyone. I also suspect that the Union dead, if they could be revived, might very well ask, “Where’s the Glory we were promised?” The former slaves, in the day, might even have come to the realization that, yes, they were “free”, but they were equally homeless.

    I guess I would also have to say that I cannot be so sanguinary about McPherson and Burns as you are. Their intention is to white-wash the motivations of their Union predecessors, I think, in order to bolster their self-respect as opportunist ideologues of our flawed, centralist regime, which cries “freedom, freedom, freedom” for it knows not what. We were doing it in Iraq. On some days my dark forebodings make me think we shan’t be around to do this much longer.

    Our penchant for abstract freedom and abstract equality inevitably means an unravelling of our social fabric. So you see, all that was at stake in that war is still very current, and not just the concern of those noble dead of the Confederacy. We should defend them, praise them, certainly. But we dare not forget what they saw coming out of the sea, that great Leviathan.

    With respect and appreciation, RBT

    • Julie Paine says:

      Astute points. I remember hearing Don Livingston say in a presentation, “That slavery ended as an unintended consequence of the war conveys on it no moral merit.”

    • Ithamar says:

      Very good comment. For my part, this is a bull shit article, and it troubles me that Abbeville Institute published it. Here is another comment which troubles me: “ Though perhaps even my Union-serving ancestor is not exempt from condemnation”. Perhaps? Migrated to America to kill Southern folk who never did him any harm. That is pure wickedness.

      • RBT says:

        Ithamar, I do disagree with your blanket, overgeneralized assessment of the article. More to point, I am upset about your language. We are here to set the standard for tradition, intelligence, honesty, and faith. Please consider a more civil tone. We are friends here–perhaps we only have each other on most things discussed here! Thank you for considering my plea. I also hope you continue to read and learn from what arises in the blog

      • Tom Wiggins says:

        How much land was given to the immigrant to help wage an immoral genocide?

    • Thomas Jackson Robertson says:


    • Gary Wright says:

      Yes sir, the gyrations and contortions of Northern apologists does not justify invading, terrorizing and killing their formers compatriots for naked control of the Southerners’ land and resources.

    • Wayne Carlson says:

      Thank you RBT, for making the important points that were/are so often overlooked and ignored. The battle you are making reference too, continues. Leviathan makes a mockery of what true liberty means.

  • Albert Alioto says:

    Were those who went through — and in 700,000 cases did not live through — the war real people? Mr. Chalk’s essay speaks powerfully to the fact that they were real and that we should always have that uppermost in our minds. Perhaps after 160 years, that’s a challenge. But that only makes this piece more important.

    • Tom Wiggins says:

      160 years ain’t didly squat

      • Albert Alioto says:

        Very true. That’s why I said that perhaps it is a challenge. I suppose I should drop the perhaps. But because 160 years definitely ain’t didly squat, I stand by my belief that Mr. Chalk’s essay is important. More than when I first posted it. Thanks for prompting me to do that.

  • Julie Paine says:

    Wonderful thoughts. I have felt the weight of this tragedy and still weep freely when reading or watching accounts of the suffering and fortitude of these very real people. Thank you!

  • Kenneth Robbins says:

    The term enslaved people, is a loaded term meant to create quilt. Those people were slaves. In the 9th chapter of Genesis you can read where God made some people slaves. If you read the rest of scripture you will learn That God gave laws for the conduct of slavery. As for Macpherson, Burns or Genovese and his wife they are enemies. You speak of exploitative, racist planters, that’s BS woke speak. If you want to read about some real racist, then try Ben wade who wanted freed slaves to slaughter White Southerners, or Charles Sumnter and Thaddeus Stevens the club foot monster in the house of reps. And my favorite of all White Supremacist who fly the Confederate Battle Flag. One last item Slaves did not win their freedom, They were declared free by the 13th amendment. That war is not over because they keep attacking us.

  • scott thompson says:

    no small thing to put a bayonet on a gun and fire, charge and stab, and repeat. tough to win and lose. i get that. i would have to agree with some of the comments on the burns fluff….if my ancestry is true, i have freed slave (from tidewater va) slaveowners who moved to pre1740 duplin county nc…and then still bought and sold slaves. and were the third or fourth-largest landowners in the county. the south had more mixed races at the time than the north. the issues seem much more complex to me now. i asked a question on twitter recently if the north, after several threats of secession….when they didnt secede was it that they said or determined “oopseee, we cant secede, we are after all in a dissoluble union and the current president and the south would stop us from rebellion.’? noone seemed to recall the north saying such or the south desiring to force a northern state to stay in union.

  • Terry Cross says:

    The quote I will remember from this moving article is the one attributed to Genovese that no man should be compelled to spit on his ancestor’s grave. As our Confederate monuments come down and our history is re contextualized, I feel we are being forced to spit on our ancestors graves.

  • Tom Wiggins says:

    The slaves didn’t “win” their freedom.
    They were stolen. Southern “slavery” was a economic/ humanitarian investment that was manipulated and plundered by the same thread of people who forced it upon the colonies.
    Most slaves were content and knew they were much better off than in their native land. The vast majority wouldn’t leave their homes, which is why the union army destroyed them.
    I proudly fly the battle flag and don’t give a fiddlers damn what label the latest virtue signalers put on me.

  • R R Schoettker says:

    “Yes, I get it, three million enslaved black Americans won their freedom because of the outcome of the Civil War.”

    Did they? Or did they just switch masters from southern plantation owners to the aggressive union government, along with all the rest of the people of the country. A situation alluded to in the title of another one volume history of this war by Hummel; “Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men”. Not only do I disbelieve that ending slavery was ever any initial intent of the union government in waging this war, but I have my doubts that any such thing was ever actually accomplished…..period.

  • Thomas Schaaf says:

    Dear Mr. Chalk,

    I understand your visceral/PTSD reaction being retraumatized by graphic retelling of war atrocities, whether it be in Afghanistan or Lincoln’s goons raping the American South.

    I am currently recovering from back surgery at a lovely rehab facility in Aldie, Virginia. Aldie is one of the small towns along the Mosby Heritage Trail that suffered greatest during the four year nightmare. My chosen bedside reading is a diary by Ida Dulany, a Civil War woman who lived just a few miles up this road. I can scarce get through a single chapter of Ida’s book without putting it down in horror and disgust over what happened to her and her family at the hands of the lawless Yankee hordes.

    This terrain is now popular horse country, deceptively tranquil compared to the violent past. After reading Ida’s journal, I can never travel the Mosby Highway again without feeling like a ghost to whom these horrors seem like yesterday.

    This is to say that I understand your contemporary empathy for human pathos past.

  • Baron says:

    Ken Burns has exposed himself as an American-hater. I didn’t watch his documentary, and I now won’t ever try.

    Other comments have said what I wanted to already, but there’s something missing from the author; he doesn’t address that he served the same evil that attacked the South. The USA destroyed much of the middle East and North Africa. Afghanistan was a huge money-maker for DC with all those poppy fields. So congratulations, you fought for the federal drug-trade. Was is worth it? I understand it’s very difficult for former police and military to separate themselves from the “club” or “fraternity”. But I can’t take any veteran seriously until they admit they were fooled, used, and abused.

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