by Barbara Joy Cooley
This past Spring, I had the honor and pleasure of getting to know my great-great-grandfather, William McAdams, as I studied and transcribed letters that he wrote while in the Union Army during the Civil War.
I frequently wonder what he’d think of things the way they are now: how much farming has changed since his days, how big our cities have become, how quickly and easily we travel. Except for his 3 and a half years in the Army, he stayed at home or nearby. Home was a busy, multifaceted, yet simple farm on the prairie of central Illinois, near a town called Kansas.
I know that he would be perplexed, to say the least, to know that monuments to Confederate officers stand in places of honor in many public squares, and that schools and military bases are named for Confederate generals. Throughout his letters, he referred to the enemy as “rebels,” “Secessionists,” and “Secesh.” He considered them to be treasonous traitors.
He and several of his neighbors volunteered to serve in the Union Army because they believed they must fight to preserve the Union – to preserve democracy. They enlisted together in August 1861. Miraculously, almost all of them survived, but the personal and economic cost to each of them was great.
In October 1863, upon learning that he was missed at church, he wrote, “I am glad to know that my classmates still remember me at a throne of Grace as well as others who went to fight for the maintenance of the Union. May God bless them and answer their petitions in our behalf and when our trials and battles are o’er may we have a better Union than before and may they who survive the struggle and generations yet unborn enjoy the blessings of civil and religious liberty.”
There was no doubt about it; the cause for which he sacrificed so much was the preservation of the Union. He fought for “generations yet unborn,” meaning that he fought for us.
President Lincoln believed that no state had the right to secession. In his inaugural address in March 1861, the President said, “I hold that, in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the union of these States is perpetual….It follows….that no State, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union; that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void; and that acts of violence, within any State or States, against the authority of the United States, are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances. I, therefore, consider that, in view of the Constitution and the laws, the Union is unbroken.”(1)
In 1860, the United States was the only democracy in the world. Lincoln firmly believed that it must be preserved so that there would be hope for the entire world – hope that democracy was possible. The rest of the world was ruled by monarchs, dictators, and other kinds of authoritarians.
When the President addressed Congress in 1862, he said, “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history . . . We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”(2)
The long and deadly Civil War dragged on. In Georgia in May 1864, when he’d been away from his farm and family far longer than he ever imagined, my great-great grandfather wrote, “May success attend our arms until not an armed rebel will be left to attempt the severing of the Union and may the grace of God be sufficient for us in every trying hour.”
No, he would not have understood the honoring of the Confederate cause at all. He would be aghast to learn that I live in a county named for General Lee.