Sunday, August 20, 2017

confederate statues

I'm a little behind the curve on this one, but I've been away from my computer, and this enables me to say what I haven't heard everyone else say.

I think some history has been lost, and some other history is being found, on this issue.

And what's being lost isn't that the Civil War happened, or that it was important, or that Lee and Jackson were prominent and memorable figures within it. Of course that will be remembered.

But what I haven't seen addressed in any of this is a knowledge of the post-civil war "national consensus," for lack of a better term, of their place in it. This is something I've seen discussed in a number of older history books about the period, pro-Union ones, including James McPherson's.

To re-integrate the ex-Confederates into the Union, and to let them have a little self-respect after their crushing loss, a sort of informal pact was made about the judgment of the war in American history. The South would admit that they lost (when asked why his side was so crushed in the Battle of Gettysburg, Gen. Pickett said, "I believe the Federal Army had something to do with it") and that their cause was a bad one. In return, the North would acknowledge the bravery of the Confederate soldiers, and the greatness of their top generals.

There was no lie in this. The CSA military did fight well and bravely, and on a purely military level, Lee and Jackson were two of the most brilliant generals ever produced on this continent. You can say this without defending their cause; Rommel was also a brilliant general.

This consensus was proclaimed by a man who said "with malice toward none, with charity for all," and advised that we should "bind up the nation's wounds." He was, as you may recall, shot for his pains. The consensus perhaps came into being at the formal surrender ceremony for the Army of Northern Virginia. Gen. Chamberlain (he of Little Round Top) conducted the event for the Union, and surprised the Confederates by unexpectedly ordering his troops to give the salute of honor to their fallen foes.

And I think it's because of that acknowledgment that, up until now, Northerners have ignored the profusion of statues of Lee and Jackson and anonymous Confederate soldiers that festoon Southern town squares. After all, they were great generals and brave soldiers. Let the descendants have their pride.

Up until now. Not any longer. Because if that's the history that we had that's now being forgotten, there's another history that the books I read had ignored that's now being rediscovered. And that is that the ex-Confederates and their descendants have not been living up to their side of the bargain. And not just in the hard facts of racial oppression in the South for over a century and still echoing in ugly ways today, but also in the symbolism which is the subject of the consensus.

Those statues. They aren't lovingly-crafted monuments erected in the echo of the loss, like the WW1 cenotaphs in every British town and college chapel. They're cheap mass-produced knock-offs from Northern factories, put up later, in the Jim Crow era, not in memory of a loss but in defiance of that loss. (the evidence) Look at the capital letters in the term "Lost Cause" and read what's been said about it. Its memorializers don't acknowledge it was bad, they only regret that it was lost.

Nor do we notice who's being honored. There's Jackson, who died during the war (of the aftereffects of "friendly fire," by the way), and thus had nothing to say afterwards. There's Lee, who retired from public life and quietly became a college president. But where is the CSA's third best general, James Longstreet? You don't see many statues of him. After the war, he became a Republican and actively co-operated with the Union government. For that, he's considered a shame in the white South. Confederate apologist historians retroactively blame him for Gettysburg, at best a dubiously tenable position, even hinting that he was secretly a traitor to his cause.

And how many statues do you see in the North of Grant and Sherman? Some, but not a lot; not in every town square. Militarily, they were just as brilliant as Lee and Jackson. They saved the Union, and their place in the history books is absolutely secure. But they don't need all those statues to secure it. And Sherman in particular, for his marches through Georgia and South Carolina, is loathed in the white South with an intensity that no Confederate, not even the equally ruthless Forrest, post-war one of the founders of the KKK, for ghu's sake, is in the North.

This is all coming out in response to the fact that some of the support is finally going over the top. I think it was the Charleston massacre that turned the tide. It doesn't seem that anything can convince us we need gun control, but that did finally convince us to take down the CSA flag, a sore point for years, and began to get people like Mitch Landrieu to think seriously about those statues. And the response to the statue removal, in Charlottesville and elsewhere, has only reinforced the point. When one side has actual neo-Nazis on it, there is something seriously wrong with that side. It doesn't make the other side automatically virtuous, but it does suggest that hysterically inflating any problem that isn't the Nazis, or outright making stuff like "alt-left" up, is an evasion of the truth.

When Trump said, "Who's next, Washington and Jefferson?" he was not, as some claimed, equating Lee with Washington. He was making a "slippery slope" argument. But others have openly equated them. Perhaps you've seen a little squib, forwarded by Trump's lawyer John Dowd, titled "Lee is No Different than Washington." That's an open equation. The arguments in it are deeply dishonest, but I'm not going to fisk them now. I will just say that it's poisoned the well for any explanation or understanding of Lee's actions. I would have been happy to explain his moral views that led him to take up the rebel cause, and why that wasn't considered at the time (even by his foes) the outright act of treason that it would be in retrospect, but now I can't. It would no longer be the act of purely disinterested historical analysis that I'd intend it as. It would be a defense of white supremacy. That well has been poisoned, and it's time to give it up.

No comments:

Post a Comment