The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and are not indicative of any official positions of Better Angels or The Conversation.
This Piece is part of a symposium. The other two parts can be found at the links below.
Growing up in New Jersey, the Civil War usually wasn’t a major presence in my conception of the history around me. The Revolutionary War certainly was. I’d been to reenactments of George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River and the Battle of Monmouth, and I’ve visited Jockey Hollow, the location of one of Washington’s army’s winter encampments. But apart from a visit to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the Civil War was generally pretty distant, something to immerse yourself in at the public library (if you were as big a history nerd as I’ve always been) rather than on the sites of the battles.
This changed when I moved to Virginia a few years ago. Even though I live in Northern Virginia, a region so politically and culturally blue it sometimes feels like an extension of the Northeast, I am always aware that I live in the former Confederacy. The fact that my state’s capital was once the Confederate capital is often in the back of my mind when I read about state-level political debates, particularly those related to race. And when protestor Heather Heyer was murdered in Charlottesville by a white supremacist two years ago, at a far-right rally organized partly in opposition to the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee at the University of Virginia, it brought home the fact that my adopted state, and my country, are not yet out of the shadow of the Confederacy and the horrors it stood for.
I can understand the old desire to reintegrate the South into the American nation, not only politically and legally but culturally and spiritually as well. In theory, monuments honoring Confederate soldiers for their courage if not for their cause could help achieve that, giving Northerners and Southerners alike the chance to look at their ancestors and see they had bravery and fighting spirit in common. But putting those soldiers, in uniform, on pedestals is a terrible way to attempt national reconciliation. It glorifies the secession, and by extension the defense of slavery, not the reintegration.
The argument that slavery would have withered away without a federal law to abolish it is dubious. The industrialization of the North showed that an economic and political model very different from Southern plantations could thrive, and showed what freedom could do for people. But industry and technology also worked to perpetuate slavery. The invention of the cotton gin in the late 18th century was key to cotton becoming a major Southern crop. Industrialization by itself was agnostic on slavery – it took political will, the power of the Federal government and the strength of the people of the Northern states, to bring the institution to an end.
While many Founding Fathers and other advocates of American independence were of course slave-owners, and while it was certainly hypocritical for them to call for liberty while holding other human beings in bondage, the American Revolution always contained within it the chances for redemption. Even though Thomas Jefferson was waited on hand and foot by slaves while he wrote “all men are created equal,” the mere fact that those words featured prominently in America’s first founding document meant that the young country could always improve itself, could always move closer to a reality in which everyone was truly treated equally. Leaving the union and preserving slavery went in the opposite direction, the direction of keeping America stuck in its hypocrisy rather than shedding it. (And how many Americans today would favor putting up statues of the Loyalist soldiers who fought to keep the original thirteen states British colonies?)
Abraham Lincoln proclaimed publicly that he was fighting only to preserve the union, but behind the scenes he had additional priorities. Between his election and his inauguration, as South Carolina was about to become the first state to secede, Lincoln wrote to members of Congress from Illinois, urging them to oppose the Crittenden compromise, a last-ditch attempt to keep the Union intact. During the war, his public proclamations about putting the union first were politically necessary to keep the Border States, those where slavery was legal but that had not seceded, in the union. The sixteenth president was determined to both keep America united and rid it of slavery–something he had proclaimed as his goal in 1858, when he famously declared, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
It is not only Confederate apologists who have speculated that secession was not such a bad thing. More than a few modern progressives, angry with the disproportionate conservatism of the former Confederacy, have thrown up their hands in frustration and, rather than marshaling respectful arguments to try and win Southerners over to the progressive side, have proclaimed that the South should have been allowed to leave. Had the free states gone their own way, they theorize, the North would have formed its own, presumably much more enlightened and forward-thinking country, no longer weighed down by the reactionary South.
Michael Lind, a native Texan, political commentator, and prolific writer about American political history, exposes the flaws of such thinking. In a pair of essays a few years ago, he laid out very plausible scenarios in which the Confederate States annexed Mexico, Central America, and the islands of the Caribbean, spreading slavery with them (an ambition many Southern politicians did in fact have), while Northern industrialists and Southern aristocrats alike remained hostile to workers’ rights and were happy to play poor and working-class blacks and whites against each other (again, as actually happened.)
In other words, a separate South would not have turned the North into a progressive paradise.
How a country remembers its war dead is sometimes a difficult subject, especially when the war in question was and remains an unpleasant topic of conversation. Most Americans today would probably agree that the Vietnam War was a tragic mistake. As much as we rightly respect the Americans who fought bravely in Southeast Asia, and mourn the more than 58,000 who died, most of us don’t believe it was worth sacrificing their lives to keep one small country on the other side of the world, far from regions of geopolitical importance to the U.S., from being overrun by communists. Even if you don’t believe, as some on the left do, that the American presence was part of a wicked colonial endeavor–I certainly don’t share that view–you would probably not see much point in glorifying the conflict.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington does not depict the soldiers or their mission gloriously. A simple wall, bearing the names of the dead, acknowledges the tragedy of the war they fought, even as it honors their courage and sacrifice. Glorification, on the other hand, is what happens when Americans put up Confederate monuments. They portray Confederate soldiers not as the tragic victims of a horrible cause they were, but as heroes. Bravery under fire does not a hero make–it is certainly possible to be brave in the service of a terrible cause. They say nothing about why the Confederacy was created, the cancer of slavery that had to be excised from the American body politic if the nation was going to survive as a free country.
