The history bug bit me in third grade. In retrospect, it would have been more advantageous to have been attacked by an athletic germ; perhaps then I would not have to pay someone to make me lift weights or talk myself into elevating my heart rate for at least twenty minutes each day. Even more important, an athletic bug might have resulted in a body a bit more well defined and ready for middle age. But alas, life does not allow ‘do-overs’ and so, rather than a slender quilter who can alter her own clothes, my parents are stuck with a ‘wanna be amateur historian.’ They seem fine with it.
My third-grade teacher was Mrs. Hayes. She was the daughter of a missionary and as a child had spent a few years in India. Mrs. Hayes loved history and social studies and I think it was that interest that came across when teaching the subject that hooked me. It was in third-grade that we first learned American history. Now, to be honest I do not remember any of the history lessons from that year. What I do remember was sitting in the library with the entire school watching ‘The Blue and the Gray.’
Watching videos was a popular teaching device back then. In high school world history, we watched a lot of basketball games. But in grade school, I distinctly remember watching this mini series. It was first televised in 1982 and like most TV mini series’ in the 80s, it was shown over three or four nights. The plot line was what you would expect: two families, linked by blood; one southern and one northern. Two families split apart by war; the mini series traced the central characters as they fought for the union and for a particular ‘way of life.’
That movie more than anything else sealed my love of history and more specifically, my intense interest in the Civil War. At the time, of course, I did not realize that ‘The Blue and the Gray,’ ‘Gone With the Wind,’ or the apex of Civil War filmography “North and South,” were all rooted to some degree in the Lost Cause mythology, the revisionist historical interpretation of the Civil War that came into fashion around the turn of the twenty century. The Lost Cause mythology sought to redefine the Confederate cause less as a treasonous revolt against the Union over the preservation of slavery and instead, as a valiant southern attempt to preserve culture and heritage.
We are learning more about the reasons behind The Lost Cause mythology as a result of the latest Trump communication fiasco and the violence in Virginia. But I think it bears an explanation outside of the drama and noise that we are experiencing. It was during this period, that Jim Crow, segregation, disenfranchisement and racial violence took hold within the south. Plessy versus Fergusen, the famous Supreme Court case that legalized “separate but equal” was decided in 1896 and as a result, segregation became the norm in the eleven states that made up the Confederacy. Treatment of blacks in northern states was not much better, but the industrial revolution and settlement of the west provided so many more opportunities than did the segregated south. During this period and well into the twentieth century, we experienced a mass migration of blacks from southern states to the north.
It was during this period and then again during the 60s that we saw much of the Confederate iconography go up across the South. If you have paid any attention to the fall out from Charlottesville, you know that the reasons for these statues and plaques were to demonstrate white superiority and the white power establishment. The statues were meant to say to blacks, “the federal government may have freed you and demanded that you have the right to vote, but whites still have the power.” Confederate flags went up over statehouses. Streets and highways were named after rebel generals. And every day black Americans walked past that memorabilia knowing the true intent behind it.
For years there has been movement and activism to remove these artifacts from public displays or more specifically from tax payer funded public spaces. After Dylan Roof murdered nine and injured three black souls in June 2015, those efforts intensified. You might remember that Governor Nikki Haley was finally able to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse. Part of the difficulty in removing the iconography throughout the south is because state legislatures have passed laws forbidding their removal. So this fight is not new.
At this point, I want to pause for a few words about symbols and more specifically the General Robert E. Lee statue. Symbols are just tangible objects until we assign them meaning. I have made controversial statements in the past (and have no doubt I will in the future) about some of our nation’s most revered symbols. The flag is nothing but a piece of cloth UNTIL we give it meaning. The national anthem is a poem placed to a song UNTIL we give it meaning. When NFL players chose not to rise during the national anthem, they were demonstrating their constitutional right to free speech – the very Constitution for which so many men and women have fought and died. That right is intrinsic to the symbolism that we ascribe to that piece of cloth. That symbolism is what makes that piece of cloth, the Stars and Stripes – our flag.
So statues CAN be symbolic depending on the values and the meaning that we assign to them.
