Fighting the Lost Cause


As many Americans do, I chose to spend my Memorial Day remembering the fallen by going to the movies.  When I walked through the lobby of the movie theater I was immediately drawn to the piano in the middle of the room both because I play the piano and because the man playing it was playing Battle Hymn of the Republic.  This was a strange way to try and bring two different ideas together and it didn’t quite work but I couldn’t have been the only one to notice the connection between what he was playing and the reasons we were at the theater.

In two separate articles written this past week, two authors have raised questions about a subject which has been part of a larger historiographic debate for some time.  At issue is whether Confederate Generals – and indeed other soldiers who fought for the south in the American Civil War more broadly – should be recognized as heroic figures who fought gallantly for what they believed in or admonished as traitors responsible for the deaths of thousands of their fellow citizens.  This is an emotionally charged issue there should be no doubt about that, but what does it say about us as a country that we are still fighting a war that was supposedly settled 150 years ago?

There is considerable debate amongst Civil War scholars over the meaning of the Civil War though there is little debate about its cause – slavery and issues related to its expansion or restriction within various borders.  Many of us still ask a question that as yet no one has found a convincing answer to yet: what did the Civil War mean?  Indeed veterans returning from the war at the time were debating that very question.  If you were to ask the individual soldiers who fought in the war why they signed up they would be able to give you a clear, decisive reason.  However, if you were to ask them why they fought their answers might surprise you.

America has quite the racist past.  Oftentimes we like to gloss over the imperfections of past leaders because America is quite big on idol worship, but we should not forget that during the time of the American Civil War we were not half racist and half not we were half slave and half free.  This is to say that the south was, in all likelihood more racist than the north, the north was still a very racist place.  All one needs to do to understand this basic historical fact is to look at some primary sources from the time.  Whether it was in the newspaper, in a book, in a diary or even in autobiographies: slavery was an issue that both sides understood would make the Union look altruistic and the Confederacy subhuman.  This can be evidenced in the first-hand accounts of former Confederate Generals and politicians.  Most of these first-hand accounts laid the groundwork for what many refer to as: lost cause propaganda.

Lost Cause propaganda supports the idea that Southern Generals and politicians weren’t obsessed with the issue of slavery but rather state’s rights and much of this propaganda seeks to glorify Confederate icons as patriots rather than traitors.  Spending his early years growing up in the south the historian Charles B. Dew was given a copy of Lee’s Lieutenants, the mammoth history of the Army of Northern Virginia written by Doulgass Southall Freeman.  Dew believed, as many southerners have and continue to believe, that the south was really engaged in a struggle for its honor and way of life.  Though these were certainly items of concerns, they were not the main reasons for secession as Dew points out quite clearly in his book Apostles of Disunion.  Going back to the Tennessee Convention southern leaders had been obsessed with maintaining the institution of slavery threatening secession even during the Jackson administration.  The idea that the south seceded only to protect its honor or only to protect state’s rights isn’t just wrong – it’s wholly inaccurate and a complete misrepresentation of the facts.

One should also keep in mind that the south has quite the martial history.  George Washington was from the south and was even related to Robert E. Lee.  Lee is, of all the southern generals, probably the most revered.  Authors and historians have suggested that Lee is a sort of “marble man” who is above criticism because of his personal beliefs and his perceived invincibility on the battlefield.  This is of course wholly incorrect.  Tactically there was no greater commander in the Civil War save maybe Stonewall Jackson or Nathan Bedford Forrest, but strategically Lee made many blunders and his inability to force the north into submission was certainly a contributing factor in why the south lost the civil war.  But why do we revere these commanders at all?  They broke a solemn oath and chose to fight against their country on the battlefield.  Is that not the definition of treason?  For a complete answer to this question we cannot simply look back and say: “well of course it was” because we have the benefit of hindsight.  I would suggest that a better way to view the men who fought in this struggle would be to look at the cause through the eyes of those most involved in it.  Men like Abraham Lincoln and Ulysees S. Grant did not believe that the south should be punished nor should its commanders be imprisoned.  Lincoln did say in his second inaugural address that the north should act “with malice towards none and charity for all.”

All of this brings up the question that historians have been asking for generations which is: why are we still fighting over this war?  The answer is obviously not a simple one to answer.  The answer that is easiest to understand is that we tend to look at our heritage as being good regardless of what happened historically.  Learning about our past is both interesting and emotional.  It gives us a sense of pride to understand our past.  But understanding our past and reinterpreting our past are two different things.  We shouldn’t glorify one side or the other because history looks more favorably on one side or the other.  Rather we should look at the rational reasons that people did what they did and what the context was during the time in which they were living.

