Elevating honor as a guiding principle can yield personal and cultural greatness. However, obsessing on honor for purposes of personal pride can poison relationships and cripple a cause. The American Civil War presents us with a riveting case-study for this humbling dynamic.
First, some fiction. In the movie “Gone With the Wind,” we heard this exchange:
Scarlet O’Hara: “Take me away with you. There is nothing to keep us here.”
Ashley Wilkes: “Nothing but honor.”
Wilkes was refusing a tempting offer to leave his wife. His honor stood as the last remaining defense against indecency.
The culture that gave rise to the Civil War revered honor. Many great men and moments rose from this reverence. But it also allowed dangerous vices to thrive under a cloak of honor.
When Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, the animosity between the North and South was epic. Did this passionate divide prevent in-fighting in each opposing camp? No. Acrimony was intense among political factions in the South and in General Robert E. Lee’s high command. The North was no different. Lincoln faced political chaos in Washington and insubordination from his high command. Many officers on both sides feuded throughout the war over questions of honor.
Union General George McClellan (1826 –1885) had an ego that far outpaced his abilities on the field. He once snubbed his Commander-in-Chief making Lincoln wait and then just going to bed. He privately referred to Lincoln as “nothing more than a well-meaning baboon,” and “unworthy” of his high position. Unduly cautious, he kept losing to inferior numbers and making excuses. Later Union generals, often under pressure from Lincoln, were reckless with the lives of soldiers, many of whom perished senselessly in a blaze of “honorable” glory. Meanwhile, tension and bitterness pervaded the Union high command as the pecking order constantly shifted. Gen. Burnside (famous for his sideburns) disliked Gen. Hooker who conspired against Burnside to replace him. General Pope sustained a serious defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run and found a scapegoat in Gen. Porter. In the end, Lincoln went through five highly problematic military commands to finally win the war.
On the Confederate side, Gen. Joe Johnston (1807 –1891) was, as one historian put it, “morbidly jealous” of Lee. He was obsessed with rank and feuded bitterly with the thin-skinned Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Gen. A. P. Hill (1825-1865) was touchy on matters of personal honor. In 1862, he engaged in public arguments with James Longstreet over who deserved the most credit at the Battle of Glendale. Longstreet placed Hill under arrest for insubordination and there was talk of a duel. Lee intervened and transferred Hill and his “Light Division” to Stonewall Jackson’s Army of the Shenandoah. Soon, Hill clashed with Jackson over marching orders and Jackson had Hill arrested and charged. Lee intervened again, trying to get his officers to see a bigger picture. Later, Hill sought a court of inquiry against Gen. Ambrose Wright. Again, Lee intervened reminding Hill that Wright was not a professional solider but a politician who left the safety of his office for duty on the field. He told Hill not to humiliate Wright and make the best with the officers he had. After all, that’s what Lee did twice with Hill.
Robert E. Lee was an exceptional leader, able to transcend the squabbling in his ranks to stay focused on the larger mission. When the war began, Lee explained his loyalty to Virginia saying: “I would sacrifice anything but honor to save Virginia.” In the end, he could not do it. He led countless young soldiers to early graves fighting valiantly for a “lost cause.” Near the war’s end, many Confederates regarded surrender as dishonorable and clamored for guerilla warfare in the hills. Seeing a bigger picture, Lee followed a deeper sense of honor and surrendered at Appomattox. Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, known for brutal tactics in war, treated Lee honorably and took care to ensure that the terms of surrender would be as honorable as possible for both sides. After the war, Confederate leaders engaged in a war of words to spin the causes and effects of the war they lost. The “Lost Cause” narrative finessed the role of slavery and focused on “state’s rights” as the primary cause. This ignores the secession speeches in 1860 claiming slavery as the cornerstone of civilization. The “Lost Cause” writers were often more concerned with the South’s honor than reporting the full truth.
Many officers cited above were the cream of the crop. Their skills and virtues distinguished them for significant service. I focused on their vices to illustrate that notions of honor can yield mixed results. It led to high levels of loyalty and courage worthy of our admiration. It also fostered low levels of folly as egos postured for glory. Most virtues rise out of a duel between competing passions and priorities. Forces inside us all are caught up in a dance for dominance. Real love must take the lead over lust, honor over pride, courage over bravado, humility over timidity, liberty over license, justice over legalism, hope for wishful thinking, patience over procrastination and so on. Every virtue has a counterfeit double that is easily mistaken for the real thing.