Civility In Spite Of Differences

I have spoken frequently about the lack of civility that exists on social media. Historically in our nation, we could have differences, yet remain civil in our discourse. We could still be friends. People also understood resolve, and rather than being viewed as hatred, it was considered to be what it was-- zeal, and conviction for a belief.

Today I want to look at some examples from a very divisive time in our history, the War Between the States. The term, Civil War, is simply ambiguous and distorts what really happened. I am not here to refight the war or take sides on why it occurred.  

My wife and I have visited the Shirley Plantation a couple of times. It is located south of Richmond on the James River, the location of some of the oldest settlements in the New World. Settled in 1613, “Shirley Hundred” was cultivated for tobacco grown there and shipped around the colonies and back to England. The plantation has the distinction of being the only plantation still owned and occupied by descendants of the original family of Edward Hill. Anne Hill Carter was born here, and at 18, she married Henry ‘Light Horse Henry” Lee in the family parlor. They later gave birth to son Robert E.

Now you see the connection to the southern states is more than just location. Imagine one morning when the women wake up to wounded and dying Union soldiers lying about the grounds and yard of the home; their men are off to war, and they’ve been left to fend for themselves and keep the plantation operating. Since many plantations and farms were burned to cut supplies from the Confederate lines, their fear of what might happen certainly was well-founded.

Their home had essentially become a field hospital for the wounded Union soldiers. Speaking amongst themselves, it was concluded that if their loved ones were to fall into the hands of Northerners, they hoped kindness and compassion would be shown to them. The ladies helped tend to the men, dressing their wounds, giving them food and water, and in some cases, writing wills and letters home for men who would not make it.

When General McClellan learned of their kindness, he made the plantation off limits to any plunder or harm.  In a letter still held by the family, he declared the plantation and its family were to be spared any damage or injury and threatened court martial to anyone who ignored the order.  A few soldiers were left to make sure the message was clear.  Perhaps they were following Proverbs 25:21-22, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;  And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; For you will heap burning coals on his head, And the LORD will reward you.…” (NASB).  

Perhaps we could learn the same lesson.

Mary Ann, “Mother,” Bickerdyke had a rough life, but history does not record her demanding pity. Born in Ohio, she moved to Galesburg, IL where she married and had two sons. Widowed two years before the war broke out, she supported herself and children as a botanical physician.

When stories of poor conditions in field hospitals reached home, the area collected $500 in supplies and selected Bickerdyke to deliver them. Little did they know what they had unleashed on the medical services!  Beginning at a military hospital in Cairo, IL, she stayed and became an unofficial nurse.  Her dedication to helping the sick and wounded and organizing hospitals caught the attention of Ulysses S Grant.  When Grant’s army moved down the Mississippi River, Bickerdyke went to help set up hospitals where needed and eventually becoming the chief of nursing.

Mary Ann understood the link between cleanliness and infection, tackling the filth that had been the norm in hospitals.  The men and their health were her concern; she cared not whether a man wore blue, gray, or brass.  There were no enemies; once in her hospital, all deserved the best care possible.  She reported drunken doctors, and once she demanded a staff member strip off clothing that was intended for patients. She did not care whose toes she stepped on, and was always ready to fight for her boys.

General Sherman was especially fond of Mother Bickerdyke. Once, when a staff member complained about a female nurse who ignored typical red tape and military procedures, Sherman responded, “Well, I can do nothing for you; she outranks me.” On another occasion, a doctor questioned who had authorized her actions to which Mary Ann replied, “On the authority of Lord God Almighty, have you anything that outranks that?”

Mary Ann Bickerdyke saw a need and just got busy. Perhaps we should do more of what Mary did, and less posting on Facebook, accomplishing little beyond complaining to each other.

This was a time of deep division in our nation, but civility existed, despite the differences. These are just two small stories of what must certainly be hundreds or thousands of examples. In spite of the divisions driven by the leadership of our Republic, we do not have to descend into the depths of the chaos.

We have become tribal, seeking out those who verify our views and give us credibility. Because we all think the same, we pat each other on the back and feed off each other’s anger. Today, social media makes is easier to live in an echo chamber. This response serves the interest of those who seek power. We have become sheep.

The people I highlighted above, were not sheep. They were sheepdogs. They did not devolve into “group think,” but they looked into their souls and the virtues upon which this nation was founded. They became “Good Samaritans.” 

We cannot change the direction of the nation until we change the direction of our own lives. How can we expect our leaders to return to founding principles when we ourselves will not?


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Written by Michael Murphy The Voice of Reason

The Voice of Reason

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