Congress, Commission Renounce Reconciliation

The Confederate Memorial in Arlington.
(Arlington National Cemetery photo by Rachel Larue)

by Donald Smith

‘In passing the 2021 William M. “Mac” Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act, the United States Congress determined that Confederates and the Confederacy no longer warrant commemoration through Department of Defense assets.’


At such a time and under such conditions I thought it eminently fitting to show some token of our feeling, and I therefore instructed my subordinate officers to come to the position of ‘salute’ in the manual of arms as each body of the Confederates passed before us.

The first statement is from the Naming Commission, the body Congress created to review Confederate names and iconography on DOD installations. It appears to be the commissioners’ interpretation of Congress’ intent behind Section 370 of the FY 2021 National Defense Appropriations Act (NDAA), which established the Naming Commission and outlined its mission.

The second is from Union General Joshua Chamberlain. Chamberlain commanded the detachments of the Union Armies of the Potomac and James which received the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The “such a time and under such conditions” Chamberlain found himself confronted with, was the approach of the surrendering Confederate infantry on April 12th, 1865, at Appomattox Court House.

Apparently, Congress has chosen to agree with the Naming Commission, instead of Chamberlain. In so doing, it has chosen to play Jenga with American heritage and culture.

“Politics makes me sad sometimes.” That statement is from Glenn Reynolds, University of Tennessee law professor and the creator/proprietor of the landmark Instapundit blog. What specifically made Reynolds sad? “[T]he ongoing game of Civilizational Jenga that our ruling class is playing. One by one, they’re withdrawing the supports of civil society, in a process that will inevitably lead to a collapse. They’re taking what was a very robust society, and consuming all the safety margins, bit by bit.”

What triggered his sadness? The removal of the Reconciliation Memorial from Arlington National Cemetery. It is, according to Reynolds:

… a post Civil War memorial marking a return to American unity – as part of the post-George Floyd revisiting of the Civil War. As David Strom (of the HotAir Website) writes: ‘Speaking practically, history has shown that even though the Southern states rose against the federal government, over the past century, our most patriotic and self-sacrificial defenders of our country have come from citizens of the South. Tearing down the reconciliation monument is spitting in the face of the memory of these citizens’ ancestors and a rejection of recognizing the complications in America’s history. It is, in other words, both offensive and stupid. I say this as an admirer of Lincoln’s cause and a strong opponent of the Southern ideology.’

“[T]he American experience of reconciliation after one of the world’s bloodier and more divisive conflicts,” said Reynolds, “is one that perhaps ought to get more attention. Instead, it is being erased. There’s little enough of reconciliation in today’s politics.” And that makes Reynolds sad. It should make all of us sad. And irritated—at Congress.

In the linked Substack article, Reynolds seems to point the finger of blame at the Biden administration (“the Biden Administration is removing the Reconciliation Monument”). But Congress owns the Naming Commission, and everything associated with it. It created the commission and, most importantly, reviewed and approved its recommendations.

During the past year, as the overreach and sweep of the Naming Commission’s recommendations and judgment came to light, Congress received numerous warnings about the negative side-effects of those recommendations and judgments, the most prominent of those warnings being Jim Webb’s WSJ op-ed. Apparently it ignored all of them. OK then—it now owns this issue. Not the Defense Department. Not the Army. The Congress.

Joshua Chamberlain was no insignificant Union Army officer. As commander of the 20th Maine Infantry regiment at Gettysburg, he arguably (and personally) saved the battle for the Union. The 20th Maine held Little Round Top, the extreme left of the Union line. If the Confederates took the hill, they might have broken the Union defensive line. Chamberlain’s Mainers withstood repeated assaults from Hood’s division. With insufficient ammunition to repel another charge, Chamberlain ordered a bayonet attack. It was a classic “spoiling attack.” It surprised and scattered the Confederates at the bottom of the hill and saved Little Round Top for the Union. Jeff Daniels played Chamberlain in the Civil War epics Gettysburg and Gods and Generals.

Here’s how Chamberlain described the scene at Appomattox, as the Confederate troops approached the surrender field:

Having thus formed, the brigades standing at ‘order arms,’ the head of the Confederate column, General Gordon in command, and the old ‘Stonewall’ Jackson Brigade leading, started down into the valley which lay between us, and approached our lines…

Ah, but it was a most impressive sight, a most striking picture, to see that whole army in motion to lay down the symbols of war and strife, that army which had fought for four terrible years after a fashion but infrequently known in war.

At such a time and under such conditions I thought it eminently fitting to show some token of our feeling, and I therefore instructed my subordinate officers to come to the position of ‘salute’ in the manual of arms as each body of the Confederates passed before us.

It was not a ‘present arms,’ however, not a ‘present,’ which then as now was the highest possible honor to be paid even to a president. It was the ‘carry arms,’ as it was then known, with musket held by the right hand and perpendicular to the shoulder. I may best describe it as a marching salute in review.

When General Gordon came opposite me I had the bugle blown and the entire line came to ‘attention,’ preparatory to executing this movement of the manual successively and by regiments as Gordon’s columns should pass before our front, each in turn.

The General was riding in advance of his troops, his chin drooped to his breast, downhearted and dejected in appearance almost beyond description. At the sound of that machine-like snap of arms, however, General Gordon started, caught in a moment its significance, and instantly assumed the finest attitude of a soldier. He wheeled his horse facing me, touching him gently with the spur, so that the animal slightly reared, and as he wheeled, horse and rider made one motion, the horse’s head swung down with a graceful bow, and General Gordon dropped his swordpoint to his toe in salutation.

By word of mouth General Gordon sent back orders to the rear that his own troops take the same position of the manual in the march past as did our line. That was done, and a truly imposing sight was the mutual salutation and farewell.

I suppose that, if the Naming Commission (or the modern-day U.S. Congress) had been at Appomattox that day, they would have chastised Chamberlain.  

Appomattox was the site of the beginning of a long national and cultural reconciliation. At Appomattox, the leaders on both sides, Lee and Grant, took actions that helped end the war peacefully. Lee decided to surrender his army, instead of scattering it into the Southern countryside as guerillas. Grant offered generous surrender terms. Those actions showed a spirit of reconciliation, instead of retribution. If our modern-day elected leaders are disinterested in or indifferent to reconciliation, then they have turned their back on the spirit of Appomattox, and the honorable example that Grant, Lee and thousands of honorable men set there. That should make all of us sad. And worried.

Donald Smith was raised in Richmond. His mother was born in a house not far from VMI, and family members he still has there.