In 1923, a year after the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, the Senate voted to appropriate $200,000 for a Mammy memorial in Washington to celebrate the faithful black slaves who, according to its sponsors, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, had lived dutifully under the beneficent hand of their gentle white masters. The measure failed in the House, but not for lack of widespread support throughout the South. Had it passed, a visitor could have paid homage to the Great Emancipator and, after a short stroll, lighted upon a monument that declared Lincoln’s efforts to have been unnecessary, together with the war he led to fulfill them.
The Mammy statue in Washington was to have been the culmination of a two-decade campaign to erect such monuments in every southern state by the UDC and its companion United Confederate Veterans, which together formed one one of the most formidable lobbying groups of the age. Their goal was nothing less than to rewrite the history of the Civil War. It rested on three main precepts: that slavery was not the cause of the conflict; that it was a struggle for Southern independence over Northern aggression; and that slaves never sought their freedom but were only too glad to be civilized under the hand of a superior race. All of this was romanticized under the rubric of “The Lost Cause,” in which a martyred South was defeated by a rapacious North solely due to the weight of numbers. The Yankees had the bigger battalions, not the better reasons.
The South may have lost the war but in the 50 years after Reconstruction was undone in 1877, it won the second battle: an ideological struggle in which Southern apologists imposed on the national consciousness a revisionist narrative of the conflict, its causes and its consequences. Central to this enterprise, as the historian David Blight writes in his masterly Race and Reunion, was the construction of monuments that, from the mid-1880s to the mid-1920s, memorialized the myth of the “Lost Cause.” Their erection was not to memorialize, but to polemicize.
They were weapons in a campaign of revisionism to erase from memory the reality of slavery as the cornerstone of the Confederacy, its expansion as the reason for secession, its enforcement as coercion, and its maintenance as the bedrock of white supremacy. The monuments were part of a successful campaign to promote the Confederate portrayal of history in the nation’s schoolbooks and to impose the Southern version as the true one. Thus, the War of the Rebellion, as it was known at the time, became the War Between the States, a conflict between two sovereign entities, such as Athens and Sparta, thereby removing the taint of treason. Most important, the strategy was used to impose and codify the Jim Crow laws that subjugated black Americans for another 75 years.
The cause of Southern revisionism was a political movement that manipulated the past to justify a present that deprived blacks of civil and political rights through terror and intimidation. It is ironic that the appeal to “preserve heritage” is now being used to justify memorials built to erase historical memory.
To be sure, the monuments are part of the American past and should not be destroyed but relocated to an exhibition space where they can be placed in their appropriate historical context. This would mean restoring them to history rather than maintaining them in a prominent public place where they serve as a symbol of white supremacy. On Memorial Day 1890, a crowd of more than 100,000 people turned out in Richmond, Virginia, to celebrate the unveiling of a giant equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee. This was the apex of a cult that would deify Lee as a paragon of Southern chivalry and glorify the cause for which he fought.
To remove Lee’s statue, as has been proposed in Charlottesville, is not to remove him from the pages of American history, where he belongs. Lee is a complex character, perhaps a tragic one. To make him a stage villain would be as wrong as to canonize him. In the antebellum years Lee had made known his distaste for slavery as “a moral and political evil,” and had argued against secession. He declined the offer of his fellow Virginian, Federal General in Chief Winfield Scott, to lead the Union Army. And when the South seceded, he chose to remain with his native state.
But it is also true that Lee turned a blind eye to the massacre of black prisoners at Fort Pillow and other such killing fields as the Crater, and countenanced the execution of black soldiers who had fallen into Confederate hands—what would be considered war crimes today. Even a plan for humane prisoner exchanges was scotched when the North insisted that it include captured blacks. And when Confederate forces under Lee’s command marched into Pennsylvania on their way to Gettysburg, they seized blacks and sent them South to slavery. As a last desperate measure, with Union forces closing in on a depleted Army of Northern Virginia, Lee proposed recruiting slaves to the Southern cause with the promise of freedom. But this measure was voted down by the Confederate Senate. To concede that blacks could fight would acknowledge their humanity, a concession that Southern die-hards, even with their backs to the wall, could not tolerate, because it would topple their edifice of white supremacy and the war to preserve it.
