I recently traveled to Murfreesboro, Tennessee—just southeast of Nashville—to visit the Stones River National Battlefield. The Union and Confederate armies clashed there over three frigid days between December 31, 1862, and January 2, 1863, producing the highest percentage of casualties of any major battle in the Civil War.
My great-great grandfather was one of those casualties. A young captain in the First Arkansas Mounted Rifles, he was shot in the leg and nearly bled to death. Remarkably, his mother—whom he had not seen since the outbreak of the war—had arranged to visit him there from her home in Kentucky and arrived on the scene just as the battle unfolded.
At some point, she ventured onto the battlefield in search of her son. Told that he had been wounded leading a valiant charge, she eventually found him clinging to life, left for dead in a freezing rain amid a host of his fallen comrades. She came to his rescue, overseeing his care in a makeshift hospital, where she slept in a corner for weeks as he recovered.
A surgeon amputated his leg and, because the Confederate Army had retreated, he became a prisoner of war. The ensuing time in a northern prison camp was so heinous that he never spoke of it after the war.
His name was William Peyton Campbell, and his mother was Sally Kincheloe Campbell. Although of course I never met them, their stories are both instructive and inspiring. Stories of courage, love, endurance, and honor that were passed down to me from my grandmother and mother.
Had he died on that battlefield—had his devoted mother not saved him—I would not be here today.
That battlefield is a sacred place to me. Captain Campbell left more than his leg there. He left a legacy.
I had walked over the battlefield on two or three previous occasions, but never in late December—almost the exact time of year that the battle took place. As if on cue, a cold drizzle began to fall as I stepped onto the hallowed grounds. The smell of petrichor accentuated the scent of the cedars, the native grass, and the woods, mystically connecting me to the souls of my ancestors.
With each passing generation, we lose a little. The stories fade, passing silently and irretrievably into the deep abyss of time.
I’ve been fortunate that my family has kept many of those stories alive. Now I’m doing my part to pass them along to another generation.
Stories matter. This is especially true as our past is being rewritten by revisionist historians with an axe to grind against the “oppressive” white people who made America. Tales of courage, grit, and valor don’t fit their negative narrative about our ancestors.
Take the story of Capt. Campbell’s mother, for instance. Upon returning home to Kentucky, the editor of the local pro-Union newspaper wrote an article about her “un-lady-like” conduct in Murfreesboro where she had lived among men in the hospital. Nothing infuriates a Southerner more than to have his or her honor impugned. My great-great-great grandmother was no exception. Incensed by the insulting invective of the Yankee newspaperman, she reportedly marched into his office and horsewhipped him. Hopefully, he learned his lesson.
That story tells me a lot about the spunk and character of the Southern women in my blood line. No shrinking violets, I assure you.
And then there’s the rest of my great-great grandfather’s story.
After several months of unspeakable misery as a prisoner-of-war, Capt. Campbell was exchanged and returned to service in the Confederate Army. He attained the rank of Major by the cessation of hostilities, then headed back to Arkansas where he had studied law before the war. His state was under martial law, though, and Confederate veterans like him were disenfranchised and barred from public service by the Federal authorities. With limited opportunities, he turned to farming, struggling with his wooden leg to plow a field behind a mule.
His county was occupied by black Federal troops, most of whom were recently emancipated slaves. It was not uncommon for the black soldiers to get drunk at night and scour the countryside seeking vengeance upon Confederate veterans. These Union soldiers imposed a state of absolute tyranny upon the land they occupied. Conditions were so bad that Major Campbell was forced to sleep in the woods for two years after the war.
Stories like that don’t make the history books, though. Not when the victors write them, at least. As a result, American students are taught an overly simplified version of the Civil War, where blacks are always the pure, innocent victims and Confederates are universally portrayed as bad guys who fought solely to defend slavery.
Confederates are now demonized. A host of statues have been removed—over ninety-eight in 2020 alone. Countless streets, schools, and military bases have been renamed. Our children are taught that Confederates were all evil, racist, white supremacists not worthy of remembering. According to their flawed logic, we’re all better off if Confederates were simply erased from history.
I’m reminded of the lines from George Orwell’s novel 1984: “Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.”
The truth is that the vast majority of Confederate soldiers—including my great-great-grandfather—were not slaveowners and were not motivated primarily to defend slavery.
In an op-ed to The Wall Street Journal in August of 2023, former Navy Secretary and Virginia Senator Jim Webb—one of the most highly decorated Marines in Vietnam—wrote in defense of the Confederate memorial at Arlington National Cemetery:
“Many soldiers in the North, and many more in the South, would have understood what John Hope Franklin (1915-2009), America’s most esteemed black historian, pointed out: In 1860 only 5% of whites in the South owned slaves, and less than 25% of whites benefited economically from slavery. An estimated 258,000 Confederate soldiers died in the war, about a third of all those who fought for the South. Few owned slaves. So why did they fight?”
Students of history have questioned the motivations of combatants on both sides of the Civil War for decades. What prompted them to take up arms? Were Southerners driven primarily by a desire to maintain slavery and racial superiority over blacks? Were Southern fears of immediate emancipation their primary concern? Or did states’ rights, decentralized power, and/or tariffs come into play? What about peer pressure or a sense of honor to defend their homeland from invasion?
On the Northern side, did millions of young men really join the Army solely to end slavery? Or were they more motivated to preserve the Union? Then again, was it simply out of a sense of adventure—the timeless quest of young men for glory–perhaps mixed with elements of honor or patriotic duty?
Unable to confront their accusers today, our Confederate ancestors are denied due process by the woke mob that has appointed itself judge, jury, and executioner. Yet truth is a stubborn thing. It endures the lies and biases of ignorance and emotion, eventually reclaiming its rightful place in our national psyche.
Why do so many wish to villainize Confederates? The so-called “progressives” seem to have an innate need to proclaim their moral superiority, which leaves me skeptical of their true motives. Beginning with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, they asserted the superiority of centralized authority in an unchecked Federal government and condemned states’ rights as a nothing more than a tool of white supremacy.
Yes, Southerners were wrong about slavery—an evil institution that they literally inherited and could not easily abolish. They had a tiger by the tail, and although many called for gradual emancipation, they resisted the radical changes demanded by distant Federal officials.
Today’s insistence by modern historians that the Confederacy fought solely to defend slavery is not only an over-simplified version of history, but it serves as a convenient cudgel to delegitimize the decentralized system of government that our Founders established through the Constitution. By claiming the moral high ground against slavery, the advocates of unfettered Federal authority can more easily ignore and dismiss any assertion of power by the states.
Not all Confederates were bad. And not all Union supporters were good. History is complicated, but it cannot be understood and taught if it is erased by the equivalent of book-burning, self-righteous ideologues hell-bent on reducing our past to a zero-sum, black-and-white synopsis.
I concluded my battlefield visit in Murfreesboro, thankful for the story of my great-great-grandfather—who went on to become clerk of the Arkansas Supreme Court—and the example that he and many other courageous men left for us to emulate. Their stories deserve to be not only remembered but honored.