Politics and Resentment

Robert E. Lee 30¢ Stamp Issue of 1957

My posting the day before yesterday entitled “Bulldozing the Past” ran into some opposition from two old friends of mine. I have a slightly different point of view toward figures of the past such as Robert E. Lee and Christopher Columbus. Both have become, as it were, figures of myth. I have two questions to ask:

  1. How dangerous are these myths today? —and—
  2. How dangerous is it to attempt to bury these myths as if they never existed?

Now I could see wanting to eradicate even the memory of Nazism, the Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot, the massacres between to Hutus and Tutsi, the racism of Slobodan Milosevich and Ratko Mladic, and any number of other episodes in the last several hundred years. One does not want to be associated with mass murderers.

Both Columbus and the generals of the Confederacy were associated with death on a large scale. Probably the quote that Lee is most famous for is the following: “It is well that war is so terrible. Otherwise, we would grow too fond of it.” As for Columbus, most of the death that came in his train was from diseases lurking in the Spanish caravels that laid low the native population of the New World by the millions.

The Italians of America, however, revere the memory of Columbus: The Genoan Admiral of the Ocean Sea was one of them. As for the Confederacy, the myths relating to the War Between the States relate to the Lost Cause beliefs that the South was right to secede from the Union. There were decades of resentment prior to the Rebellion as the South tried vainly to balance their slavery-based agrarian culture against the more industrial North. These resentments still abound today, so it is tempting to want to wipe the slate of history clean at several key points.

But didn’t Trump get elected because a number of flyover states felt resentment at being slighted by the Democrats, by the bi-coastal mafia, even by Hillary Clinton, who assumed she didn’t need their votes to win the presidency?

Erasing still active myths is a dangerous business.

 

Bulldozing the Past

Statue of Robert E. Lee on His Horse Traveller in Richmond

Liberals sometimes exhibit some nasty, ultimately destructive traits. I am dismayed by the current trend of paving over any tribute to Confederate heroes. Many of these Confederate heroes, I believe, deserve to be commemorated. The Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee, was by his lights a good man. So what if he owned slaves? He was a great military leader. Given what he had to work with, he was better than any general on the winning side.

General Braxton Bragg, after whom Fort Bragg is named, was nowhere near as deserving as Lee, but he was no ogre deserving only of ignominy. Even the memory of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the greatest cavalry general of the Civil War and the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, deserves to be honored—for some things.

There are no statues honoring Henry Wirz, the Swiss-born commandant of Andersonville Prison, who was the only Confederate officer hanged for murder after the war—and deservedly so.

I love reading about the War Between the States, and I honor the memory of the South’s greatest generals. Why mess with statues honoring them? Why change the name of Fort Bragg? Why ban the Confederate battle flag on NASCAR vehicles and displays? I am perfectly willing to coexist with history, even if some of my political allies are not.

Christopher Columbus Is Also in Danger of Having His Reputation Erased

Christopher Columbus is being eclipsed for the same reason. Again, by his lights, Columbus behaved like most Europeans loose in the New World. He was not an extraordinarily bad man like Pedro de Alvarado or Nuño Beltran de Guzmán, whose bloody careers led to the death of thousands of Mexican and Central American natives. I might not recognize Columbus Day as a major holiday, but few people do. But any attempt to blot out the history of his times only does all of us a disservice.

Who’s next to go? Thomas Jefferson? Abraham Lincoln? Where does it all stop?

 

Erasing the Confederacy?

Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877)

For some reason that perplexes me, there seems to be a concerted attempt of late to eliminate all traces of the Confederacy: its memorials, its flags, and its heroes. I, myself, have nothing against Robert E. Lee, a man I regard as a legitimate American hero who just happened to fight on the losing side. I even admire the somewhat unsavory Nathan Bedford Forrest, a brilliant cavalry general who just happened to be one of the founding members of the Ku Klux Klan.

These are men who believed in slavery along with millions of their countrymen. In fact, Forrest had before the war been a slave dealer. Do I think slavery is evil? Yes. Do I blame people in the past for believing differently than we do? Not at all. Slavery was petty universal until some point in the 19th Century. It exists even today in the United States, where many prostitutes are in fact slaves of the men who pimp them. We are wasting our time when we are trying to reform our ancestors by pulling down statues, banning flags, and denigrating heroes of times past.

To a certain extent, I believe that much of this whitewashing the past is due to the fact that even the Solid South is not necessarily solid. Americans from Blue States have invaded part of the South, and Red Staters have returned the favor.  If I lived in Memphis today, I probably would be persistently annoyed by all the trappings of the War of the Southern Confederacy.

Let the South have their heroes. Does that mean that we should permit slavery in the 21st century? By no means. We just have to admit that times and mores have changed.

If you reject my reasoning, I suggest you read the three hefty volumes of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative.  It is written predominately from the Southern point of view. As I read it, I kept thinking, “These people were Americans, too!”

The Infamous Shad Bake

Major General George E. Pickett, C.S.A.

Major General George E. Pickett, C.S.A.

He is most famous for leading a spectacularly failed charge against an entrenched elevated position at the Battle of Gettysburg. But he was not to blame for that: The charge was ordered by Lee and executed as ably as possible considering that it was foredoomed to end in disaster.

