The Starry Cross

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In
his first inaugural address Abraham Lincoln concluded with these
memorable words: " Though passion may have strained, it must
not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching
from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every heart and hearthstone,
all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union,
when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels
of our nature."

The
newly elected president did not know, could not know, how the decisions
that he would make, as well as those of the new Confederate government,
would take the nation to an unimaginable maelstrom of death, destruction,
and metamorphosis. But clearly, what he did understand, even standing
at the precipice, was that the only glue that could hold the country
together was the common experience, the shared travails, the respect
for the sacrifice of ancestors, the continuities between the generations,
the love and respect for one's own parents and grandparents.

The
current vitriolic and hysterical attack on the emblem that the soldiers
and civilians of the Confederacy affectionately called "the
starry cross," is nothing less than an assault at the heart
of those "mystic chords of memory." But as an anonymous
French philosopher once said, "the more things change the more
they stay the same." For long centuries British imperialism
tried to obliterate the heritage, language, and culture of the Irish.
It was a punishable crime to speak Gaelic or play the harp in 18th-century
Ireland. Some in this country will no doubt not be content until
displaying the Confederate flag in public is classified as a hate
crime punishable by stiff jail sentences or deportation to Tasmania.

No
people is perfect, not now, not ever. The generation of the 1860s
paid a terrible price in blood and treasure. What unparalled hubris
to sit in smug judgement a hundred and forty years after the fact.
Joshua Chamberlain bravely fought for the Union and abolition and
barely survived his numerous battlefield wounds. Yet, when he was
asked by Grant to receive the surrender of the defeated Confederates
at Appomattox, he ordered his proud and hardened veterans to salute
the men in gray and the flag they held. If he who bore the battle
could find it in his heart to show his respect and affection for
this tattered emblem, this "starry cross," who are we
to do less?

Lincoln
closed his second inaugural with these words, which we may do well
to reconsider at this over-heated moment of self-righteous political
correctness.

"With
malice towards none; with charity for all; with firmness in the
right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish
the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for
him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his
orphan – to do all which may achieve a just, and a lasting peace,
among ourselves, and with all nations."

Black
and white Americans have a common heritage. The generation that
lived through the crucible of secession, slavery, and war is our
common ancestry. Their sufferings, their tribulations, their grief
and their joy – all of it belongs to all of us. Today's passions
may strain, but must not break our bonds of affection. Each of us
alive today knows that we have known these bonds of affection in
our own lives. Who are those who seek to take the revered emblems
of our ancestors to distort and disgrace and degrade them – to take
these cherished cloths to be used as rags with which to smother
these bonds?

When
we no longer respect the fiery abolitionists like Harriet Beecher
Stowe and Frederick Douglass; when we no longer revere Robert E.
Lee and Stonewall Jackson, the real men, not the legends, and the
hundreds of thousands who fell at their side – when our hearts can
no longer beat with the compassion and understanding of a brave
heart like Chamberlain's, when we can no longer embrace Lincoln's
mystic chords of memory, we are no longer fit to call ourselves
free men.

May
16, 2000

Ron
Maxwell, film writer, director, and producer, is best known for
his landmark film “Gettysburg.”
Ron is currently involved in preproduction work for his next two
feature films, “Gods & Generals” and “Last Full Measure,” the prequel
and sequel to “Gettysburg,” altogether comprising an epic Civil
War Trilogy.

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