Jamie Malanowski wrote in the New York Times that: “equivalence of experience was stretched to impute an equivalence of legitimacy. The idea that “now, we are all Americans” served to whitewash the actions of the rebels. The most egregious example of this was the naming of United States Army bases after Confederate generals.”  As a historian I don’t condone the naming of American military bases after Confederate soldiers.  At the same time I understand that we do not live in a perfect world and the argument that Malanowski is putting forward is one where equality rules all realms of human remembrance, but such a world does not exist.  We live in a world governed by political realities.  This world is a place where Governors often have to face the unpopular position of taking down the Confederate flag from a local government building because one group or another finds it offensive.

It may seem a bit extreme to have to name a major military installation after a Confederate General, but what are the political ramifications if the federal government were to reject that request on the grounds that one sides fighting was more legitimate than the other?  Any political strategist with half a brain is going to see the protestors at the capital in their mind and that strategist will then see the likelihood of that state’s governor getting re-elected and understand the dichotomy that this politician faces.  In politics, unlike our utopian view of the decision-making process on a national level, a decision that is made to satisfy the needs or wants of one group of people will leave another group of people beyond rapprochement.  This is to say that you can tear down that flag but the politician that had to make that decision is going to be joining the unemployment line as soon as he/she does it.  You can disagree with the decision of the voters and it wouldn’t be the first or last time but you cannot deny the fact that we live in a democracy where these kinds of decisions are scrutinized by voters.

Malanowski goes on to make what I call the “Hitler maneuver.”  The Hitler maneuver is when an author invokes Hitler to make their point.  A wise professor of mine once said that: “no argument worth having ever included the invocation of Hitler.  As soon as one side starts talking about Hitler you might as well just stop talking.”  So when Malanowski decided to go down this slippery slope by using not just Hitler but Tojo, the intellectual integrity of her argument went out the window.  I will nonetheless let my audience decide whether the comparison is an apt one.  Malanowski says: “Fort Lee, in Virginia, is of course named for Robert E. Lee, a man widely respected for his integrity and his military skills. Yet, as the documentarian Ken Burns has noted, he was responsible for the deaths of more Army soldiers than Hitler and Tojo.”  I don’t agree with that assessment and I think that the way that this analogy was framed was just terrible.  I think it is a completely ridiculous analysis that sets up an intellectual trap for anyone trying to have a reasoned debate about this issue, but because he’s Ken Burns we have to address it.  The key words in what Burns says of course are: “he was responsible for the deaths of more Army soldiers…”  How many Army soldiers did Hitler and Tojo kill?  We’ll never know, but that’s the point of making that kind of argument.  It is set up to inspire outrage and does not invite a rational debate of the issue at hand.  By invoking Hitler and Tojo, Burns is making this an emotional issue and not a rational one.

There are strong feelings on both sides of the issue of remembering Confederate veterans.  But this is not the issue in Malanowski’s piece.  Her argument takes a detour to a downright bizarre line of reasoning that would – at least on it’s face – seem at odds with her prior argument that Confederates shouldn’t be given recognition because they killed lots of Americans.  Malanowski says: “Not all the honorees were even good generals; many were mediocrities or worse. Braxton Bragg, for whom Fort Bragg in North Carolina is named, was irascible, ineffective, argumentative with subordinates and superiors alike, and probably would have been replaced before inflicting half the damage that he caused had he and President Jefferson Davis not been close friends.”  So he shouldn’t have a base named after him because he wasn’t very good at his job?  If that were the measuring stick than half the Union Army’s officer corps wouldn’t be eligible.  Names like McClellan would have to be laughed off into the history books, men like Ambrose Burnside would have to be relegated to the role of originator of the sideburns, and what should be said about men like Irvin McDowell and Henry Halleck?  Surely they were responsible for just as many mistakes that took the lives of an unnecessary amount of Union soldiers as men like Bragg did.

The last of Malanowski’s arguments is perhaps the most historically naïve, but it is also one of the biggest most perpetuated historical fallacies about the Civil War: that both sides were not equally racist.  But that was a time when the Army was segregated and our views about race more ignorant.  Malanowski argues that: “Now African-Americans make up about a fifth of the military. The idea that today we ask any of these soldiers to serve at a place named for a defender of a racist slavocracy is deplorable; the thought that today we ask any American soldier to serve at a base named for someone who killed United States Army troops is beyond absurd.”  If we cannot ask African-American servicemen to serve at defenders of racist slavocracies than why do we expect them to serve at places like Fort Washington, Fort Jefferson, Fort Madison, Fort Monroe and the list goes on and on.  The truth is that most American Presidents prior to Lincoln were slaveholders.  America’s history is a deeply, deeply racist one.  Indeed, African-American units were sent into large-scale battles in place of white units so that the African-American units could absorb the majority of the casualties.  What’s even more troublesome about this argument is that killing American soldiers was part of the job description of enlisted American soldiers.  History often forgets the high level of desertion that existed during the Civil War, but the punishment for desertion was often death and the men who had to carry out that sentence were fellow members of the U.S. Army.  If we were to impose such rigid standards for the naming of military bases many forts would have to go unnamed.

