THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA
What if I told you that I wanted to erect a statue in a park for a man who was responsible for the deaths of, say, hundreds of American soldiers? Directly responsible, as in it was his goal, his job, to kill American soldiers. Would you let me put such a statue up?
What if I told you that said man was fighting to defend a brutal system of forced labor, exploitation and systematic rape? Would you support me in putting up such a thing?
Now, what if I told you that there are statues all around the country, parks, even towns and counties, dedicated to the honor of terrorists who killed not hundreds of American soldiers, not thousands or tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands, let alone uncounted civilians? You would be shocked, offended, demanding that such monuments be destroyed. After all, what kind of nation erects monuments to those dedicated to the destruction of that nation and that nation’s principles?
The answer is a nation that is deluded, through various means of deception and propaganda that the terrorists in question were really heroic and admirable figures. This would have to be some special kind of delusion.
Indeed, it was. Shortly after the Civil War, in the face of incomprehensible destruction and what, to Southerners, appeared to be northern colonization of their home and bastardization of their culture, Southern whites embraced a paradigm that helped them make sense of their upturned lives. This paradigm emphasized the beauty of their land (and it is beautiful) as well as their culture. It lionized those who fought and died to protect this land and this culture as heroes. Furthermore, it downplayed the severity of slavery and dehumanized the victims of the Peculiar Institution. Class based exploitation was also ignored. The Romantic Pastoral of the Ante Bellum South was one in which everyone thrived, including “the negroes.” Everyone knew their place and happily accepted their lot.
This Myth of the Lost Cause was advanced by popular journalist and historian Edward A. Pollard in his history The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates. His retelling of history became popular in the South and advanced by societies founded with the intent of preserving Southern heritage. The Lost Cause was a common theme in some of William Faulkner’s most enduring novels. At the same time, alternative voices were suppressed, not just in the South, but throughout the nation. Primarily, voices from African-American traditions were largely silenced everywhere but in black communities. It was in this tradition that monuments to terrorists were erected in communities throughout the Southern states.
In the twentieth century, the Lost Cause Myth was perpetuated in mass media, most notably in motion pictures like D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Victor Flemings adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Gone With the Wind, but also countless other entertainment media. The Myth of the Lost Cause even filtered into how we learn about the Civil War. The popular American history text, American Pageant, for instance, described General Robert E. Lee in heroic terms. “[Lee’s] knightly bearing and chivalric sense of honor embodied the Southern ideal.” The text goes on to explain that, though he was offered command of the northern armies, “Lee felt honor-bound to go with his native state.”ADDENDUM
Really? He felt honor bound? It had nothing to do with Lee’s thousand acre plantation in northern Virginia, Arlington House, replete with slaves.¹ Little is said about Lee’s vested interests. Instead, history defers to his loyalty to his home state of Virginia. Indeed, there is a significant argument to be made about this quality. Lee expressed his sentiment for his home state to a friend, “If Virginia stands by the old Union, so will I. But if she secedes (though I do not believe in secession as a constitutional right, nor that there is sufficient cause for revolution), then I will follow my native State with my sword, and, if need be, with my life.” That might have been something he should have included on his West Point application. Upon graduation from West Point, Lee took the following solemn oath.
I, Robert Edward Lee, do solemnly swear to bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them² honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whomsoever, and to observe and obey the orders of the president of the United States of America, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the articles of war.
This so-called great man took an oath of allegiance to all of the “United” States and made his living on the payroll of the taxpayers from all of these states. He did not take such an oath for the Commonwealth of Virginia. In 1862, after Southern terrorists attacked American soldiers who were doing their duty at Fort Sumter, President Lincoln turned to his most capable commander, Colonel Lee, and offered him command of the Union forces. The President of the United States, to whom Lee was bound by oath to obey, asked him to do nothing short of saving the very nation he was sworn to protect–and Robert E. Lee said no. Instead, he joined the terrorists and turned his back on his president, on his comrades in arms, on his country and on his oath. What part of the presumably proud Southern heritage does this action satisfy?
Now if this were a case of making a difficult moral decision in the face of an ethical dilemma, perhaps his choice to betray his country could be debated in more nuanced terms. If Lincoln really were a tyrant dedicated to destroying the Constitution, as Southern propaganda argued at the time, perhaps an argument could be made in support of Lee’s heroism. The history on this, however, does not support any such claim. Once one gets past the Lost Cause Mythology and fallacious “states’ rights” apologia offered by Southern sympathizers as the “real reason the South seceded,” the sinister goals of the plantation class come into sharp focus. The states were seceding to preserve slavery, an institution which Lee himself understood to be “…a moral & political evil in any Country…” (just less evil for black people for whom Lee continued in the same letter “The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race…”). This was not analogous to the American Revolution in which Lee’s father put his life on the line to fight against a growing police state.
