There is no shortage of hypocrisy in the setting up and taking down of monuments—certainly not in the U.S. South, but also not in the North or anywhere else. When we get the chance to topple a large block of that dissembling, we ought to embrace doing so; we can remember the limited good embodied by past semi-heroes in better and more appropriate ways. This is particularly true in regard to the dismantling of the last remaining Confederate monument last week in New Orleans—the statue of Robert E. Lee.
Plenty of examples of this monumental historical problem bespot American history. Upon the publishing of our Declaration of Independence, readings throughout the nation sparked celebrations. During one such episode, a crowd of euphoric New Yorkers marked their jubilee by toppling a huge bronze statue recently erected of King George III. For this endeavor, they capped their reading of the words “All men are created equal” by rounding up a group of Africans to perform the hard labor for them.1 The irony must have been lost on them.
Likewise, today we see the same degree of disconnect in the continued praise of Robert E. Lee, even by men of otherwise critical and scholarly capacity—men who can read, and thus who ought to know better. It appears they have never adequately, or perhaps even at all, challenged the legacy of Lee as a pristine Christian hero.
Yes, he was a Christian; but like most antebellum southern Christians, he was a hugely compromised and inconsistent one.
Some defenders maintain their myopia by emphasizing Lee’s letters in which he expresses his desire to free all the slaves and that he was happy after the war that they would be finally freed. From this edited slice of sources, it is insisted he was not like the snarling slave drivers those lying Yankees portrayed all southerners as in their propaganda. No, Lee was kind, benevolent, and caring. He hated the system foisted upon him and wished he could free his slaves all along.
But the South had its own propaganda, and this image of Lee is not true. He was not only happy to keep slaves, but he fought a court case to keep some of the enslaved. While he did make some grandiose statements in favor of liberty here and there, his private actions belied them.
He did argue, for example, that “slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.” Wow! You didn’t hear that in your history books, did you? And no wonder: it makes a southerner proud.
Yeah, but that’s just a snippet. Read the rest:
I think it however a greater evil to the white than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are stronger for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & Tempest of fiery Controversy.
Upon these grounds, then, he condemned abolitionists. The work and aim of abolition was “unlawful & entirely foreign to them & their duty.”2
Lee not only opposed radical abolitionism, but virtually any pro-emancipation cause that would actually have emancipated any slaves. He opposed any new territories being closed to slaveholders. He supported the Crittenden Compromise in 1861—a last-ditch effort to head-off secession by offering the South a Constitutional Amendment that would enshrined the institution of slavery permanently. While the U.S. House and Senate repeatedly voted the measure down, Lee was writing to his daughter saying that protecting chattel slavery in our Constitution forever “deserves the support of every patriot.”
Likewise, one article continues,
Even at the moment he reportedly told Francis Blair that if “he owned all the negroes in the South, he would be willing to give them up…to save the Union,” he was actually fighting a court case to keep slaves under his control in bondage “indefinitely,” though they had been promised freedom in his father-in-law’s will.
Too all southern apologists and neoconfederates out there who keep pointing to Lee’s (and a score of other great leaders’) whitewashed portraits saying, “Don’t falsify history,” I say unto you, “Don’t falsify history.”
If you can’t paint your heroes warts and all, don’t paint.
When the statue in question was originally unveiled in 1884, Charles Fenner gave a lengthy, tedious dedicatory eulogy. In it, he reviewed Lee’s crossroads at the choice to take command of the northern army or lead the southern. For the southern propagandist, it was no difficulty at all for a man like Lee:
[M]y study of his character forbids me to believe that such considerations ever assumed the dignity of a temptation to him. Amongst the records of his written or spoken thoughts I find no evidence of even a moment’s hesitation in his choice. Duty, the guide and guardian of his life, never spoke to Lee in doubtful accents. Its voice was ever as clear as the trumpet’s note, and by him was never heard but to be instantly obeyed.
The truth is just the opposite. Lee first asked Winfield Scott permission to sit out the war altogether. That is, he tried to hide from “Duty.” After anguishing over whether to maintain his oath of loyalty to the U.S. army or to fight on behalf of his state and slavery, he chose the latter. Then, fittingly for his decision, he sent his letter of resignation to the War Department by the hand of a slave. He then immediately wrote another letter expressing that he did not believe Virginia yet had full justification to secede, and that he knew he was choosing against the wishes of his wife and children (and several other family members).
