A group of former slaves, “contrabands,” rest at Foller’s house at Cumberland Landing, Va., in 1862. Library of Congress photo. LC-DIG-cwpb-01005 DLC.

In his history of the Army of Northern Virginia, “Damage Them All You Can,” George Walsh wrote of the puzzle of our Confederate ancestors. In his preface Walsh asked, “How could Lee’s men have fought so bravely, so long and at such terrible cost to defend an institution as inherently evil as slavery?”

Everyone who writes about his Confedeate ancestors has to face this question.

Walsh thought he had an answer. “The officers and men of the Army of Northern Virginia believed passionately in freedom—the independence hard-won from Great Britain in 1783—but not in freedom for African Americans. Gradually I came to understand that Lee and his men deeply believed in a Southern way of life—political, social and economic—that turned a blind eye to the slavery that the Founding Fathers—both North and South—likewise had been forced to ignore in order to achieve nationhood. The Army of Northern Virginia simply reflected the prevailing Southern way of life. It was composed of moral men fighting to preserve an immoral system. Of course the Confederates did not see it that way.”

Two African American men, “contrabands,” sitting in front of a tent, one with cigar and the other with a soup ladle. The photo was taken in 1863 at Culpeper, Va. Library of Congress photo. LC-DIG-cwpb-00821 DLC.

What Walsh failed to observe was that most Northern soldiers held the self-same belief as did the rebels about freedom and blacks until 1863. In the first two years of the war Union troops fought to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves. The Union to which they would have returned the Southern states was one that sanctioned slavery in its Constitution and laws.

Had Northern arms put down the rebellion and preserved the Union early on, historian Edward L. Ayers noted, it might have changed the war’s “apparent moral meaning.” Ayers wrote that “If the North had overwhelmed the South in 1862, the victory would have brought the restoration of the Union without the immediate end of slavery. If that had happened, the war’s causes as well as its outcome would be understood differently today.”

When President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, he transformed the Union cause into a moral crusade.

When it comes to slavery, we cannot claim any moral high ground for the Poore brothers or their family. Slavery cannot be justified on any grounds. Its historical existence can be explained and understood, but never justified. Freedom is a God-given right that no man or government has the right to take away. They may have the power to do so, but not the right.

I have found my own way to come to terms with my Confederate ancestors. Causes noble and base can be found in both blue and gray, and they are often twisted together in such ways as to defy clarity. I honor the noble and condemn the base. As a passionate believer in freedom, I’m glad my Confederate ancestors failed in their attempt to preserve slavery. And I wish that the abolition of slavery could have come without the Union building a more powerful central government that could control individuals’ lives.