The point of this essay is not to pick a fight with Malanowski.  I understand her point and it was one worth thinking about, but what we should also think about are the real-world implications of taking things away once they’ve been given out.  In my mind, Josh Marshall, an editor at Talking Points Memo, made a much more rational and politically astute argument in his piece Difficult to Broach.  Marshall writes: “Coming from my point of view, it genuinely seems outrageous that Confederate generals who were – let’s not paper over the facts – traitors are honored by having massive U.S. military bases named after them. There’s a major difference between respecting and honoring sacrifice – which exists separately from the political movement you’re fighting on behalf of – and honoring people in this way.”  This is a legitimate argument.  Confederate generals were traitors to their country.  Marshall also understands the political reasons for making the choices that had to be made with regards to pacifying the south: “It’s very easy to ignore this possible alternative American history – one arguably bought by the valorization and glamorization of the Confederacy and the decision to consign what were then known as the ‘freedmen’ to a century of semi-freedom.”  This is the heart of the argument really because many of us don’t remember how tense the Civil Rights movement was, heck most of us still can’t come up with an accurate body count of those who died while fighting – non-violently mind you – for the freedom that you and I enjoy without thinking about it.

What I would argue in the wake of these spirited debates is that it is much easier to give something away than it is to take something from someone else.  Think of all the elections predicated on “taking away your Medicare” or of one party trying to “ruin the ideals of the Constitution.”  These arguments are predicated on the idea that there is a threat to your freedom out there and if you don’t stop them by voting against them then you will lose what we, as a country, have fought so long and hard to protect – the land, labor, and capital of white men.  The thing I find so fascinating about this debate is how it is only the white men that get to debate this issue on a “scholarly” level.  One of the really great writers over at the Atlantic is a guy named Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Over the last year Coates has had some truly spirited discussions about many of the topics that go unexplored in the Civil War.  Yet, he is not given a voice in this discussion.  If white men want to have a discussion about the historical construct of white men fighting for the freedom of other white men through history that’s fine, but if you decide to do that you can’t throw race in there as a guilt trip for those who disagree with you.  It’s like the Hitler maneuver, arguing that we were unfair to blacks is just about the biggest historical understatement one could make.  I could argue and many legal scholars would back me up on this that the only reason that African-Americans were allowed to keep their freedom was because the fourteenth amendment was passed.  Without the amendment the Civil Rights movement becomes a legal quagmire and perhaps we don’t begin to reach for the branch of equality until much later in our history.

What we forget too in these emotionally packed arguments is that the men fighting in this Civil War were men defined by their times.  The true measure of a man isn’t how he stands up through time, but how he stood up in the time he lived.  The truth is that people admired Robert E. Lee on both sides during the Civil War.  One northern woman was so smitten by the general that she exclaimed: “Oh, how I wish he was ours!”  Historical figures aren’t just constructs that historians put together after analyzing limited amounts of evidence.  Historians look at primary sources too and it is in these primary sources that the true character of a man is usually found.  You can deplore what men like Lee and Jackson did, but they were loved during the war and considered heroes thereafter.  It is as the historian James McPherson said with regards to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln it is not as important to us to remember that Lincoln died, but rather to “remember that he had lived.”  Whether or not we rename forts where current servicemen serve is of little consequence to most Americans, but doing so could have huge ramifications upon the careers of many Southern politicians.  Why should we be willing to sacrifice good men and women for something that history hasn’t fully figured out yet?  In my view, we shouldn’t seek to re-imagine our view of history any more than we should seek to re-write it.  Let us continue to make history and not use all of our time debating the merits of history that is far more complex than any one person or argument could make it.


One thought on “Fighting the Lost Cause

  1. America has a racist past, a racist present, and probably a racist future.

    Slavery is abhorrent, as most of the “Founding Fathers” would have acknowledged. Many of them, of course, were hypocrites who could not reconcile their intellects with their actions as slave owners. It is sad but true that Southern political and business leaders were obsessed with preservation of the slave-based economy from Colonial days until well into Reconstruction. We sometimes act and talk as if it were ancient history. We are only a few generations removed from it.

    Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s fair to view every Confederate general and soldier as evil traitors.

    The very concept of the U.S. as a coherent nation was fragile from the beginning. I’ve recently read two histories which shed some light on political and social conditions from 1776 to 1860. I recommend Joel Archenbach’s “The Grand Idea,” which examines some relatively obscure aspects of George Washington’s life and the early years of the country. Also Doris Dearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.”

    Most troubling to me is how much of this history is still with us today. The former Confederate states and the Southern territories that later became states are all on the “Red” side of the present-day Red-Blue political divide.

    Slavery is America’s original sin.

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