In 1859, the year leading up to the Civil War, Lee was the U.S. officer who captured the abolitionist firebrand John Brown after his aborted raid on the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry to lead a slave insurrection. At his trial, Brown declared he had acted to free the slaves, a cause for which he was willing to die. He was convicted of treason and insurrection and was hanged. Not a single Confederate leader who had engaged in treason and insurrection, in a war that led to 750,000 dead, was executed after the conflict. (The only Confederate condemned was Henry Wirz, commandant of the Andersonville prison camp.) Some fled, a few served prison sentences and were honored as they emerged. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, spent his time after being released writing his memoirs in which he justified, without apology, the South’s right to secede and the justice of its cause. On his death in 1889 he was mourned throughout the South, which honored him with monuments. One is in Montgomery, Alabama, the first capitol of the Confederacy. Another, in New Orleans, was dedicated in 1911 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of secession. It was removed in May. It should be noted that Lee himself opposed the construction of Confederate monuments in the belief that it was best for the reunited nation to move on and leave behind the symbols of civil strife.
If the goal of those who kept the Confederate flame was to honor Southern military valor, we may wonder at the absence of one of the most prominent Confederate officers of the war: James Longstreet, probably the ablest Confederate general after Lee, who valued him highly, and a brilliant brigade and corps commander. Why did he become a non-person in the frenzy of memorializing? It seems that after the war, Longstreet had the audacity to transfer his allegiance to the Federal Government. He was thus considered a turncoat by those who had rebelled against the Union.
The “Grey Ghost,” John Mosby, one of the legendary guerilla commanders of the Confederacy, was similarly dismissed. His sin was to have worked for Grant’s election in 1872, and he disappeared from the Southern pantheon. Honoring Confederate heroes postwar was a selective process based on politics. As political symbols they’re fair game for the judgment of future generations.
No one is questioning the valor of Robert E. Lee, but the cause in which he served, dedicated to the expansion of racial slavery and the preservation of white supremacy.
President’s Trump concern about where it will end—Washington, Jefferson—is misplaced. The issue is not that they owned slaves, which was true of most Southern landowners in their time, and more than a few in the North. The point is that they pledged their fortunes to a revolution seeking freedom and independence against foreign tyranny. Almost a century later, Lee broke his oath to the United States and committed treason in the service of a slave power. Each man should be judged in the context of his time.
By this measure, Washington and Jefferson acted honorably and, whatever their flaws, should be honored for their service to the nation; Lee betrayed the nation, knowing full well the consequences of his actions. He did so in the service of an execrable cause. It was to sanitize this cause that Confederate memorials mushroomed in the decades after the war. The men in thrall to that cause should be remembered in history but not honored in the public square.
The second and third generation of Germans after World War II came to terms with the shame of the Third Reich and rejected the Nazi past. Whereas the second and third generations of Southerners after the Civil War sought to vindicate the Confederacy. The Germans fought valiantly at Stalingrad and tenaciously in Italy but it is because young Germans remember their history that Germany is not dedicating statues to the valor of the World War II-era Wehrmacht. Rommel and Guderian were brilliant commanders but their victories brought a swath of devastation in their wake. They belong in the history books, yes. But not on pedestals.
The sad truth is that we have never come to grips with the harsh realities of the Civil War and its aftermath. It is no accident that the onset of Confederate monument building coincided in 1890 with the first Southern law explicitly disenfranchising blacks (the Mississippi state constitution),and reached a peak in 1924, the year of the Lee Monument at Charlottesville, with the imposition of racial quotas to keep out unwanted immigrants. It was all of a piece, a unity of racism and nativism that is still with us today.
Confederate apologists and Southern historians, abetted by kindred academic spirits in the North, controlled a racialist narrative that perpetuated the Lost Cause myth in revisionist histories, polemics, tracts, texts and films, from Birth of a Nation to Gone With the Wind. The appearance of D.W. Griffith’s wildly popular Nation in 1915 celebrated the reunion of an expedient North and a supremacist South at the expense of America’s blacks who would have to wait half a century before the nation began to redress their grievances, still a work in progress.
The demons of racism that animated the antebellum South as well as the North with its black codes, that betrayed Reconstruction, that terrorized blacks in the Gilded Age and segregated them in the Jim Crow era, have never disappeared but assumed different morphologies, most recently the form of white victimization. Its current practitioners are well aware that their demands of First Amendment rights—which their spiritual forebears would never grant to others—are nothing but a ploy to incite violence, infect the national discourse and seek traction for their white supremacist ideology.
They call themselves patriots but we can only wonder what the Americans fallen on the beaches of Normandy would have thought about their sacrifice when hardly more than 70 years later, homegrown Nazis would be mocking the cause for which they gave their lives. What would the GI’s who fought at Anzio and the Bulge have made of marching neo-Nazis invoking the torchlight parades of Hitler’s storm troopers on sacred American soil—and of the sight of a sitting president and commander in chief defending them. Sen. John McCain called the racists at Charlottesville traitors. Legally, they may not be so, but in a deeper sense, they are. Traitors to what is best in America, its basic decency, its promise of hope that is greater than the reality we often see, its wager on the possibility of promise for all its citizens, and its belief in the words of Langston Hughes, that “America will be!”