a by Bruce Dunlavy
(My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)
The United States has a love-hate relationship with its past wars. We love them because we won them, but we hate them because we feel bad about having had to fight them in order to impose our will and our values on those we defeat. Do we have to do that? Look – it’s right in the National Anthem’s last lines:
“Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”
Yes, we must conquer when our cause is just. And our cause is always just, because we’re right and they’re wrong. It is a feature of American foreign policy (remembering that, in the words of Carl von Clausewitz, “War is simply the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means”) to assume that everyone else in the world, given the choice, would prefer to be an American. Whether they know it or not, we believe, all others would not only do better under our system of government, economy, and society, but they also would like it better.
This has given American conquest the geopolitical aura of a spanking. Like the punishing father, America says, “I hate to have to do this, but it’s for your own good, and I will suffer, too.” For instance, during the final Indian Wars of the late Nineteenth Century, the United States explained away 400 years of genocide by saying that it was a necessary evil meant to bring civilization to the savage nations. Since those wars were an egregious mismatch, it was hard for the country to demonstrate its own suffering. The answer was to create a myth, making a courageous hero out of a brutish third-rate Army officer, George Armstrong Custer. This allowed the USA to claim its own hardship. “You see?” we tell the losing side, “We suffered also. We lost a great man in the necessary effort to make your lives better.”
Image credit: Indy Week
There is, however, one group of Americans who have actually been invaded and thoroughly defeated in war – the American South. After the Civil War, in which States of the South had risen in rebellion and suffered the humiliation of being beaten on their own soil, the Radical Republicans of the victorious North imposed Reconstruction on the South. Military governors were assigned to the defeated territories, and African-Americans were put into positions of political power. It was not until the end of Reconstruction (after the corrupt bargain to settle the presidential election of 1876) that the Southern States were able to reclaim control over themselves.
As the South returned to its old ways and values – especially a pronounced inequality in the economic and social structure – a revisionist history of the Civil War arose. It became common wisdom that the war was a family conflict about equally valid interpretations of the American heritage and the legacy of the nation’s founders. In other words, the idea that there was a right side and a wrong side in the Civil War was discarded.
In order to perpetuate this concept, a number of myths were created and maintained, including these:
- The Civil War was not about slavery.
- The Southern “lost cause” was one of romantic and chivalrous heroism.
- The Confederate forces had almost all of the best battle officers, and Robert E. Lee was the greatest general of that (and perhaps any) war as well as an eminently laudable human being.
- The Southerners lost not for lack of commitment or lack of righteousness, but because they were outgunned by a military force superior in number and ruthlessly brutal in strategy and tactics; therefore, unable to win, they must have been fighting for a glorious ideal.
- After the slaves were freed, they had no capability of taking care of themselves, and many of them became drooling rapists. Thus it fell to white Southerners to create a system by which Those People could be kept fed, clothed, housed, and subdued.
After Reconstruction, there arose a spate of “Blue-Gray Reunions” in which the old veterans forgot any enmity they once had and tearfully embraced their erstwhile foes. The last of these was the Gettysburg 75th anniversary in 1938, attended by nearly 2000 Civil War veterans then in their nineties, including a couple of dozen who had fought at Gettysburg. President Franklin Roosevelt opened the ceremonies, and much was made of how the family dispute had been resolved and wiped away. In the mid-1950s, as the centenary of the war approached, searchers were conveniently able to locate its last two surviving veterans. Again conveniently, one was from the Union and one was from the Confederacy. Eventually, at least one of these claims was debunked, but the afterglow of the story remained.
The majority of monuments to Southern warriors were erected early in this revisionist period, mainly around 1890 – 1920. They were usually mass-produced and so cheaply made that they are easy to pull down. By that time the old rulers of the South had re-established their authority, and the monuments were intended to reinforce white supremacy. In addition, veterans of the war were beginning to die off in large numbers, so the monuments were a way of continuing to keep memory of The War (and its purpose) alive. In the North, too, Civil War monuments became a fixture in front of most county courthouses, featuring a determined soldier with his weapons at his side, invariably facing south, just as those in the South faced north.
