Remembering the Civil War dead

Today is the 150th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Gettysburg, writes Ilya Somin on Volokh Conspiracy. As Frederick Douglass said in an 1871 speech in honor of the Union war dead, we should not forget “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….

. . . 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.

Born into slavery in Maryland, Douglass learned to read and write when it was illegal for a slave to do so.  “He made the neighborhood boys his teachers, by giving away his food in exchange for lessons in reading and writing.” He learned oratory from a schoolbook.

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  1. Up to that time the Southern States, where slavery was lawful, had been as wealthy and quite as powerful in politics as the Northern or free States. The great unoccupied territory lying to the west, which, in years to come, was sure to be filled with people and made into new States, lay, however, mostly north of 36 degrees 30 minutes; and it was easy to see that as new free States came one after the other into the Union the importance of the South must grow less and less, because there was little or no territory left out of which slave States could be made to offset them. The South therefore had been anxious to have the Missouri Compromise repealed.