But that was not the last act of Pickett’s career in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Pickett was commanding general of C.S.A. forces at Five Points, off the right flank of the Petersburg defenses. Lee had given his general direct orders regarding holding his position: “Hold Five Forks at all hazards. Protect road to Ford’s Depot and prevent Union forces from striking the Southside Railroad. Regret exceedingly your forced withdrawal, and your inability to hold the advantage you had gained.” [Italics mine]

The tone of this order did not sit well with General Pickett. Whereupon, feeling that he had covered his bases adequately in case Sheridan should attack, Pickett accepted an invitation from a fellow officer to join in a picnic of shad that had been caught in the Nottoway River. Both he and Fitzhugh Lee left their forces to subordinates and indulged in a nice shad bake.

Unfortunately, Sheridan picked that point to attack Five Forks and stage one of the most decisive victories of the long Siege of Petersburg, sending the defenders scampering for their lives.

Needless to say, that did not sit well with Robert E. Lee, who terminated Pickett’s command a few days later.

 

Boo-Birds and Soreheads

Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America

Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America

In the past, I have been critical of what I sneeringly referred to as the Confederate States of America. Now, as I am slowly working my way through the second volume of Shelby Foote’s magnificent The Civil War: A Narrative, I realize that further distinctions need to be made.

On the Southern side were such admirable and talented men as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, and such great generals as Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Nathan Bedford Forrest (though the latter, as founder of the Ku Klux Klan, was not terribly admirable).

Where I was mistaken is that certain political partisans, such as the Tea Partiers, have more in common with the people who were like a saddle sore to Davis and Lee. The diminutive Alexander Stephens, Davis’s Vice President, got so disgruntled by the politics of Richmond that he just moved back to his home state of Georgia and stayed there. The Confederate paper dollar plummeted in value, eventually sinking to one-twelfth the value of a gold dollar. As Foote writes:

[T]here were many behind the southern lines who disagreed with [Davis]; who were also for peace, but only on Union terms. Some had lost heart as a result of the recent reverses [at Gettysburg and Vicksburg], while other had had no heart for the war in the first place. The latter formed a hard core of resistance around which the former gathered in numbers that increased with every Federal success. It was these men Davis had in mind when, after referring to “threats of alienation” and “preparation for organized opposition.”

I cannot help but think that the Limbaughs and Hannities of our time would also have fought against their government at Richmond. There is a certain strain of sorehead or boo-bird that is incompatible with any leader who is actually trying to accomplish something even halfway laudable—even if we were to assume that States’ Rights was a laudable goal (which I myself do not).

After Gettysburg, Lee asked Davis to be relievbed of his command.  Davis responded with a heartfelt letter that made the Army of Northern Virginia take back his resignation:

RICHMOND, VA., August 11, 1863.

GENERAL R. E. LEE,

Commanding Army of Northern Virginia.

GENERAL : Yours of the 8th instant has been received. I am glad that you concur so entirely with me as to the wants of our country in this trying hour, and am happy to add that, after the first depression consequent upon our disasters in the West, indications have appeared that our people will exhibit that fortitude which we agree in believing is alone needful to secure ultimate success.

It well became Sidney Johnston, when overwhelmed by a senseless clamor, to admit the rule that success is the test of merit, and yet there is nothing which I have found to require a greater effort of patience than to bear the criticisms of the ignorant, who pronounce everything a failure which does not equal their expectations or desires, and can see no good result which is not in the line of their own imaginings. I admit the propriety of your conclusions, that an officer who loses the confidence of his troops should have his position changed, whatever may be his ability; but when I read the sentence, I was not at all prepared for the application you were about to make. Expressions of discontent in the public journals furnish but little evidence of the sentiment of an army. I wish it were otherwise, even though all the abuse of my self should be accepted as the results of honest observation.

Were you capable of stooping to it, you could easily surround yourself with those who would fill the press with your laudations and seek to exalt you for what you have not done, rather than detract from the achievements which will make you and your army the subject of history, and object of the world’s admiration for generations to come.

I am truly sorry to know that you still feel the effects of the illness you suffered last spring, and can readily understand the embarrassments you experience in using the eyes of others, having been so much accustomed to make your own reconnoissances. Practice will, however, do much to relieve that embarrassment, and the minute knowledge of the country which you have acquired will render you less dependent for topographical information.

But suppose, my dear friend, that I were to admit, with all their implications, the points which you present, where am I to find that new commander who is to possess the greater ability which you believe to be required ? I do not doubt the readiness with which you would give way to one who could accomplish all that you have wished, and you will do me the justice to believe that, if Providence should kindly offer such a person for our use, I would not hesitate to avail of his services.

My sight is not sufficiently penetrating to discover such hidden merit, if it exists, and I have but used to you the language of sober earnestness, when I have impressed upon you the propriety of avoiding all unnecessary exposure to danger, because I felt your country could not bear to lose you. To ask me to substitute you by someone in my judgment more fit to command, or who would possess more of the confidence of the army, or of reflecting men in the country, is to demand an impossibility.

It only remains for me to hope that you will take all possible care of yourself, that your health and strength may be entirely restored, and that the Lord will preserve you for the important duties devolved upon you in the struggle of our suffering country for the independence of which we have engaged in war to maintain.

As ever, very respectfully and truly,

(Signed) JEFFERSON DAVIS.

I take back my words about the Confederates States of America. Even in the South, there were Archangels, and there were also malignant spirits.