The monuments to Southern military and political leaders are now provoking demands for their removal. For a long time, the old Confederate battle flag flew over Southern public buildings, too, and it was the Charleston church massacre attributed to Dylann Roof that propelled the mostly-successful push to remove them from public spaces. I covered that issue (which is related to the current one) in previous posts which you can find here.
Often it has taken such a shocking occurrence or a sudden realization to make us rethink and reform our cultural iconography. Step by incremental step, over a century and a half, most Americans have come to see the South’s “lost cause” as a wrong cause and asked why citizens should see public honor accorded to offenders against the nation and national values.
The recent Charlottesville assembly of white supremacists was provoked by plans to remove a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee from a public park. And why not? Lee held slaves (defending in court his perceived right to hold them as long as possible) and he had a reputation as a harsh slavemaster. Even disregarding that, what business has the government in setting up a commemorative monument to honor a man who turned his back on his nation, the United States of America, to be a Southerner first and an American second?
In the past few days, a chorus has arisen – including President Trump – to ask rhetorically if monuments to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson should also be taken down, since they were slaveholders, too. The answer to that, of course, is that they were a lot more than just slaveholders, and they are honored for reasons other than their service to the cause of slavery. Lee is different – his monuments and statues exist solely because of his service to the cause of slavery. Disregard his Civil War activities on the losing side and he would be an unremarkable character, known only as a scion of one of the most prominent Virginia families, with no monuments to his memory other than a tombstone.
The issue at hand is not a matter of obliterating history, but of determining what should be the parameters of “public history.” History will survive. There are no monuments to Adolf Hitler in German public parks, but they have not forgotten him. There is a distinct difference between history and iconography. Iconography is the making of decisions about whom we choose to honor and glorify. It is one thing to remember our history and another to erect and preserve monuments to people who were so devoted to their self-proclaimed right to own other human beings as possessions that they took up arms against the United States (which is one of the two Constitutional definitions of treason).
There is a telling side note to the monument controversy. As the statues of Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and other Confederate war heroes are being removed, there are no removals of statues of another Civil War general known for his battlefield wisdom. No one is pulling down monuments to James A. Longstreet, a brilliant battle tactician who was largely responsible for Confederate victories at Bull Run, Chickamauga, and Fredericksburg. He was a strong commander at numerous other battles, and as Lee’s right-hand man at Gettysburg, tried in vain to talk Lee out of Pickett’s Charge.
Why are his statues not being removed? Because there aren’t any, as a result of his postwar activities. Longstreet, you see, became a “traitor to the South.” He joined the Republican Party, worked with his old West Point friend Ulysses Grant, and supported reunification, Reconstruction, and – worst of all to the Southerners – equal rights for African-Americans, including emancipated slaves. He was showered with abuse from the South, including blame for the loss at Gettysburg. It is at that battlefield that you will find one of the two statues of him. The other – the only one in the South – is in Gainesville, Georgia, at the site of his home. The house itself is no longer there, because it mysteriously burned down in 1889.
Should all the statues and other monuments commemorating Confederate generals be pulled down and destroyed? No, they are part of our national history. We cannot and should not ignore the fact that there was a long and ugly pattern of commemoration of those who fought to preserve systematic injustice.
Nevertheless, we can still remember and learn from the past without providing honor to those who fought to preserve slavery. While statues of Confederate soldiers are part of public history, they do not belong in public spaces. African-Americans trying to enjoy a picnic in a public park should not have to do so under the watchful eye of slaveholders who led an armed insurrection in an attempt to ensure that African-Americans would not be entitled to enjoy freedom, much less a picnic in the park.
We can keep some of these statues in battlefield parks, or in private hands, or in museums. They do not belong on open public grounds, nor at capitols, nor courthouses, nor other spaces of honor. The Civil War had not only a winning side and a losing side; it had a right side and a wrong side. If you were a Southern general, you lost and you were on the wrong side. And since you were fighting for the right to oppress, subjugate, and abuse some of the people, the government of all of the people should not be providing you a place of prominence or honor.