I subscribe to Fold3, which has a treasure trove of digitized records from the National Archives. Just this week it announced the launch of its Honor Roll, a digital gallery that “pays tribute to millions of men and women who served our nation, from colonial days to the present.”
My first search was for a Confederate soldier from South Carolina named Thomas W. Sligh, who was killed at Gettysburg. (I’ll tell you why I chose him in a just a minute.) Sure enough, he was there.
I’m not sure what nation Fold3 is talking about, but my nation, the United States of America, is not the nation the Confederates were serving. They had their own nation, the Confederate States of America, with its own constitution and its own military. Led by South Carolina, which seceded from the Union because of its “increasing hostility…to the institution of slavery” (Declaration of Secession), the new nation of the C.S.A. enshrined “the right of property in negro slaves” in its founding document (Article 1, Section 9 ). It was this nation, with this moral mission, that the Confederate soldiers were serving.
Fold3’s inclusion of Confederates in this national compendium of “service” is self-contradictory but hardly surprising. It is the logical conclusion of an ideal of military service divorced from both history and morality. Since the Civil War, this ethic of service has become a way to separate the warrior from the war and thereby to sidestep a frank accounting of war’s moral and human costs.
One of those costs was Thomas W. Sligh, a young man from Newberry, South Carolina, who left college to sign up for military duty in April of 1861, before even the bombardment of Fort Sumter. According to a comrade of his, writing many years after the war, Sligh was a favorite with the troops, “witty, very ready, and always kind.” But he was “rather girlish in appearance, for physically he was not strong.” And so his officers, who must have liked the kid, made him an “orderly” whose duties were in the rear, away from harm. When they arrived in Gettysburg, on the threshold of a battle that they all realized could turn the tide of the war, they told him to tend to the horses, but Sligh burst into tears and pleaded with them to be allowed to join his company and go into battle. And so he did on July 2, and this witty, kind, physically slight young man, advancing bravely to defend his nation’s “right of property in negro slaves,” was cut down with his comrades in a peach orchard under a hail of bullets.
We can only imagine how this young man, who had been shunted to the rear because he wasn’t strong enough for combat, must have wanted to prove his honor, his manliness. It’s an old story, and it still continues. How did he feel as he marched into the oncoming fire? That his few moments of manliness were better than a life of kindness, of “girlishness”? But how, I wonder, did marching obediently toward certain death become manly? How did this become “service”? Service for what? For the right to enslave others you deem inferior? Is it honorable to die in the service of that privilege, the privilege to enslave and abuse other human beings? These are not the questions that Fold3’s “Roll of Honor” allows us to ask.
Just to be clear: by asking these questions I am not condemning Thomas Sligh or his fellow soldiers. My ancestors joined the Confederate army too, some whole-heartedly, some more reluctantly. These are my people. Thomas Sligh was a kind and good-hearted man who belonged to a culture that condoned both slavery and war. As a culture we have renounced slavery, but we still cling to war and cloak its ugliness in an ethic of service.
I met Thomas W. Sligh in a photograph. The celebrated photographer Timothy O’Sullivan was at Gettysburg and found three Confederate bodies in a grave their comrades had dug but didn’t have time to finish. The graves were marked with headboards hastily carved with the three initials of the names and the characters E 3, standing for the 3rd South Carolina, Company E. In O’Sullivan’s picture the headboards come into focus along with the corpses lying in the sun, filling with gas and decomposing. Sligh’s body is the one on the left, his face hidden. It’s just as well, because it would be too hard to see that face battered in death, knowing something of its beauty in life.