You hear it all the time. You hear it here, in an article detailing Florida’s commemoration of secession; you hear it here, in the words of a Gilbert, Arizona middle school teacher who is a member of the UDC; you hear it here, where I went to college; indeed, you hear it frequently, and odds are you will hear it a great deal over the next four years … some variation of “each side fought for what they believed in” or “they fought for what they believed in,” and so on.
What exactly is that supposed to mean?
After all, doesn’t this beg the question, “And what did they believe in?”
If you think about it, we do not always accept this formulation of honoring combatants of both sides simply for fighting what they believed in. Just to cite a few examples would be enough to create outrage, but we don’t use it for World War Two or events over the last decade. We don’t even use it when we talk about the American Revolution or the Mexican-American War. We don’t say that just because you fought for what you believed in makes everything okay. We know of people who fought for what they believed in, and we find what they believed in to be wrong, even evil. Moreover, in many cases, for those of us with ancestors who fought in the Civil War (recall my family contains descendants from both sides), we don’t really know what our actual (as opposed to imagined) ancestors believed or why they fought. Moreover, does this phrasing mean that we should not honor ancestors who had little to no choice in the matter (this would include the vast majority of enslaved blacks forced into Confederate service, as well as conscripts and bounty-hunters)? Would you refuse to honor the service of an American soldier simply because that soldier was drafted?
In short, this formulation, which I believe is a way for people to avoid discussing certain issues that might prove divisive or unpleasant to consider, is in fact extremely problematic. I’m not sure what people who use it believe in or believe, period. But for people who claim they are interested in studying and understanding the past, this particular phrasing is one way to go about avoiding doing just that.