Frederick Douglass on How We Should Remember the Civil War

On Civil War anniversaries, like today’s 150th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Gettysburg, it has become traditional to commemorate both sides equally. There is some logic to this practice. We do not want to unnecessarily perpetuate sectional grievances, or be seen as somehow blaming today’s white southerners for the wrongs of earlier eras. And it is also true that the federal government committed significant wrongs of its own during the conflict, such as persecuting some of those who spoke out against its war policies. But, as Frederick Douglass pointed out in this 1871 speech in honor of the Union war dead, we should not commemorate the war in a way that obscures the moral chasm between the two sides:

We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.

I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict….

The essence and significance of our devotions here to-day are not to be found in the fact that the men whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle. If we met simply to show our sense of bravery, we should find enough on both sides to kindle admiration….

But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic…. If today we have a country not boiling in an agony of blood, like France, if now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage…. , we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.

Remembering the distinction emphasized by Douglass doesn’t require us to justify everything the Union side did, any more than remembering the moral difference between the two sides in World War II and the Cold War requires us to excuse everything done by the Allies or by the United States and its proxies. But, as in those more recent cases, we should not impose a false moral equivalency.