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.
In the hazy early days of my college blog, I wandered into an off-the-beaten-path Civil War museum, was dumbstruck as a 19-year-old amateur by what I saw there, and proceeded to publish an overly loquacious, insufficiently thoughtful, historically misinformed dispatch that will probably come back to haunt me sooner or later. I had seen, at the White Oak Civil War Museum, some black-and-white photos and newspaper clippings of that strangest of phenomena of the year 1865—the black regiments mustered, equipped, and trained by the Confederate States of America. My excreted jumble of words dripped in reverence for the sacredness of the cause that so many free blacks living in the South apparently were ready to give their lives for, which somehow suggested to my 19-year-old mind that the Civil War was therefore not accurately remembered as a contest over slavery.
WordPress says a paper called the Ontario Herald cited and hyperlinked the piece (which really tells you something about the standards of journalism these days) so I’ve unfortunately been unable to erase it quietly from the digital record without a trace. That is unfortunate, because a spat of Confederacy-related events since 2013—the hauling-down of the Confederate battle flag over the South Carolina statehouse in 2015, the violent Unite the Right rally over the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville in 2017, and a general increase in controversies surrounding Confederate memorabilia more broadly—seems to have driven the wrong kinds of traffic to my now-defunct blog. I shudder to imagine what kinds of forums it’s surfaced in.
I’m not primarily embarrassed that someone somewhere will probably call me racist someday upon finding that piece, though. I’m embarrassed that my argument, or what passed for it, was so facile a concession to the Lost Cause narrative of the Confederacy, taking at face-value the notion that the southern states seceded merely or primarily over differences in constitutional interpretation with their northern brethren, consciously downplaying the abysmal historical reality of slavery.
So let me set some things straight.
On black Confederate soldiers. Yes, it is true that there were black Confederate soldiers drilling on the streets of Richmond by the Spring of 1865. Facing manpower shortages, the Confederate Congress had authorized the raising of these regiments, which I understand were mostly manned by slaves who had been promised freedom for their service. They were also primarily, as I understand from the sources I’ve read, meant for reserve and garrison duties, rather than to be front-line combat units. Finally, and importantly, there was significant disagreement within the Confederacy as to whether to employ black slaves and freedmen for service, as that would imply a certain level of equality of citizenship between the races which the Confederacy could not accept without also getting on the path of the abolition of chattel slavery, its founding lifeblood.
Why these few hundred black Confederate soldiers enlisted, I don’t know, as I haven’t studied the issue deeply enough to have come across their personal journals and letters. I’d assume they were complex and varied, as anyone joining any armed force at any time can tell you of themselves and their comrades. But it is now clear to me now, in a way that wasn’t clear to gushy 19-year-old me, that black men enlisting in the Confederate army were not necessarily ideologically infatuated with states’ rights, and their enlistments do not meaningfully complicate the fundamental moral quandary of the Civil War.
On the cause and moral quandary of the Civil War. The fundamental overarching moral-political questions of the Civil War were, in Daniel Webster’s memorable antebellum words, “Liberty and Union…” The questions over which Americans propelled themselves to disunion were essentially about the extension and perpetuation vs. the limitation and abolition of slavery; the questions over which 600,000 Americans died within four years were eventually about slavery, but first and primarily about whether the United States was an indissoluble union, or a contractual federation. The fact that America was still a quite regionalized society, with distinct cultures, economies, and elites in the West, Northeast, and South further provided factional fault lines.
Additionally, a number of historical factors—most importantly the incredibly strong attachments Americans of the mid-19th Century had for their home states and home counties, both North and South, and the proliferation in the 1850s of radical ideological groups like the slavery-expansionist Knights of the Golden Circle and John Brown’s violently abolitionist followers—added further moral dramas to the already intractable crisis brewing by the 1850s.