All of this type of material—reams of it—for Lee, for many others, and for the South in general, modern Southern apologists, partisans, and neo-confederates ignore, dismiss, suppress, or at best are simply ignorant of. In this, they are left with a raw hypocrisy that they oftentimes cannot even see, despite the fact that it is so transparent to anyone who takes more than a few minutes to research the whole history.
The Great Rewriting of History
One of the great ironies of our modern Southern apologists is that while they continually decry the doctrine and practice of “victimology” with which Yankees, then and now, inundated our society—whether the pure victimhood of feminists, blacks, “the poor,” immigrants, etc., etc.—some of which is true and some imagined, they nevertheless remain totally blind to how openly and repeatedly the post-war South slanted history, moved goal posts, and outright lied by doing just that—playing victim.
I’m not the only one to notice this. A column a few years back nailed it: “After the war, the South embraced a mythology of victimhood. An important feature was the assertion that the war had been not about slavery at all but about state’s rights.” Before the war, this had not been so: “The secessionists themselves were not so shy. In their various declarations, they announced they were leaving the Union to preserve slavery.”
The point is that before the war, southern leaders unanimously and consistently argued loud and clear that secession was all about protecting the institution of slavery. (Southerners had argued this from the Continental Congress forward, repeatedly.) If states’ rights was ever mentioned, it was mentioned only in the context of maintaining their right to “that species of property” that was chattel slavery, almost exclusively of blacks. But immediately after Appomattox, their rhetoric changed. Suddenly, slavery had never been at issue at all. Southerners fought for liberty and state sovereignty.
Just read Fenner’s eulogy of Lee linked above: in an intolerable 14,000-word oration (it must have lasted multiple hours) he never once mentioned slavery, white supremacy, the plight of the Africans, or anything related to it. No, he spends a good bit on a tedious defense of the right of secession, however. That’s what Lee was all about! Damn Yankees!
The point is well-made in Richard Beringer, et al, Why the South Lost the Civil War. They write,
Back in 1860–61 the issue seemed clear. Southerners talked then of slavery and, to a lesser extent, of racial adjustment and state rights. . . .[F]rom the start, a large part of the Confederate elite pointed to slavery as the cause of armed conflict. Robert Hardy Smith, a member of the Provisional Congress, wrote in 1861 that “the question of negro slavery has been the apple of discord” and that “we have dissolved the late Union chiefly because of the negro quarrel.” Only a few contemporaries would have disagreed—in 1861.
In his famous “cornerstone” speech given just after his inauguration as vice-president of the Confederacy, Alexander H. Stephens not only asserted that slavery “was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution” but also claimed, using biblical metaphor, “that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his [the Negro’s] natural and moral condition” and that “the stone which was rejected by the first builders is become he chief stone of the corner.” In this he echoed Robert M. T. Hunter, who had stated on the floor of the United States Congress in 1859 that the Union was like an arch, “and the very keystone of this arch consists of the black marble cap of African slavery; knock that out, and the mighty fabric, with all that it upholds, topples and tumbles to its fall.”3
Literally scores of such comments could be cited from all over Southern leadership and journalism. And such comments continued all through the war. As late as 1865, the Charleston Mercury “admitted that the South started the war to preserve slavery.”4
As soon as the war ended, however, slaves were freed. If such an argument were sustained, Southern leaders and the South in general would never recover. Something had to change in the rhetoric in order to maintain the northern invaders as the bad guys. So, the rhetoric as to the cause of the war changed—almost literally overnight, and almost to a man. Slavery hardly ever would come up as a cause again. States’ Rights and Secession now took center stage.
Nowhere is this radical flip-flop more prominent than in the public proclamations of the South’s own vice president, Alexander Stephens. After the war,
Slavery no longer supplied a cornerstone. Now the war “had its origin in opposing principles, which, in their action upon the conduct of men, produced the ultimate collision of arms.” These conflicting principles “lay in the organic structure of Government of the States. . . . The contest was between those who held it [the central government] to be strictly Federal in its character, and those who maintained that it was thoroughly National.”5
Slavery, if anything, was now only incidental.
The Literature of the Lost Cause
Beringer et al go on to note how this quickly reinvented version immediately became the version of the truth perpetuated by the creators of the “lost cause” narrative.
