“One surviving letter suggests that the men engaged in seizing black civilians may have had no uniform attitude toward the kidnapping.” And here lies a great truth: people are complex.
As much as we would like to think otherwise there are no super heroes–and villains while evil may only be slightly more blind to their imperfections than the rest of us. Most of us think we’re pretty good most of the time. It is the rare event that exposes us to the true nature of our selfishness and hypocrisy. We want to run from such exposure, but without it there is no impetus to change.
When evil exposes itself how easy it is to ignore it. How easy it is to go with the flow. Only blind people do not recognize how thin the veil of goodness and integrity is over our weak frames.
Before the Battle of Gettysburg Southern troops slipped across the Pennsylvania line and into the close-knit towns and villages filled mostly with women and children. The men had gone to war or raced further north with their livestock and valuables in the mistaken belief that the men in grey would leave the young and female alone.
Black women worried with their neighbors. Some remembered escaping from slavery years ago. Some had manumission papers proving they’d been freed and some had never tasted slavery, but as the sound of cavalry horses clip-clopping just outside their nighttime windows alerted them to their danger they gathered their frightened children to their breasts in dread.
And dread they should as the mission of these men was to gather the darkies and herd them south. A witness to this mass kidnapping said that this more than all the political talk proved that the war was about slavery. The marauders refused to be convinced what they were doing was wrong. In a few cases northern men left behind did fight the kidnappers and win the freedom of some crying children and their frightened mothers but in general the blacks were herded. White women watched unable to help and afraid for their own lives (and virtue as rape was a very real fear) and cried at the sight of their black women friends and neighbors being led away south.
“Do you not feel bad and mean in such an occupation?” a Pennsylvanian asked. The soldier replied that “he felt very comfortable.” A judge in the same town asked one of the invaders “if they took free negroes.” “Yes,” he replied, “and we will take you, too, if you don’t shut up!”
Smugly we look on. How brute-like these soldiers were! Never would I do the same. I ask myself: when was the last time I spoke out about cruelty not from some safe distance in a comment box on a blog post but in the public square? When was the last time I listened to a cruel remark and said nothing to defend the victim? When was the last time I risked myself for another?
A surviving letter from a soldier, Colonel William Christian from Virginia, to his family gives me hope, but not perfect hope: “We took a lot of Negroes yesterday. I was offered my choice, but as I could not get them back home I would not take them. In fact, my humanity revolted at taking the poor devils away from their homes. They were so scared that I turned them all loose.”
Note that his first instinct was selfish: how would he get them home? The second instinct, the braver and nobler: give them freedom. And how many of us get to that second instinct?
Men like William Christian are BETTER than SUPER HEROES because they show us that despite our basic instincts there is a way of choosing better even if it’s not what arises from our first thoughts.
THE WAR WAS YOU AND ME edited by Joan E. Cashin is full of humanity’s constant, invigorating and maddening complexity. Wars are you and me and they’re happening every day with every choice we make to look into another human’s eye with love or turn away.
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