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Civil Rights

Those Darned Rebels

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Like one of Mosby’s raiders or the avenging ghost of Bedford Forrest, the myth of the Confederate “Lost Cause” periodically assays forth to bedevil the peace and tranquility of the Union that defeated it. Old ghosts should be quiet ones, and the dead should lay still in their graves; but America[1] can’t seem to get over the tragedy of our Civil War even after 150 years. The South was defeated; but it was never reconciled to its humiliation. The North was victorious; but four long years of struggle sapped much of the will of the people to continue the herculean efforts required to reform their opponents. For many Northerners, the war had been about preserving the Union – even though slavery was the reason the Union was broken – and they didn’t give a damn about “the darkies” one way or another. So Reconstruction was hated on one side and half-hearted on the other; the golden promises of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments proved dross in the light of burning crosses and lynch mobs; and the South was allowed to nurse its rancorous hatreds in squalor, a third world nation within a prosperous America for the next hundred years[2].

From prosperity to utter ruin in less time than it takes to get a college degree: that is a very bitter pill. Southerners literally had nothing left: the four years of war were almost exclusively fought in the South. The men were all dead: historian David Hacker estimates that the South lost 1 in every 8 while males between the ages of 18 and 44 in that cataclysm. Probably an equal number were severely incapacitated. Even though the North lost more men overall, the population was much larger, so the percentage impact was less than half (6.1% vs. 13.1%). To put those casualty figures in perspective, it is equivalent to a conflict today costing the United States 6 million dead.

The economic foundation of the South was ruined, and not just the latifundia system. Although the great slave fields and cotton plantations remain the most evocative image of Old Dixie, they were representative of only the upper echelon of the Southern aristocracy. Most Southerners didn’t even own slaves; their economy was based on food crops, raising pigs, occasionally trying to fill-out a few bales of cotton and supplementing their diets with the plentiful game of field and wood. These small farmers, who formed the hardy backbone of the Confederate armies, returned home to fields that were rank with weeds, barns and fences that had been burnt for firewood or from vandalism, livestock that had long been “requisitioned” by one side or the other to feed the insatiable appetites of the moving armies. Those who returned home, anyway. The most fortunate had a horse to hitch up to a long-disused and rusty plow; mostly though, they had the clothes on their back and a fistful of worthless Confederate scrip[3]. Their feelings were best summed up by Confederate officer Henry Wise, as he spoke to Union General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain at Appomattox:

“You may forgive us, but we won’t be forgiven. There is a rancor in our hearts, which you little dream of. We hate you, sir.”

It would be wrong to say that this hatred still burns in Southern hearts today. The war decided the question of whether we were a collection of states or “One Nation under God”. As early as 1898, boys from Maine and New York and Illinois fought under the command of former Confederate generals in the Spanish American War, all wearing the uniform of the US Army with pride. In the great mobilization of the First World War, the War Department made the deliberate decision to through recruits from different regions into the same units: we had all had enough of state regiments and local loyalties. Vietnam finally brought the racial integration of the military – at least something good came of that war.  The march of progress has been slow and halting, never fast enough for some and too fast for few, but it has never ceased.

His truth is marching on. Glory hallelujah.

The ugly battalions of modern racism are again on the march, not in butternut rags and grey uniforms, but in white polo shirts. They marched on Charlottesville last week, heavily armed in an ostensibly peaceful assembly, to protest the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the town’s courthouse district. There have been three rallies in protest of this decision: a neo-nazi rally on March 13th; a Ku Klux Klan rally on July 8th; and the Unite the Right march on August 12th that turned fatal when a terrorist drove into a crowd of counter protesters, killing one brave young woman and injuring 19 others.

Apologists on the extreme right, led by the President of the United States, have attempted to provide a shameful cover and excuse for this aberration. The first was an attempt to draw a moral equivalence between those who promote hatred, violence and genocide and those who oppose them. Even as this feeble logic was being universally repudiated by Democrats and Republicans alike in justified outrage, a more insidious argument was being made. “Taking down the statues is historical revisionism,” they cried, “the Left wants to re-write history.[4]

A perfidious and hypocritical charge. What is popularly called “history” – really our romantic national mythologies – is being rewritten and adapted all the time. It is a living thing, not set in stone like the Decalogue. Those who have perpetrated the myth of “the Lost Cause,” the most monstrous and effective whitewashing in our national history, have no ground to cast stones on that charge. These monuments are not articles of historical education. They are symbols of power, prominently and deliberately placed in those public places where power is vested: the statehouse and the courthouse, next to the institutes of public education. Like all symbols, they are pregnant with message, and the message is simple: “it don’t matter what the law says, bottom rail still on the bottom.”

If these statues were placed to educate the public, where are the statue of the slave auction blocks? How many Southern statehouses boast educational memorials to the whipped and degraded field hands? In what capitol can I find the monument to “being sold down the river”? There is a proper place for the more sordid aspects of our history: the classroom and the museum. The repositories of state power and authority are not the place for them. The Germans teach about fascism in an effort to avoid repeating history, but it is inconceivable that they would place a swastika on the Brandenburg Gate as a “historic lesson”.

On a more fundamental level, this fight isn’t about statues of confederates; it’s not about monuments or historic memory, or state’s rights or even slavery. As true today as it was back then, our struggle is about our warring conceptions of what human freedom means.  One side feels that they cannot be fully free if others enjoy it in equal measure, as if freedom were a scarce resource. The other side feels that if even one person is in bondage, the whole human race remains enslaved. As Abraham Lincoln proclaimed: “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it.”

Even though the Devil deals in lies, he cannot destroy the truth. And sometimes these deceits help us to see the path of righteousness. Let us turn these monuments into the articles of historical education their defenders purport them to be. Let us take them from the statehouses and the courts, and put them in their proper place – the battlefields. There are 10,000 of them, each with its heavy burden of memory. The Civil War Trust is a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. dedicated to the preservation of those hallowed grounds were Americans once slaughtered each other in unprecedented numbers. Their mission is to preserve our heritage and educate the public – can they not help us in this task?

Why not take these bronze commanders and remove them to more fitting locations? They should rest on those fields of battle where once they contended. What would be more pleasing to them than to spend the long years next to the fallen soldiers they once led, looking over the verdant hills and valleys of this beautiful and united country? Let us not topple these statues in the night, like shameful vandals. We must seize this opportunity to bring healing and reconciliation. Hold a ceremony; with due honor for the dead and in respect to the opinions of the living, let us explain why we take this action. And with proper reverence, let us move their graven images to a fitting resting place where we can rededicate ourselves to that great purpose so unforgettably described by President Lincoln: so that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.


Sources and Notes

[1] True not just of America: many countries struggle with the deep scars of traumatic national events. Ask the Germans about Hitler, the Spanish about Franco, the French about Vichy, or the Argentineans about the Dirty War.

[2] It is an understandable and very human reaction. After 4 years of bloody fighting, most of it in the Southern states, and especially after Sherman and Sheridan finished their work, there was nothing left in the South besides pride and bitter memory.

[3] The Confederate dollar was so worthless, even during the war, that it was said that counterfeits could be easily detected by the superior quality of the paper and printing of the false bills.

[4] Poor history – the most abused of subjects. Treated like an exact science when convenient, otherwise despised as malicious lies when it contradicts our comfortable notions of the past. No one should confuse history – “inquiry” – with the colorful fables we tell ourselves and our children. Romantic mythology is the essential ingredient to our modern form of society, the ethno-linguistic nation-state. Since the American and French revolutions, every nation has “invented” its own version of history in an effort to bind fractious and combative tribes into a new and united people. See my article on “The National Question”

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John Adams

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