I have mixed feelings about the movement to eliminate Confederate monuments. How do we preserve our history without denying it? Can we honor the often gallant yet imperfect, misguided souls who believed they were right. While it’s true that the leaders of the rebellion were traitors and slaveholders, the rank-and-file troops for the most part owned no slaves and were responding to the “patriotic” appeal of the Southern power structure to protect their states from a Northern invasion. Seen in context, they were shaped by a culture that condoned and depended upon what was euphemistically called the “peculiar institution.”
Slavery and not “states’ rights” was at the heart of the revolt. In the north, the rallying cry was “Preserve the Union.” It was only later that emancipation became an acknowledged purpose. Only after the Union victory at Antietam in 1862 was Abraham Lincoln confident enough to make freeing the slaves a stated goal.
From the perspective of a black person, one can readily see history in starker terms. Instead of mythical heroes in a lost cause, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet, and Jeb Stuart, among others, were traitors who fought for the continued subjugation of human beings they considered inferior. They were not just wrong; they were evil, undeserving of honor or respect. Their cause was a stain on the nation’s history, something to be ashamed of not embellished.
But is that all there is to it? While they may not warrant forgiveness, do they deserve understanding? Normally after a rebellion, the military leaders and politicians on the losing side are executed or imprisoned. However, President Lincoln and Gen. Grant showed mercy, allowing the troops to go home and the generals their freedom upon their pledging allegiance to the Union. In a war that cost over 600,000 lives, Lincoln and Grant they sought reconciliation, not retribution.
I am reminded of an incident that occurred outside the home in Appomattox where Lee surrendered in 1865. Southern troops were directed to stack their weapons before heading home. Lounging on both sides of the road were the troops of Gen. Joshua Chamberlain, a Gettysburg hero who later became governor of Maine. As Confederate Gen. John Brown Gordon’s troops approached, bedraggled and dejected, Chamberlain called his troops to attention and to present arms. When Gen. Gordon saw that his units were being honored, he called them to attention. A salute was exchanged, a sign of mutual respect between victors and vanquished. If those veterans of that bloody conflict could respect each other, why can’t we feel some compassion? Good people can do bad things.
Instead of seeing them simply as symbols of repression, shouldn’t we try to understand what they did within the cultural context of the ante-bellum South in which they were born and raised? It was an environment not likely to produce abolitionists. When George Washington and Thomas Jefferson led a different revolution less than 100 years earlier, they, too, were slave owners as was most of the Southern aristocracy. For them, freedom was a white man’s privilege, yet we rightly honor them despite their hypocrisy. But for the timing of their births, Lee and Stuart could have been Revolutionary War heroes and Washington, Jefferson, and Patrick Henry Civil War secessionists.
With the collapse of Reconstruction, unrepentant southerners sought to impose slavery’s residue by other means: “Jim Crow” laws were enacted and enforced with terror. What was lost on bloody battlefields, they sought to resurrect by glorifying the cause and memorializing its heroes. By so doing, they hoped to achieve by other means another form of subjugation.
It was during this period when many of the controversial monuments were constructed. Had they been alive, I expect many of those so honored would have objected.
The Civil War was the price this country paid for the grievous sin of slavery. Unfortunately, we are still paying for its remnants, bigotry and hate. Is the present bitter reaction against these monuments just a further example of pent-up anger? Even if justified to some degree, wouldn’t it be better to view them as historical examples of human folly when brave men fought and died to perpetuate an abomination?
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.