Railey: On Hagel, civil wars and honor

Feb. 10, 2013 @ 12:20 PM

The other day, two Vietnam vets scrapped it out over questions of war and peace. But looming over their exchange were even bigger questions about honor.

"Honor" means being ethical and honest and following your heart, roughly speaking -- because pursuing honor is a rough path.

The exchange occurred as Sen. John McCain of Arizona questioned former Sen. Chuck Hagel of North Dakota over President Obama's nomination of Hagel to be his secretary of defense. McCain and Hagel, war heroes and former friends, are old-school guys, mavericks who clearly believe in taking the path of honor, even though they obviously have sharply differing views about that path.

Southerners should be able to identify.

Many of us, at least from my white-male perspective, grew up in a culture where honor was preached. Gen. Robert E. Lee of my native Virginia was held up as the highest example of living a life of honor. Growing up, one of my favorite books was a biography of him aimed at youth, "Robert E. Lee and the Road of Honor."

I was well into adulthood before I realized that remaining true to your state and going to war against your country to, in effect, uphold slavery was something far less than honorable. I feel like some sort of traitor for just writing that sentence. Maybe that tells you how brainwashed I was.

So it's refreshing to read about a Civil War general, "the Rock of Chickamauga," who really did follow the road of honor, a man who grew up in my home county of Southampton. A fine book that came out this past spring "George Henry Thomas: As True as Steel," by Brian Steel Wills, spends several pages exploring the decision Thomas made.

I often heard growing up that his sisters turned his portrait to the wall after he chose to go with the Union. He's no hero in my homeland, although several history lovers in my county continue to study him.

People everywhere should study Thomas.

Any civil war forces people to make hard decisions that can turn them against friends and family, and ours, which was just a few long generations ago, was no different. But because Thomas was one of the country's greatest generals, his story is worth a special look. He courageously turned against all he'd ever known.

We're often told to consider people in the context of their times. But our best leaders are visionaries whose actions transcend their times.

Thomas, a one-time slave owner, went to West Point, became a career soldier and married a woman from New York. Siding with the Union didn't come easily for him. Wills quotes Gen. Grant on Thomas's decision: "It was his slowness that led to the stories that he meant to go with the South. When the war was coming, Thomas felt like a Virginian and talked like one and had all the sentiment then so prevalent about the rights of slavery and sovereign states and so on. But the more Thomas thought it over, the more he saw the crime of treason behind it all."

Thomas was no abolitionist, but he was pragmatic. He supported using black soldiers, and once wrote, "I believe in the vast majority of cases of collisions between whites and negro Soldiers that the white man has attempted to bully the negro, for it is exceedingly repugnant to the [white] Southerners to have negro Soldiers in their midst and some are so foolish as to vent their anger upon the negro because he is a Soldier."

Ultimately, Wills writes, Thomas "loved Virginia as well as any man. He cherished family connections and lifetime friends, but he loved duty more and treasured loyalty to the military oath he had taken most ... In one sense, going with Virginia would have been a simpler choice for him to make as it would have constituted the path of least resistance concerning the welcome he would have received from his would-be comrades in that cause, but his character clearly would not make it so for him. That was the essence of the man -- the core of the rock -- and remaining with the Union was the course he had set."

As hard as his decision was, he won acclaim on the battlefield.

Most of us won't garner such acclaim for our own hard decisions. But at some point in our lives, we may well face such turning points, whether it's about taking a stand on a social justice cause, speaking up for a beleaguered friend or something else. As we do so, maybe we should dust off that old word "honor" and employ it courageously, even if it leaves us in a cold and lonesome place.