Holmes had definite moral views, but his sensibilities about war required magnanimity toward enemies, which included admiration for their bravery, the purity of their motives, and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for a cause. There was, moreover, a brotherhood of sorts among veterans, for they shared a common experience of walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
The great age of Civil War commemoration came as men like Holmes aged. In that time, Romanticism made lost causes into things of beauty. Isaiah Berlin has this to say about the Romantics: “You would have found that they believed that minorities were more holy than majorities, that failure was nobler than success, which had something shoddy and something vulgar about it.” We look upon the Southern cause with moral horror, for its purpose was to preserve slavery. A Romantic can be anti-slavery, but to him the “lost cause” is sublime, tragic, and heartbreaking, which is why the Alamo was not memorialized as a shameful defeat. We fail in our responsibility to history when we do not permit ourselves to see Civil War memorials from a Romantic point of view, and when we fail to recognize the phrase “lost cause” as a shorthand for a morally complex, tragic understanding of the South’s defeat.
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