Ironically, Lee’s actions on the battlefield had the ultimate effect of hastening the end of slavery. In June of 1862, the newly appointed Confederate General Lee forced General George B. McClellan to abandon his Peninsula Campaign.³ In doing so, he guaranteed that the American Civil War would be a long, bloody contest. Lincoln, who had spent his entire campaign, transition and early presidency trying to reassure Southern states that he had no intention of threatening slavery where it already existed, could now build a case for ending the institution he hated. Six months later, the President took the first step, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.
According to The American Pageant, “If McClellan had succeeded in taking Richmond and ending the war in mid-1862, the Union would probably have been restored with minimal disruption to the ‘peculiar institution.’ Slavery would have survived, at least for a time.” Robert E. Lee thus dedicated the rest of his career to severing the very nation that his own father and fought to create. In the process, over 300,000 men wearing the uniforms of the United States military were killed, countless more mutilated and maimed.
Yet, all over the country, we see monuments to those who, under any other conceivable context, would be defined as traitors, criminals or, in our modern parlance, terrorists. In the meantime, millions of Americans who must daily struggle against the vestigial structures of slavery and Jim Crow are forced to do so in the shadow of monuments to their oppressors. This is a constant reminder that, if you are black, America is not really your country and never will be regardless of dedication and sacrifice.
Once upon a time, there may have been a functional argument for allowing monuments to be erected commemorating the deplorable. The nation had undergone an unusual and awesomely destructive crisis that literally left a segment of the nation in ruins and their culture destroyed. The nation’s institutions were tasked with the near impossible, healing the debilitating wounds resulting from the nation’s first modern, industrial war. In the face of destruction the likes of which had never been seen on the continent, how does one recover? Nobody could answer this question. Turning a blind eye to the simple erection of monuments to local heroes may have allowed just enough release to take the heat off of boiling animosities.
This is no longer true in America. Some distinctions shaped by regional differences in culture and political-economy remain, as is always the case with such a large country. Our overall national identity, however, is secure. That citizen in southern Louisiana may be flying a Confederate Battle Flag over his house, but he still considers himself an American and will contest any attempt to discredit his patriotism. The fractures that exist today are mostly socioeconomic and ethnic with some lines that may be drawn based on urban and rural boundaries.
It could be argued that, upon the close of Reconstruction, we shut our eyes to racial and ethnic divides in order to focus on healing our regional differences, to make “The United States of America” a singular noun rather than a plural. However, there’s only so long one can remain numb to festering wounds before no balm can soothe. We are long since past the point where we must address the racial inequities that burden us. Removing the antiquated artifacts commemorating the benefactors and defenders of our nation’s most grievous crimes is just one small step in bringing relief to history’s victims.
- It’s fair to note that Lee, himself, never owned slaves. This was not a moral decision, but rather a matter of circumstance. His father, Gen. Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee was a Revolutionary War hero who owned slaves but lost his properties to pay a multitude of debt. Lighthorse Harry died propertyless. The slaves at Arlington belonged to Lee’s father-in-law, George Washington Custis, Martha Washington’s grandson. When Custis died in 1857, Lee was appointed the executor of his estates. Among Lee’s responsibilities as executor was the emancipation of Custis’ slaves. Lee did not, however, emancipate the slaves right away. Instead, he found a loophole in the will through which he could delay emancipation for five years while the slaves were rented out to pay off the estate’s debts. The slaves were outraged by this and rebelled, requiring Lee to raise a posse to put down the striking slaves. Lee did not fulfill the obligation to emancipate until December of 1862. By that time, Arlington was occupied by Union forces.
- Notice the plural
- Almost 17,000 American soldiers were killed or wounded at the command of Southern terrorists like Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, J. E. B. Stuart, and Joseph Johnston. Almost 28,000 confederate terrorists were killed and wounded in the process.
September 11, 2021: Referenced in an editorial by Dana Milbank, historian Ty Seidule points out that “…Lee was one of eight U.S. Army colonels from Virginia at the time of secession in 1861. The other seven remained loyal to the United States — as did Virginian Winfield Scott, the U.S. Army’s commander, and 80 percent of all colonels from the South.” Seidule observes that what may have set Lee as the outlier in this category was that, “no one benefited from slavery more than he did.”