In 1869, the president of Washington College was invited to Gettysburg. The Battlefield Memorial Association wanted his help in erecting granite memorials to mark the “positions and movements of the armies” during the great Civil War battle of six years before.
Robert E. Lee declined.
“I think it wiser … not to keep open the sores of war,” he wrote, “but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”
New Orleans has come around to the general’s point of view. The City Council voted in December 2015 to take down three statues of Confederate heroes — Lee, President Jefferson Davis, and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard — and an obelisk that honored an 1874 uprising by the Crescent City White League against the Reconstruction-era state government. Lee was the last of the four to be removed, plucked by a crane on May 19 from his 68-foot pedestal. He had towered over the circle named for him for 133 years, enshrined there almost two full decades after his surrender at Appomattox.
“The Civil War is over; the Confederacy lost, and we are better for it,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu was quoted as saying in the New Orleans Advocate this week. “To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past, it is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future.”
The few who protested the removals disagreed, some arguing that the city was trying to erase history or their heritage. But New Orleans is right on the history and the heritage the statues represent. Whatever the individual virtues of Lee or hundreds of thousands of Confederate soldiers when it came to courage on the battlefield, whatever the sacrifices and burdens they bore, they took up arms against their country, killing more than 600,000 Americans in the process. All to perpetuate slavery. Whether that was why they enlisted, whether or not they owned slaves, that’s what they were defending. On this point the Confederacy’s founders were unequivocal.
Article I, Section 9(4), of their Constitution states: “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”
Their vice president, Alexander Stephens, declared in his infamous “Cornerstone” speech of March 1861: “Our new government is founded … its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
There is nothing to defend or celebrate there, not now and not in 1884 when Lee’s statue went up in New Orleans. How, then, were he, Davis, and countless other Confederates honored in hundreds of places across the country they tried to destroy? David W. Blight wrote of the postwar drive for unity among whites North and South, and how that took precedence over hopes for a new birth of freedom, in his 2001 book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.
“Three overall visions of Civil War memory collided and combined over time: one, the reconciliationist vision, which took root in the process of dealing with the dead from so many battlefields, prisons, and hospitals … ; two, the white supremacist vision, which took many forms early, including terror and violence, locked arms with reconciliationists of many kinds, and by the turn of the century delivered the country a segregated memory of its Civil War on Southern terms; and three, the emancipationist vision, embodied in African Americans’ complex remembrance of their own freedom, in the policies of radical Reconstruction, and in the conceptions of the war as the reinvention of the republic and the liberation of blacks to citizenship and Constitutional equality.
“In the end this is a story of how the forces of reconciliation overwhelmed the emancipationist vision in the national culture, how the inexorable drive for reunion both used and trumped race.”
Frederick Douglass remained true to the emancipationist vision, never losing hope despite the setbacks he witnessed. In a Memorial Day speech 140 years removed from this weekend, he said:
“There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war, which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget, and while today we should have malice toward none, charity toward all, it is no part of our duty to confound right with wrong, or loyalty with treason. …
“Though freedom of speech and of the ballot have for the present fallen before the shotguns of the South, and, the party of slavery is now in the ascendant … [t]he heart of the nation is still sound and strong, and … patriotic millions … will stand as a wall of fire around the Republic, and in the end see Liberty, Equality and Justice triumphant.”
This month New Orleans made its stand, choosing “to obliterate the marks of civil strife.” Others have taken a different path. In 1996, Richmond, Va., made a statement without tearing anything down. After much debate, the city added a memorial of a modern-day hometown hero — African American tennis great Arthur Ashe — to its Monument Avenue, a boulevard long dominated by Confederate icons. Those statues — and the history they represent — remain, but Ashe, like most Americans today, has his back to them, eyes fixed on a more hopeful future.
Kevin Ferris, the Inquirer’s commentary editor, is coauthor of Vets and Pets: Wounded Warriors and the Animals That Help Them Heal (Skyhorse, September 2017). firstname.lastname@example.org