Those who fail to learn history may or may not be condemned to repeat it, but it’s a dead certainty that those who won’t let it go are hell bent on re-living it. And there seems to be a lot of these types about. People who seem more interested in yearning for the mistakes of the past rather than learning from them.
The increasingly acrimonious and belligerent argy-bargy over removing Confederate statues is a current case in point. One side argues all those stone figurines of bewhiskered white guys just glorify racists and traitors. They argue for pitching ‘em off their pedestals post haste in order to strike a blow for group harmony, not to mention delivering some long overdue just deserts. The other side argues they symbolize a proud and honorable heritage and that it’s unfair to treat them as burrs under the saddle of contemporary racial comity. Carting off a marble bust of Robert E. Lee to some darkened hall of shame might bathe some people in warm schadenfreude tinglies, but it’ll do diddly to actually combat racism in the here and now.
Both sides have a point, though one side has more of a point than the other. All those Confederate heroes were traitors to the Republic and their scores on any valid scale of prejudicial attitudes would park them in the category of “bald ass racist”. These, by the way, are objective assessments. They committed the textbook definition of treason in taking up arms against the United States of America, so in straight-up legal terms they are in Benedict Arnold territory. And their acts of treason were committed in the service of preserving an institution that kept millions of African-Americans in bondage. If that ain’t eye-popping levels of racism in action, I don’t have the words to describe what is.
And save me the states’ rights, lost cause, plucky-underdogs-fighting-for-independence-and-freedom, and all that blah-blah antebellum exculpatory blabber and balderdash. I have no doubt some actually believe such stuff and twaddle, but there’s simply no controversy among serious historians of the period that preservation of slavery was the primary war aim motivating the Confederacy. If you want to pick a bone with that analysis, take it up with historian Ty Seidule, who made a viral video explaining the point in detail (see the video here). Seidule, by the way, is not some prog-prof fulminating in an Ivory Tower tilting to the left. He’s a colonel in the United States Army, teaches at West Point, and is a proud graduate of Washington and Lee University, the Lee bit being a nod to Robert E., who ran the place for years after retiring from his distinguished career of kicking Yankee ass.
Which gets us to those hell bent on scrubbing any whiff of respectable memorialization from all historical figures who are not up to 21st Century standards of PC snuff. Sympathy for this perspective, at least on the Confederate front, is more than understandable, and I’ve got a pretty big dose of it myself. After all, according to a Wikipedia page devoted to the subject (see here), there are more than 1,500 public memorials to the Confederacy. That seems a bit overboard. I get that the Confederates were mostly out-manned, outgunned, out-supplied, but very rarely out-fought or out-generaled by the North. And, sure, they look good in those spiffy Gilbert and Sullivan uniforms. Plus they had super-cool names—Jeb Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, John Bell Hood, and Beauregard Jubal Sweaty-Breeches Julep. Okay, I made the last one up. Still, you can understand that viewed from a suitable distance this crowd of drawlers and brawlers has a certain cavalier, romantic appeal.
But, jeez, do they really deserve the copious multitudes of pigeon-crap catchers currently serving as rallying points for yet another spasm of conflict over race relations? These fellows damn near blew up the Republic over slavery. Being stylish dressers and alarmingly competent in the military arts should carry, at best, a pinch, a smidge, a mote, a skosh, of compensatory historical kudos. Certainly not freaking hundreds of statues, bridges, street names, and even, for cripes sake, an entire mountain (see here). Someone clearly needed a sense of proportion (not to mention propriety) when all this was going on.
Here’s the thing, though. Some of those monuments really can tell us something important about heritage, though not necessarily in the way assumed by diehard Dixie defenders. Some Confederate combatants not only defended the indefensible and repudiated and visited violence on the values of the Republic. To their eternal shame they turned their army gray for bed sheets (the Ku Klux Klan was founded by Confederate veterans) and egged on heirs who would carry on a legacy of appalling racial discrimination through Jim Crow. Others, though, did not. They recognized at least in some dim sense their own moral and political failings and those of the cause they fought for. After wading through the bloody muck and coming out the other side, they wanted others to let go of the animosities that motivated the conflict that consumed their lives.
So, weird as it sounds, the heritage passed on by the likes Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet and Nathan Bedford Forrest might still be worth paying attention to, even though their degrees of moral and political repentance varied quite a bit. Longstreet kind of went whole hog in bird flipping the racist cause he once fought for—post-war he is perhaps best known for leading a multi-racial militia to do battle with violent white supremacists in New Orleans.1 Lee clearly struggled over the issues of secession and slavery, even if in the moment of truth he failed the moral test on both counts. Still, after the war he opposed memorials to the Confederacy and generally encouraged people to put the past behind them and seemed to genuinely want the United States to move on. Forrest was a brilliant and ruthless cavalry commander during the war. Before the war he’d been, among other things, a slave trader. After, he was so fast to join the KKK his membership number probably consisted of a single digit. Yet towards the end of his life, even Forrest gave a much commented on conciliatory speech where he assured a black audience that, “I am with you in heart and hand,” which, no surprise, made him persona non grata in certain Sons of the South circles.
The point is, these guys clearly knew and accepted that they and their cause had lost. And, however imperfectly, they pointed the way forward from the terrible conflict in which they had so effectively participated. That way was in letting go of the attitudes that propped up slavery by force of arms and perpetuated racial divisions by the power of racial prejudice. Let’s not get too teary-eyed here–those guys were products of their time and a long, long way from true egalitarians. Still, it is not a small step from high-level Confederate combatant to getting on board with good riddance to slavery and some measured acceptance of the need for racial harmony. Yeah, they didn’t get far down the old multi-racial kumbayah path, but keep in mind they started from way, way, way back.
So if there’s any heritage worth holding onto from the Lees and the Longstreets and the Forrests, it’s that. Not the celebration of their military victories, but the acceptance of their defeat and the recognition of its consequences. That doesn’t mean forgetting their history. But surely it means letting go of the animus that all too often motivated it. Remembering history is important. Resurrecting the divisions that often drove it is dangerous. Regardless of whether this or that statue remains or disappears, hopefully we can learn to let go of what, 150 years after the Civil War, should have been discarded a long, long time ago.
- Longstreet, by the way, is unusual among top Confederate generals in that he never had an actual statue or monument erected in his honor. This seems strange as he was one of Lee’s most able and trusted commanders, and by any measure was a hero of the Confederate cause. Longstreet’s post-war support of racial harmony is the most likely explanation for why his mug isn’t found staring down at us from cenotaph central. Longstreet’s omission from all the Confederate statutory sprinkled around like confetti makes perfect sense if these are viewed as monuments to Jim Crow rather than to heroes of the lost cause.