A few years back we did a historical piece celebrating Fort Lauderdale’s 100th anniversary. Part of it dealt with first families and their descendants. Most of those mentioned had done pretty well, working their way up from the tough pioneer days to become, in later generations, leaders in commerce and the professions.
First among the first was the man who came to town to build a path for others. Philemon Bryan was Henry Flagler’s man in charge of building the section of the Florida East Coast Railway that reached Fort Lauderdale. We knew his family was still important in the area, and while it had little to do with his pioneering activity, the original Bryan’s background was a story of its own. He was a Civil War veteran, who went to war as a teenage drummer in a North Florida regiment. He survived a number of big battles, including Gettysburg, and was there when Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
An interesting detail was the makeup of Bryan’s outfit, the Jasper Blues. None of the men owned slaves, and some of them, including Bryan, actually admired Abraham Lincoln. So why, then, did they fight for the Confederacy? It’s a question that bears on the larger question, being discussed now as that war is 150 years old, of what the Civil War was about. Some people object to the notion that states’ rights had anything to do with a fight whose economic cause was slavery.
It is true that without slavery, there would have been no war, but it does not follow that the men who fought in it were for slavery in the South or necessarily against it in the North. Men like Bryan and his fellow combatants went to war for their neighborhoods, and the larger neighborhood was their state. There were some strange applications of such loyalty, as in case of Wesley Culp who grew up in Gettysburg and moved to Virginia as a young man just a few years before the war. But when the war came he fought for his new neighborhood, Virginia, and, in the rarest of ironies, was killed at Gettysburg at Culp’s Hill, land owned by his uncle where he played as a boy.
Those who condemn objects of the war, as the Confederate flag, as racist symbols, often forget that until the war settled the issue, the states considered themselves the foremost instruments of government. While the northern states fought to preserve the union, the southern states felt less sense of union. They did not want to be told what to do. When some in Texas talk of secession today, it is taken as a joke. But it was no joke in 1861.
As the anniversaries of the great battles are noted over the next two years, the debate over why the war was fought will continue. Those who say it was simply about slavery are right, but that does not make those who argue that men fought for states rights wrong.