If it is accepted that many Confederates saw themselves as direct heirs of the American Revolution—rebels fighting for liberty, for self-determination, for natural rights as they saw them against a tyrannical monarchy, and there is much evidence they conceived themselves this way—then I think it is only fair to compare the great mass of non-abolitionist Unionists to the old Federalists, who believed American liberty must be preserved in a continent-embracing union with an active government, whose occasional rebellions (in the founding era, Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion were the worst) must be crushed overwhelmingly.
But it need not be accepted, as 19-year-old me so enthusiastically did, that the complicated moral-political-historical nature of the Civil War revolved around the relative unimportance of slavery. Instead, the fact of southern slavery made all other divisions worse than they already were, and thus pervades and makes tragic a richly complicated and otherwise Homeric historical epic.
Now that I’ve repented to some degree of a horrendous error of judgment and interpretation six years in my past, it is time I counsel my countrymen on how to repent of the horrendous error one-hundred and fifty-four years in our collective past: how we commemorate and remember the Confederate cause and the Confederacy’s war dead.
In recent years, it’s been pointed out that the vast majority of monuments to the Confederacy were only put up between the 1890s and 1910s—many decades after the Civil War, during an age of increased Ku Klux Klan activity and renewed segregation laws. This is true, though it’s also true that many Confederate veterans were dying of old age around this time, and in America there’s typically a multi-decade lag between the conclusion of a war and the erection of monuments to its soldiers. (Note that many of the monuments to Union generals in Washington D.C., for example, were not erected until the early decades of the 20th Century.) So although the Confederate memorials are not simply monuments to southern valor—they are and must be tied up with the politics of the Confederacy—it is also too simple to say that they are mere monuments to the white supremacy of the Jim Crow South.
A year ago, the native southerner and Better Angels founder David Blankenhorn wrote a piece at The American Interest reflecting on the juxtaposition in the modern South of Lost Cause memorials to the Confederacy, and more recent memorials to the Civil Rights Movement. His ultimate conclusion: move the majority of Confederate memorials from public squares and government buildings to Confederate cemeteries, historical national parks, and Civil War museums, to do justice to history without honoring the cause of the Confederacy through public architecture. Let the values of the post-Reconstruction, post-Civil Rights Era South stand in all the public squares instead. I think this compromise proposal generally makes sense, and it seems likely that this will be the de facto plan for most communities moving forward.
That said, if it is possible on a case-by-case, temporary, and limited basis to separate the slaveholding legacy of Founders like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington from their broader political legacy and cultural impact, it seems to me that it should be similarly possible to separate Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on a case-by-case, temporary, and limited basis from their slaveholding and secessionist political legacies, commemorating them solely for their cultural impact.
And what was that cultural impact? Apart from the legacy of the Lost Cause and Jim Crow—two things everyone should, and most do, find detestable—there’s a real southern cultural hearth of martial honor, patrician manners, and folksy traditionalism surviving into the present day, a distinct American Southern cultural-social identity which differentiates southern-gentleman figures like George Washington, Robert E. Lee, and George C. Marshall from their non-Southern contemporaries like Benjamin Franklin, William T. Sherman, and Wendell Wilkie.
Why do deep Southern states like Georgia and South Carolina routinely feature the highest levels of military enlistments up to the present day? Note that Confederate veterans fought for the United States in the Spanish-American War of 1898, and their sons and grandsons fought in tyranny and fascism in the First and Second World Wars. Did the blood of these patriots do anything to redeem the treason of their fathers?
Why does the old archetype of the southern gentleman, in command of himself and his passions and benevolent, dignified, and magnanimous to all those around him regardless of how powerful he is, hold sway over the imaginations not only of southerners, but even of northern writers across American history from Henry Adams to Gore Vidal and beyond? Why is ‘southern comfort’ an easily-identifiable cultural trope, identifiable in Cracker Barrels and antique shops across America? It seems to me that to the degree that the memory of individual Confederate leaders helps advance this cultural hearth—and it is admittedly probably a rather limited degree—there is a sense in which Confederates can be seen merely as a tragic part of an otherwise beneficial tradition, within limits.