[Jefferson] Davis reduced his own postdecision dissonance by confessing that, although the South had not won, it should have. Davis and others who shared his views, excessively proud of the Confederacy and their roles in it, fell into the class proudly labeled “unreconstructed.” It was such individuals who established and ran the historical societies, veterans’ organizations, and cemetery associations. . . .
Their societies and journals excused Confederate errors and quarreled over minor points. “Exposed to evidence” of their senses, “which unequivocally demonstrates a belief system to be wrong,” people like Davis, J. William Jones, and Jubal A. Early tended “to proselyte more vigorously for the belief system.” The literature of the lost cause is full of examples. To such former Confederates, it was “still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position . . . and Pickett . . . waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance. . . . This time. Maybe this time.”6
Found the societies and organizations, they did—and they built all of the monuments like the one just dismantled, beginning in 1884, and lasting throughout the post-Reconstruction era.
But look at what a popular religion it became! Charles Wilson wrote in Baptized in Blood: the Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920:
The Southern civil religion emerged because the experience of defeat in the Civil War had created a spiritual and psychological need for Southerners to reaffirm their identity, an identity which came to have outright religious dimensions. Each Lost Cause ritual and organization was tangible evidence that Southerners had made a religion of their history.
These “rituals” included grand, multi-day meetings of the United Confederate Veterans or United Daughters (or Sons) of the Confederacy, complete with parades, orations, celebrity appearances, hundreds of thousands of attendees, and the dedication of countless monuments and statues.
Despite their bafflement and frustration of defeat, Southerners showed that the time of the “creation” still had meaning for them. The Confederate veteran was a living incarnation of an idea that Southerners tried to defend at the cultural level, even after Confederate defeat had made political success impossible. Every time a confederate died, every time flowers were placed on graves on Southern Memorial Day, Southerners relived and confronted the death of the Confederacy. The religion of the Lost Cause was a cult of the dead, which dealt with essential religious concerns.7
“Lost Cause” hysteria abounded for generations afterward, and with it, the myth that the war and its heroes had nothing to do with slavery at all. This lie from the pit of hell has done nothing good for the South—white or black—but has instead created a destructive idol no less pernicious than the Baals, Ashteroths, and Molochs of the Old Testament. It is statism, humanism, and hero-worship the likes of which got ancient Israel carried away captive, leveled, and burned to the ground.
As much as anywhere in history, Roman Catholicism was hated and loathed in the South. Yet as soon as they had lost the war, they created their own nationalistic version of sainthood and icon worship. They dotted the South with statues of Lee, Davis, Jackson, and every conceivable hero, and even wrote epithets of outright pro-segregation and white supremacy upon some of them. And they pray for the millennial return of Robert E. Lee and the great White hope.
Today’s defenders of the South and defenders of whitewashed heroes simply need to learn the whole truth, accept it, repent of their holding to a tenacious lie, kill the idols, and move forward in truth. Right now, they are intellectually swimming in the greatest rewrite in American history, and they can’t touch bottom.
No Christian, and certainly no Christian movement, can survive the dead weight of idolatry. And the Southern “cult of the dead” is just that. Make no mistake: the North had all its faults too, and many are far too celebrated, or whitewashed, or suppressed, to turn their good into much real progress. But we southerners and Christians need to clean up our own nest before we start damning Yankees all over again. Else, we’ll all drown together. There’s no way you can even begin to pretend to have any moral high ground until you can demolish your own lies and the idols erected upon them. I rejoice that one more has fallen. But the hardest idols to fell still stand, and they are not made of stone.
- It is not clear whether or not these blacks were in fact enslaved, indentured, or freedmen, but the act in itself is symbolic enough.(↩)
- Robert E. Lee to his wife, Dec. 27, 1856, quoted in Nathaniel Weyl and William Marina, American Statesmen on Slavery and the Negro (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1971), 178–179.(↩)
- Richard E. Beringer, Herman Hattaway, Archer Jones, and William N. Still, Jr. Why the South Lost the Civil War, Rev. Ed. (Athens, GA and London: The University of Georgia Press, 1991), 377.(↩)
- Beringer, 378.(↩)
- Beringer, 407.(↩)
- Beringer, 407–408.(↩)
- Wilson, 36.(↩)