In some circles there’s lately a vogue for vandalizing or pulling down Confederate statues. The people doing it think (or say they think) that they’re striking a blow against racism. I think they’re, at best, engaged in a dangerous reopening of old wounds. At worst they’re threatening to inflict serious new ones.
I’m a Yankee from Boston by birth and inclination. I’ve never bought into Lost Cause romanticism; I’ve studied the history and don’t buy the revisionism about tariffs or troop callups. The South revolted to defend the indefensible of chattel slavery, and deserved its defeat.
But once the war was won, the victors (both Northern and Southern Unionists) had to win the peace as well. It was not a given that the South would be reconciled to the Union; there was lots of precedent for the statesmen and the people of the era to look back on that suggested otherwise.
The South could have become a running sore, a cauldron of low-level insurrection and guerilla warfare that blighted the next century of U.S. history. Instead, it is now the most patriotic region of the U.S. – as measured, for example, by regional origins of U.S. military personnel. How did this happen?
Looking back, we can see that between 1865 and around 1914 the Union and the former South negotiated an imperfect but workable peace. The first step in that negotiation took place at Appomattox, when the Union troops accepting General Robert E. Lee’s surrender saluted the defeated and allowed them to retain their arms, treating them with the most punctilious military courtesy due to honorable foes.
Over the next few years, the Union Army reintegrated the Confederate military into itself. Confederate officers not charged with war crimes were generally able to retain rank and seniority; many served in the frontier wars of the next 35 years. Elements of Confederate uniform were adopted for Western service.
The political leaders of the revolt were not tried and executed. Instead, they were spared to urge reconciliation, and generally did. By all historical precedent they were treated with shocking leniency. This paid off.
Of course, not all went smoothly. The Reconstruction of the South between 1863 and 1877 was badly bungled, creating resentments that linger to this day and – in the folk memory of Southerners – often overshadow the harms of the war itself. The condition of emancipated blacks remained dire.
But overall, the reintegration of the South went far better than it could have. Confederate nationalism was successfully reabsorbed into American nationalism. One of the prices of this adjustment was that Confederate heroes had to become American heroes. An early and continuing example of this was the reverence paid to Robert E. Lee by Unionists after the war; his qualities as a military leader were extolled and his opposition to full civil rights for black freedmen memory-holed.
Lee’s heroism and ascribed saintliness would later become a central prop in “Lost Cause” romanticism, which portrayed the revolt as an honorable struggle for a Southern way of life while mostly airbrushing out – but sometimes, unforgiveably, defending – the institution of slavery. Even today, the “soft” airbrushing version of Lost Cause retains a significant hold on Southerners who would never dream of defending slavery.
The statues now at issue were mostly erected between 1865 and 1914 by organizations like the Daughters of the Confederacy who were fully invested in the soft version of Lost Cause romanticism. In view of current revisionism, it should be remembered that, in the time before the early 1960s when one could express white-supremacist and segregationist beliefs in the South and expect a lot of applause, the statue builders generally didn’t play that song.
We know this because we can read the dedications they chiseled on their monuments. Whatever the statue-builders may have privately believed, the face – the myth – about that they presented was not one of white supremacy justified but of virtue and heroism in a lost cause.
My cultural and political ancestors, the Yankees who had won the war, got out of the statue-builders’ way because we understood that the statue-builders were, in fact, cooperating in the great settlement between South and North. Making heroes of the rebels was not a large price to pay if it meant that Southern pride became American pride.
In fact, the deception was quite mutual. Southerners, by and large, tried to pretend their revolt had not been a defense of the indefensible. Northerners by and large, decided that agreeing with that pretense (or at least not disputing it in public) was a polite fiction useful to everybody.
The statue-smashers either fail to understand that great settlement (likely), or intend to undo it (not likely), or are pursuing a broader aim which I’ll address near the end of this essay.
It is 2017 and the wounds of the Civil War have not entirely healed. “Damnyankee” is still a single word in much of the South. Failing to understand the great settlement creates the risk that those wounds could re-open into divisive regionalism and eventual conflict.
This is especially so since Southerners already feel like victims in the red/blue conflict that now divides coastal urban elites from Middle America. Many Blue tribesmen talk as though they think everybody living more than 60 miles inland and outside a university town is a closet neo-Confederate. This is fantasy, but there is a possible future in which Southern resentment becomes the dominant symbology of the Red tribe in a way it is not today.
Some people are going to want to interject at this point “What about the insult to black people? Aren’t those statues symbols of white supremacy that should be smashed on that account alone?”
Brother, if I believed that I would be swinging a hammer myself. But the mission of the statue builders was to redeem the honor of the South in part by editing white supremacism and slavery out of our cultural memory of the war. They largely deceived themselves with Lost Cause romanticism. Making those statues into symbols of black subjugation would have undercut their whole project.
I do not want to see the post-Civil-War settlement undone. Thus, I’m in favor of letting Southerners keep their statues and their myths. We should let Southern heroes remain American heroes because that is what worked to pull the country back together – and because after the war so many of them really did argue for reconciliation.
There’s another reason I’m opposed to the statue-smashing that has nothing to do with the great settlement. That is: I believe the statue-smashers have a larger aim unrelated to any kind of justice.
Many of these people are, in effect, Red Guards. They don’t just want to erase icons of Confederate pride, they want to smash American pride. Statues of Columbus have already been defaced; I am pretty sure Washington and Jefferson will be next. The actual agenda is that Americans must be made to feel their nation was born in sin and cannot be redeemed – patriotism must be replaced with obsessive self-criticism and eternal guilt. Anything positive in our national mythos must be razed and replaced with Marxist cant.
If there were no other good reason for it, I’d defend everybody’s statuary just to oppose the Red Guards.
EDIT: It turns out the evidence for ex-Confederates retaining officer rank in the postwar Army is thin and disputed; the cases I’ve seen biographical traces of may have been exceptional.