To the degree that some statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and select other Confederate memorials, can be primarily memorials to this existing Southern tradition and inspirations to the multiracial current and future southern population, and not memorials to the Confederacy’s political purpose, or to slavery and white supremacy, I think there is an argument for keeping them. I do not know to what degree this can be done; further investigation may be warranted.
But all this being said—what was the significance of the Civil War for us in the depolarization movement, the bipartisan civil discourse space today?
In an over-simplified nutshell, the antebellum era’s escalating crisis over slavery and union shows us what happens when there are multiple, competing, ideologically-irreconcilable, physically- and socially-rooted visions of what America is supposed to be, aligned against each other along economic, political, moral, and social fault lines. The period of compromises up to the Compromise of 1850 shows how sagacious statesmen and functioning party and governing institutions can help a country weather various shocks, rising tensions, and transformative changes. The post-Henry Clay world of the 1850s, with crisis after crisis unchecked by competent political leadership, shows in excruciating detail how quickly and easily factions can descend into civil violence against each other, when they become entirely incapable of seeing each other as morally legitimate fellow citizens and when they lose faith in and respect for the existing compromises of the American system.
The secession crisis itself—which, recall, was precipitated by radical southerners upon the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860—demonstrates what happens when the whole thing breaks down. And the onset of hostilities, which followed the election and secessions by several months, and the overall conduct of the war, demonstrates the ferocity and vigor by which Americans will fight each other over their divisions and for their visions.
America is and always has been, due to the breadth of its geography, the diversity of its settlement, and the pluralistic compromises of its public life, an incredibly diverse society replete with multiple ways of life and sets of values. A snapshot of any public issue at any moment in American history will reveal this beyond a reasonable doubt. The upside of this is that the tension and conflict in American life makes for a freer, more creative, more dynamic society than had ever existed on this planet before; the downside is that its public life is frequently unstable, and its instability can slide quickly into the darkest violence. It just so happens that the 1860s saw the nexus of westward expansion, technological industrialization, moralistic fervor, and the irreducible, hypocritical, all-pervading issue of slavery overlaid over that diverse society, in a moment when its previous guardians had passed from the scene.
The issues of today are morally quite minor in comparison—but we shouldn’t forget the lead-up to the Civil War, the prudent conduct of the war by President Lincoln, or the tempestuous aftermath of the war in Reconstruction, when we consider how political polarization manifests itself at its worst, and how it is best and worst managed.
If America is as pluralistic and rambunctious as it is, full of as many competing visions as do exist beneath its wings, is the Union really its highest end? Was the cost of Union, those 600,000 lives and the subsequent decades of resentments and stagnation, fundamentally worth it?
I am of the opinion, which many of course share, that it was. Beyond all the tangible geopolitical and economic benefits of a continental American republic rather than a constellation of squabbling localist statelets, there is a real mystical and sacred quality to the American union, this last best hope of man on Earth, which Mr. Lincoln grasped and articulated better than any other President and most other politicians and thinkers.
The American idea arrived at by the end of Reconstruction—an essentially national, creed-based, socially mobile, capitalistic and modernizing society, led from Washington by representatives of the people and the states, with libertarian, traditionalist, liberal, and progressive social and political components—has been since the 1870s the consensus idea of America over which arguments were made. The ideas of resurgent state sovereignty stayed in the backdrop; internationalist revolutionary movements like Communism and anarchism never took hold in depth; odd period-pieces like Anglo-American reunification and world government in the 1920s and 1950s remain odd because they remained period-pieces, with little or no support beyond small eccentric groups. The Post-Cold War era has led to renewed questions about American identity, most especially about the cultural character of the nation, but for the most part there is no question about the existence of the nation as a united republic, though blues and reds may have quite different understandings of what it is, or should be, and of its moral worth.
Confederate monuments are a stark reminder that the united republic was not always the only vision of America. They should caution us into sobriety about whether other orders, no matter how intellectually splendid they might be to some, are really so benign. We should not forget what our own order cost.