All across the South, especially in cities with large black populations, war has been declared on the monuments of the Confederacy. New Orleans has taken down several statues. In Charlottesville, Virginia, the image of Robert E. Lee - once an icon of Southern gentility and heroism - has been removed from the park that once bore his name. If the trend continues, in another twenty years a foreign tourist in the South will have no visible clues that there ever was a Confederacy, or that the South once belonged to it. What should we make of this?
In the interest of full disclosure - I am a white male, a descendant of slave owners. I am a sixth generation Texan and a tenth generation Southerner. My ancestors, on both sides of the family, fought for the South in this nation's most destructive conflict. My grandmother's grandfather was a veteran of the Texas Revolution, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War, who survived all three unharmed and lived into his nineties.
But, before you start measuring me for a Klan robe, let me give you the other side of the coin. First of all, unlike far too many Southerners, I will freely concede that the Civil War was about slavery, first and foremost. Anyone who argues to the contrary simply has not read the primary source documents. Read Southern newspaper editorials from 1859-60, read the speeches made on the floor of Congress by the South's representatives, read the Ordinances of Secession that each Southern State published as they voted themselves out of the Union. That hoary old Southern canard, "states' rights," barely gets a mention, but nearly all of them either refer to slavery directly or indirectly ("to preserve our domestic institutions" - do you think they meant that Lincoln's election was a threat to marriage, or parenthood?). The bottom line is this: the South seceded to avoid a perceived threat to the institution of slavery. (Ironically, Lincoln had repeatedly said he had no intention of disturbing slavery in the states where it already existed. Had the South not seceded, the "peculiar institution" might have slowly fizzled out over the next generation instead of being torn from them by force.) True, the North did not wage war on the South initially for the purpose of exterminating slavery, but to preserve the Union which the South was attempting to destroy. (I always wondered why Southerners call it the "War of the Northern Aggression" when the South fired the first shots!) Over time, it became apparent that the surest way to defeat the South was to eliminate slavery, hence the Emancipation Proclamation, and Lincoln's extremely risky battle to get the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress before the war ended, so ably chronicled in Spielberg's movie LINCOLN. He wanted to be sure that slavery was permanently scotched, so that it might not spark another horribly destructive war.
So, for me, the bottom line is this: the South was on the wrong side of history. They were fighting to preserve a monstrous and immoral institution against the sweeping tide of human freedom that came from the Enlightenment. Indeed, it is horrifying to see how willing and indeed eager they were to throw America's founding values under the bus in order to justify the Peculiar Institution. "All the societal ills of the Northern States descend from their erroneous view that all men are created equal," wrote George Fitzhugh in his 1850 "Sociology of the South." Slavery is incompatible not only with the founding principles of America, but also with the spirit of Christianity. Yes, the New Testament does condone slavery in Paul's epistles (and it is worth noting that slavery in the ancient world was a very diverse institution), but in the end, can any of us truly "love your neighbor as yourself" and then sell him on the auction block? Can we "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" and separate husband from wife, child from mother, in order to deliver them to a lifetime of brutal servitude? I would answer a resounding "No!"
At the same time - this current trend disturbs me. There is a tide of hateful ignorance behind it that would have us forget the lessons the nineteenth century taught America at such bitter cost. History is a harsh instructor: its lessons are dear-bought, but well-bought. By erasing the monuments to men like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, we erase the lessons we can still learn from them, the most important of which is that good and decent men can sometimes be deluded into defending monstrous institutions in the name of tradition, and even - bizarrely enough - in the name of "liberty". By all means, let us take down the worshipful placards bemoaning the Lost Cause that the Daughters of the Confederacy erected by the tens of thousands across the South and replace them with more contemporary, intellectually honest text. But let us also give Robert E. Lee and his subordinates their due: they were men of decency, honor, and courage who fought with great skill against overwhelming odds in a cause that they believed to be right. We can salute their bravery and admire their martial abilities without embracing or misrepresenting the cause for which they fought.
Public morality is elastic. Practices that would have earned their participants a jail term not too many years ago are celebrated today; actions that our grandfathers would have cheered are now regarded as loathsome and disgusting. Who knows which of our current trends will wind up on the ash heap of history? The old adage: "Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it" still applies. Let us not rob our children of the chance to learn these lessons the easy way, so that they will not have to re-learn them in a way as difficult as any battle the Army of Northern Virginia ever faced.