Patriots and People

Patriots and People

by D. H. Rule

The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere. –Thomas Jefferson,  1787.

Were the Confederates patriots? Yes, in the finest tradition of American history—that of rebellion. This country was born of rebellion and a rebellious attitude keeps it strong. “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” one of our nation’s fathers said. That same man was also the author of one of the most seditious documents ever written, the Declaration of Independence.

When I started studying and researching the Civil War I began with the Confederate side because it’s the side we don’t hear as much about. The winners write the history and the shape of the nation we live in is the result of the Union victory. And, quite frankly, I find the Rebels more interesting. They took the greater chance; faced the greater odds; risked more both personally and collectively. Every single one of them, the leaders in particular, faced the very real chance of being executed for treason if they lost. At the war’s end the Missouri Confederate soldiers fully expected that they’d never be allowed to return home.

While I’ve found admirable people on both sides, I’ve also found fanatics and extremists on both sides. Atrocities were committed by Union people and Confederate. No one wins any prizes for having ultimate nobility.

The Missouri Confederates I’ve been researching cover the range of virtues and faults, with both noble deeds and wicked. For a while they were, to me, distant and remote historical figures, almost like fictional characters whose stories I was constructing and reconstructing. Then one day I went to to take some pictures for the upcoming book on Gratiot Street Prison.

On a rainy day in St. Louis, Missouri, after battling traffic and poorly marked historic sites, I came to the National Cemetery at Jefferson Barracks. There I diligently followed my map and instructions to find the graves I had come to seek out. I had my cameras and tripod, my notebook and guidebook. I’d done my research and only needed to take a few photos. By the numbers on the gravestones I searched for number 4601 among the pointed-topped Confederate graves.

I found it. I read the name on it. Stephen R. Smith. I knew his story, had read several different accounts of his death. But to me he was, essentially, a character in a book. Then I glanced at the tombstone next to his. And I knew that name too. And that of the next one, and the next, and the next. I knew the names, and I knew their stories. I’d helped a descendant find information on one. I’d read the letter one fellow had written to his wife the night before he was shot in retaliation for someone else’s atrocity, so becoming part of yet another atrocity.

There were so many of them. Row upon row stretching out through the rain at this lonely patch of ground. As I stood there, no longer thinking about taking pictures, they quit being characters in a book and became people—real people who lived and died, usually far too young and often in terrible ways. There were so many stones stretching out in endless rows. Some had rounded tops—Union—and some had peaked tops—Confederate. It didn’t matter. They’d joined a fellowship of Americans who died for their country. They were all Americans and their lives, and deaths, shaped the nation in which we live today. They need to be remembered.