It is ironic that with all the Confederate iconography currently in dispute, it was the Lee statue in Charlottesville Virginia that attracted white supremacists and neo-nazis. Lee was a brilliant tactician and military general. He served the United States in the Mexican War and was serving in the US Army at the time South Carolina succeeded from the Union. President Lincoln summoned Lee to Washington and offered him the post of Commander of the Army of the Potomac; essentially he was offered the opportunity to defend the nation’s capital and to put down the insurrection. General Lee, in his own words and memoirs, believed in the Union. But he loved Virginia more. Knowing that Virginia would soon secede, Lee turned down the President as he was unable to draw blood against his homeland. He resigned his commission in the US Army, thanked the President and returned across the Potomac River to Virginia where he accepted the post as Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. For the next four years, General Lee led tens of thousands of rebel soldiers in an armed rebellion against the United States Constitution. In every way, Lee was a traitor.
And if that is where the story ended, I would say unequivocally “take it down.” (Of course, I have no stake in this fight. The decision of what is placed in public spaces is the decision of the community). But I do want to provide a telling moment about General Lee’s character and suggest that if you are interested in Civil War history, I would suggest the book “April 1865” by Jay Winik.
The picture in this post is of Wilbur McLean’s home in Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. McLean had moved here in 1861 after leaving his farm near Manassas Junction. For those of you who know something about Civil War history, you will immediately recognize Manassas Junction as the Battle of Bull Run. McLean’s farm near Bull Run Creek was used during that battle as a Confederate headquarters. He moved farther south to Appomattox Courthouse, thinking that he and his family would be safer. It was in his parlor on April 9, 1865, that Generals Grant and Lee met each other for the latter’s final surrender.
In the lead up to this moment, Lee was presented with few options. His army was trapped; they had no supplies and very few rations. They had fought bitterly for four years and had taken heavy casualties has had the Union army. Richmond had fallen and the CSA government under Jefferson Davis had fled south. Other generals and their armies were still fighting the Yankees but Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia was one that symbolized the Confederate cause. Everyone knew that a Lee surrender would not only be the beginning of the end but that it would set the tone for how to begin the peace.
There were many that urged Lee to disband the army and to send his soldiers into the hills to fight a guerilla war against the Union. Soldiers would have had to steal from citizens in order to survive and they would have wreaked havoc on the population with terrorist attacks.
Lee did consider it. But then, quickly dismissed it. As painful as surrender would be – and at the time of these decisions, he had no idea what Grant’s terms would be – Lee knew that a guerilla war would merely perpetuate the already intense divisions between the north and the south. Lee recognized the desolation and destruction that had befallen the southern states as a result of the insurrection and he wanted reconciliation.
The full and formal surrender of Lee to Grant in McClean’s parlor is a scene in the American story that few people appreciate. Lee’s role in the nation’s healing and reconciliation continued throughout Reconstruction and he was seen as a symbol of unity and peace. After the War, he was pardoned by President Johnson (at the urging of General Grant) and retired to Virginia where he served as President or head of Washington College (later to be Washington and Lee College). It should also be noted that General Grant’s approach to Lee, his surrender, and Lee’s Army was magnanimous and full of honor.
Whether the full accounting of General Lee’s service during and after the Civil War is deserving of a statue is up to the people of Charlottesville Virginia. They have made that decision. But the President’s remarks yesterday (if you can call them ‘remarks’) demonstrates his innate inability to think intelligently beyond basic talking points. The argument that a statue somehow speaks to a state’s history – especially a history as complex as Virginia’s given the men and women who trace their roots there – is overly simplistic. Add to that, the extreme burden that slavery has left not just to Virginians but to the entire country and we are left with comments that can only be described at best as insensitive.
President Trump offered a common argument used by southerners opposed to the removal of Confederate iconography: the slippery slope. “Today it is Robert E. Lee, tomorrow Stonewall Jackson, the next day George Washington, the next Jefferson. Where does it end?” As I said, this is a common argument used by those who do want to preserve symbols of America’s racist past without admitting that as the reason. But that argument assumes, perhaps fairly that Americans either do not know or cannot learn their own history. Further, it assumes that Americans can not place our patriots and heroes in the context of their times.
Let me explain.
