They were heroes. Battling against incredible odds. Enduring unimaginable hardships. Standing witness to unspeakable horrors. And yet fighting on with courage and conviction.
They were traitors. Involved in armed rebellion aimed at destroying the United States of America. Renouncing their faith in the American Constitution, the American government and the American ideal of union.
They were moral giants. Not only espousing but living up to a code of honor that took glory in sacrifice over self, in duty to others over individual safety or gain, in working to find and honor God's will.
They were moral pygmies. Defending one of the most reprehensible renunciations of humanity in history -- the forced subjugation of millions of black men, women, and children in the cruel shackles of slavery.
Never miss a local story.
They were, for those of us born in the states stretching from Texas to Virginia, our ancestors. And more than 140 years after the Civil War's end, we are still torn between celebrating and being ashamed of that part of our heritage. Here in the Carolina foothills of the Blue Ridge, this dichotomy is especially evident. Slaveholders were few here, even scarcer to the west. Many residents were ambivalent toward both sides, others openly supported the Union.
My own great-grandfather, William Henry Mace, for whom I am named, was a poor farmer extracting a meager living from the rocky soil of the South Mountains when the Civil War began.
Although he never owned a slave, he enlisted with the Confederate forces and served for the entire war. He was wounded in Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, and he was later captured and placed in a Union prison camp.
A more famous cousin, Mark Edward Poteat, was only 16 when the war began. His family owned no slaves, but he, his father and his brother all enlisted in the same regiment. The father, Alberto Poteat, was mortally wounded at Antietam.
Mark returned to the foothills after Lee's surrender at Appomattox, walking the more than 300 miles home, surviving to reach the age of 100 and claiming the title of Burke County's oldest living Confederate veteran.
It was with this heritage in mind that I journeyed to Virginia earlier this month, seeking out some of the sites most dear to my Confederate legacy. In Lexington, I stood before the tomb of the Lee family and was reminded of how Robert E. Lee had spent his last years not as a soldier, but as an educator, devoting his talents and his energies to rebuilding Washington College.
Later, I walked up a hill to the burial place of Stonewall Jackson, perhaps the South's most fearsome warrior but also a man who had broken the law by teaching young black children to read.
In Richmond, I stopped at each shrine on Monument Avenue, gazing up at the towering statues of not only Lee and Jackson, but also of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General J.E.B. Stuart as well.
At each site and at each stop, I attempted to learn more about America's most bloody conflict and about the character of the men whose courage and military skill led the Southern forces to triumph time after time in the face of superior manpower and resources.
Yet the truth is that no museum, no battlefield can give answer to that most basic of questions – should I be proud of all those, including my own relatives, who fought for the Confederacy? Or should I be ashamed?
Perhaps if history offers an answer to me, it comes in the life of my own great-grandfather, William Henry Mace. After the war he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent out west, where he served with honor and distinction.
In 1861, he had believed his duty was to his state – just as had millions of other Southern men, great and small. He fulfilled that duty with courage and with honor.
In 1865, with his state defeated and the world forever changed, he believed his duty was to the reborn Union, and he proudly fulfilled that obligation as well.
Today, 143 years later, I take pride in both of those decisions.