Art Callaham: Lincoln, others did right thing by doing their duty

December 08, 2012|By ART CALLAHAM

How many of you have seen the movie “Lincoln” produced and directed by Steven Spielberg? If you haven’t, make sure you do. The movie is a “tour de force” in the art of the possible and how “politics” work.

There are many points to be made in a film like “Lincoln.” Spielberg and his cast make many; however, I want to focus on one. Abraham Lincoln, just re-elected to a second term as the 16th president of the United States, wanted to back up his audacious action to “free the slaves in the States in rebellion” (the Emancipation Proclamation) by passing a landmark Constitutional Amendment — the 13th.

In its simplest terms, the 13th Amendment, if appropriately passed by Congress and ratified by three quarters of the States would free slaves throughout the nation. The Senate of the United States had earlier passed on (approved) to the House of Representatives the 13th Amendment for the house’s approval or disapproval. In January 1865 at the beginning of a “lame duck” session of Congress (lame duck sessions occur when members of either house of Congress meet with some of the members having been defeated in a previous election — those defeated, yet seated members are referred to as “lame ducks”), Lincoln needed 20 votes in the House to insure passage of the amendment.

I’ll not spoil your viewing pleasure before you go see “Lincoln.” I’ll just say Lincoln’s methods of obtaining approval votes may not pass your personal “litmus test” concerning ethical or legal standards. In the end, Lincoln did, however, what he believed was “right,” regardless of doing things “right.” The ends justified the means and the beginning of the abolishment of slavery took hold. That’s what Abraham Lincoln saw as the “right” thing to do, and as his duty to do it.

In a column almost two years ago, I used the following story as another portrayal of duty — the color bearers’ story. In December 1862, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was arrayed on the heights above the town of Fredericksburg, Va. In the history of warfare, up until that cold December day, there may never have been a more defensible position or a more capable army in the defense. On the right of the defensive line was the wing of the Confederate Army commanded by Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson, his far right was anchored on a curve in the Rappahannock River and his left was butted against a presumed impenetrable swamp.

Continuing left was the wing of the Army commanded by James “Old Pete” Longstreet. The center of Old Pete’s wing was concealed behind a long stone wall in a sunken road along Marye’s Heights. Further to the left and securing both ends of the Confederate line was the indomitable cavalry of J.E.B. Stuart. Longstreet was so confident in the Confederate position that he commented to Robert E. Lee, that even if the entire Union Army crossed the river and attacked in mass, if Longstreet had enough ammunition, no Union soldier would get within 50 yards of Longstreet’s position.

Any attack by the Union Army of the Potomac would first have to cross the Rappahannock River and then attack up hill. Yet attack they did. Fourteen color bearers were shot down, and 14 times some unnamed Union soldier picked up what amounted to a bright piece of cloth and moved the colors forward. Forward into the killing zone that was Marye’s Heights.

Longstreet’s prediction was nearly accurate; at the end of the battle only one dead Union soldier was found within 50 yards of the stone wall at the center of the Confederate line. The overall attack failed miserably. Lee, in a famous quote, said after the battle: “It is well that war is so terrible, lest we should grow too fond of it.”

But this column is not about war or about Abraham Lincoln; rather, it is about doing your duty. Why did those color bearers do what they did? Why did Lincoln violate his own principles and values to do what he did?

Was attacking, at personal peril, a well-fortified position in defense of your country the “right” thing to do? Was freeing slaves, when slavery was condoned as an appropriate human condition, the “right” thing to do?  Is doing what’s “right” your duty? 

In Washington, D.C., today and in Annapolis, for 90 days beginning in the middle of January we look for our elected officials to do what is right. I hope they will do their duty.

Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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