To be sure, the arrogance of many Northern progressives does not help to resolve the debate. Far too many on the left, especially highly educated people from affluent backgrounds living in major metro areas in the Northeast and on the West Coast, look down on the South, and not only out of disgust with slavery and segregation. It is far too easy for the denizens of big urban areas, with high-paying jobs and expensive advanced degrees, to view the heavily rural South with disdain. All this does, of course, is to make a bad situation worse.
There is a striking parallel between the highhanded attitudes of some elite progressives today and those of some Northern elites during the Civil War. The draft riots of 1863 were a good exhibition of the tensions between well-off progressives standing for a good cause without much willingness to sacrifice for it. When the Civil War began, many working class Northerners were happy to enlist in the Army, especially when the cause was to preserve the Union. This was especially true for Irish Catholics, many of whom were keen to prove their patriotism at a time when Anglo-Saxon Protestants were frequently suspicious of them. After the Emancipation Proclamation, however, as the anti-slavery side of the Union cause became more prominent, many low-income whites feared competition for jobs with liberated slaves moving north, and resented being compelled to fight in a war that might help bring that about.
The worst part of the Northern draft was that it allowed a draftee to pay $300 to find a replacement to fight in his place. This was a sum only the rich could afford. Had the draft not included this loophole, had the rich men who cheered for abolition also been compelled to put on blue uniforms and take up rifles to help bring about their professed aim, the draft riots might have been avoided, or at least lessened in their severity–and the union would have been more strongly united.
By taking down Confederate monuments, Southerners who chafe under the snobbery of upper class Northerners have an opportunity to show those pretentious Yankees what patriotism looks like. Isn’t one of the most common complaints about blue elites by people on the red side that they are unpatriotic, that they don’t believe in America, the country that’s given them so much? By ceasing to praise the cause that nearly destroyed the United States, and by ceasing to praise the soldiers for the fact they fought for said cause (while still respecting their bravery in their minds,) Southerners can set a good example for Northerners, incentivizing them to be more respectful of their fellow Americans.
A good example of how to honor a Confederate veteran without honoring the Confederate cause came near the end of the 19th century. After serving as a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army, Albert Pike became one of the most prominent Freemasons in the United States. He has always been a controversial figure in discussions of Freemasonry, in part because of his service of the Confederate cause. After Pike’s death, Freemasons in Washington, DC, lobbied Congress for land to use for a statue of him in the city.
When the plan for the statue was announced, many Union Army veterans objected. Why, they argued, should a man who led troops who killed U.S. soldiers be given a place of honor in the nation’s capital? The veterans’ objections were assuaged, however, when the Freemasons assured them that Pike would be depicted in civilian clothes, not his Confederate uniform. Although the statue is officially titled Brigadier General Albert Pike, and although the statue’s base lists him as a Soldier (as well as Author, Jurist, Orator, Philanthropist, Philosopher, Poet and Scholar), looking at it you do not get the impression that his Confederate service is what the Freemasons wanted to emphasize.
There is a story that could be the basis for another good way to honor a prominent Confederate for his actions off the battlefield. Shortly after the war, Robert E. Lee was attending mass at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. When it came time for communion, a black man walked up to the front of the church to receive the sacrament, horrifying many of the white congregants. But while many were shocked, Lee calmly stood, walked gracefully up to the communion rail himself, and knelt beside the black man.
The significance of this story is disputed. While many interpret Lee’s action as that of a man reconciled to a new way of life (one that of course did not materialize in Lee’s lifetime,) some observers see Lee’s calmness during a tense moment as a way of shrugging off the challenge to social hierarchy, as considering the other man so insignificant as to not merit his attention. Either way, it would be great to see a monument depicting the two men, divided by race and class but united by faith and citizenship, kneeling in prayer before the same God (regardless of whether they shared a common interpretation of that God’s will.)
Stanley McChrystal, a retired Army four-star general who is now a leading promoter of national service as a way to help unify a divided America, put it best when explaining why he got rid of a portrait of Lee he had owned for decades. He did this even though the portrait was a gift from his wife. Although, as a young officer, he had been trained to revere the old general’s courage, tactical brilliance, and stoic demeanor under pressure, ultimately he could not allow these characteristics equal weight with the cause for which Lee took up arms against his country. Honoring the Confederate commander was anathema to McChrystal’s rejection of any notion that the Confederacy was a cause worth fighting for.
The wounds left by slavery, secession and segregation are very unlikely to completely heal in our lifetimes. It is true that I do not know what it is like to have Confederate ancestors, to feel strongly the desire for your forebears to not be thought of as terrible people. On the other hand, I also do not know what it is like to be black in America, to be frustrated by the continued presence of monuments to the cause of brutalizing your ancestors.
What I do know is that I am an American who fears for his country, who worries that glorification of the Confederacy is an obstacle in the way of reuniting a deeply divided nation. For the sake of a basic level of national unity, for the sake of a political and cultural climate in which Americans from different regions and backgrounds unite around their Americanness more than they cling to sectional animosities, Confederate monuments must come down.