The symbolic honor given to Confederate leaders through statuary does not need to be interpreted as racism or an endorsement of slavery. It can also be understood as a process of reconciliation and a refusal to deny the primordial unity of the country. It is peace-making instead of imposing a public memory of defeat and conquest.
In Bruce Catton’s famous book A Stillness at Appomattox, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1954, the historian recounts a meeting held by Abraham Lincoln with his two generals, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, just before the inevitable surrender of the Confederacy.
“The principal order of business,” Catton writes, “was not so much to checkmate the Confederacy as to checkmate the men who would try to make peace with malice and rancor and a length of noosed rope.” Catton says that the three were discussing the terms of surrender, and they felt that “if the terms expressed simple human decency and friendship, it might be that a peace of reconciliation could get just enough of a lead so that the haters could never quite catch up with it.” “The Confederacy had no more effective foes than these men,” he continues, “yet it was these three who were most determined that vindictiveness and hatred must not control the future. They would fight without mercy as long as there must be fighting, but when the fighting stopped they would try to turn old enemies into friends.”
How unlike the spirit of our times this passage reads. Vindictiveness is in style and hatred is politically correct depending on whom you hate. The United States never fought a bloodier and more terrible war than it did on its own soil. By the end of the war, even the soldiers facing each other felt that it was awful to be shooting at fellow Americans. “The Northern and Southern armies had less bitterness now than they had had when the war began,” Catton writes. And he talks about men shouting three cheers for peace from the ramparts and then returning “to their fighting.”
I lived in El Salvador during a civil war and will never forget a confession I heard from a soldier who had been near some of the fighting. He confessed that he had shot at the enemy, “but I don’t know if I killed anyone.” They had been shooting at him and he at them, but he wanted to confess his sin of perhaps having shot someone fatally. I remember thinking, “This sort of war cannot be won on the battlefield,” and my impression was confirmed when the United States imposed peace negotiations on the country.
War as fratricide is the most terrible of wars. The aftermath of the Civil War had the states that had seceded from the Union practically governed as conquered territory. Reconciliation was what was necessary, and it was a kind of cultural experiment. The South had lost, but was allowed to venerate its dead and its leaders. The romantic myth of the Lost Cause was no doubt part of the effort to remember and record, but it might not have been the principal element. The historic memory of the tremendous pain and destruction caused by the Civil War required something more than bitter recrimination or amnesia. The communities could remember their leaders as symbols of their identity with the past. The hero-worship was at times excessive, as most political movements are, but figures from history speak of continuity and not condemnation. Setting up statues or writing novels about the past was much better than pitched battles where brother sometimes met brother on the blood-soaked soil.
The attachment some feel for the Confederate symbols does not always equal racism. It inspires those who don’t always love a winner. Matthew Arnold famously criticized his alma mater Oxford by calling the university, “Home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names and impossible loyalties.” There is a definite appeal to the imagination in sympathizing with the losing side. Look at Euripides’ The Trojan Women.
I must admit, I am surprised that some in the military are now pushing for the renaming of bases and a wholesale erasure of the memory of the men at arms who were brothers at arms. It would be wrong to deny valor to those who are opposed to what we believe just because it is not what we believe. Pope Benedict, when he was still a cardinal, attended memorials for the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day. He spoke at a cemetery where German soldiers were buried and lamented that young men should be used so cruelly by an evil state and expressed sorrow for those lives lost in World War II. His valiant logic and deep sympathy would dismay those today who want to induce a traumatic selective amnesia on the consciousness of the country.
People of other times respond to issues and ideas to which we are often deaf. There were churchmen who took the Confederacy side, including Father John Bannon, a St. Louis priest who became a fearless chaplain in the killing fields of the Civil War. He participated in a diplomatic mission for the Confederacy and did not return to the United States after the war, preferring to stay in Ireland where he joined the Jesuit Order and was well respected. Archbishop Hughes had to intervene in riots in New York when the Irish immigrants there resisted the draft to fight the South. Judging the past by the principles and prejudices of the present is hazardous.
The Confederacy wanted to be an independent country, but a bloody war prevented this. That means that the Confederate soldiers and generals were Americans. We could say that they were misguided; others might say that they were caught in a tragedy that engulfed the whole nation and threatened its life. Bases are named for American soldiers who rose up with the political and cultural community of their states against a federal government they felt was a threat to their civilization. The federal government was indeed such a threat, but their rebellion only hastened the destruction of the institution of slavery they thought part and parcel of their culture. (Who knows how much longer it would have taken the United States to outlaw slavery?)
But my point is that these generals the forts are named for were American citizens before the war, during the war, and after the war. After the war, the symbolic honor given to them does not need to be interpreted as racism or an endorsement of slavery. It can also be understood as a process of reconciliation and a refusal to deny the primordial unity of the country. It was peace-making instead of imposing a public memory of defeat and conquest. A rabbi said that God told Moses’s sister Miriam to stop her rejoicing at the death of the Egyptians whose “horse and chariot He cast into the sea.” The Lord said, “Are not the Egyptians also my creatures?” We can respect the enemy dead and mourn them as brothers, the culture said, instead of vilifying them.
We are moving toward a society that discounts reconciliation and favors even the violent settling of scores. It reminds me of what someone said about Britain’s War of Jenkins’ Ear, “They are ringing the bells now but later they will be wringing their hands.” A terrible beauty is not being born. Anarchy and disrespect of others—their property, their lives, their sentiments, and their opinions—are what can be seen crouching at the city gates. Violence is now cheered by some intellectuals and clichéd bien-pensants. The military should be aware that while today they’re talking about the names of bases, tomorrow there will be no bases if they get their way.
Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (July 2020).
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The featured image (detail) is a photograph of the Robert E. Lee recumbent statue by Edward Valentine, from the book Robert E. Lee, soldier, patriot, educator: with special reference to his life and services at Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Va. It has no known copyright restrictions, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.