Presidents Washington and Jefferson were slaveholders. I wish they had not been. They both owned slaves. They both owned plantations. Jefferson, in his life time, wrote many things about white supremacy; things that we would not agree with in 2017. Washington freed his slaves upon his death but was unable to free his wife Martha’s slaves because of the way in which inheritance worked at that time. If we as Americans could go back and undo some of the decisions made 250 years ago, we would; and I would hope that first on the list would be slavery. But even if we could go back and make a different decision, we do not know what impact that decision would have on subsequent events. We all learned early on that the Great Compromise – counting blacks as three-fifths of a person, and allowing slavery to continue – in return for southern states’ ratification of the new Constitution, was how we became a nation. I wish that were not the case, but it is.
Lincoln is revered for emancipating the slaves. But he only did it when it was militarily advantageous to do so and he did not do it in states under Union control. Nor did Lincoln truly champion civil rights for freed blacks. In fact, for a while, Lincoln favored colonization – sending freed blacks to Africa because he did not believe that whites and blacks could live together in peace. Further, Lincoln championed a kind reconstruction and easy peace which angered his own party in Congress. Lincoln is revered today but before his death, he was quite unpopular and at one point, was predicted not to win re-election.
But just because our founders were flawed men, it does not mean that we should not celebrate that which they gave us. There was no one else that could have inaugurated the Presidency like George Washington. He was venerated after independence. The founders needed and the country required a president who was trusted and revered. The nation needed a president who would set the example for how all future presidents would behave in office. Washington did that for us. And after two terms, he peacefully transitioned power to his successor. Let’s not forget how crucial that was to this nascent republic.
Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. He wrote the words that we all aspire to live by. He expanded the United States by acquiring the Louisiana Purchase and he offered an alternative approach to governance in opposing the Federalists. Jefferson more than anyone else gave us the idea of small government, governed by the people and not the establishment (which in his mind were the capitalists and bankers). Jefferson brought the Enlightenment to this side of the Atlantic.
To Trump’s point, yes Washington and Jefferson were flawed individuals because of slavery in much the same way that America is a flawed country because of our original sin. I think we would all love it if our leaders were perfect; I know I would. But we have been blessed with brilliant yet blemished heroes and yes, we do have to make a choice as to which statues to keep and which ones to tear down. The only way to make that decision is to understand the context within which these men lived and fought.
History has not hidden Washington and Jefferson’s flaws. I have visited both Mount Vernon and Monticello several times and during each tour, slavery is front and center. Hundreds of books have been written about both presidents, many of which comment on their racial views and how they compare to those of their contemporaries. We simply have to position them in the context of their time and judge them based on all of their contributions including their blemishes. And I would argue we do the same with the Confederate statues and other memorabilia throughout the South. Jim Crow, segregation, the black codes and God forbid the KKK are all part of our history, the part we never ever want to repeat.
In June 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the new federal constitution. By 1790, four more states would ratify. Within the next 100 years, the United States would tear itself apart over slavery, put itself back together again, industrialize, expand west, discover gold, build a transcontinental railroad and pursue dozens if not hundreds of innovations.
America has done some remarkable things in her 230 years of existence. She has also done some pretty horrible things. Like Washington and Jefferson, she is flawed and we have to evaluate her within the context of her own history and actions.
Slavery and the racial animus that has resulted from our original sin are like a boil on America’s forehead. We have lanced and drained it only to watch it fester and reappear, each time just a little smaller and a little less painful. As a flawed people, like Washington and Jefferson, we continue to lance and drain that God forsaken boil – over and over and over again, each time bandaging and keeping it clean so as to keep it from getting infected and spreading.
While desirous to simply cut it out and forget that it ever existed, we cannot without damaging the healthy surrounding tissue and so, we continue to treat and lance it when necessary hoping that this is the last time.
America’s historic figures do not have to be perfect for us to celebrate the value and symbolism that they bring to our heritage. They do not have to be perfect because America is not perfect. But slavery was an evil that has had such a profound impact on our culture and history that it would behoove all of us, particularly those of us who are white to understand the message and symbolism that Confederate iconography sends to communities of color. And for those historical figures, we should find other ways to celebrate their contributions and to educate ourselves of their flaws. Because contributions and flaws are of equal weight when evaluating historical significance.
Amy, August 2017