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Wednesday, August 23, 2017
Current Affairs ... History ...

I’ve been pondering the terrible incident that took place earlier this month in Charlottesville, VA, when radical white nationalist groups (including neo-Nazis and the KKK) gathered to protest the planned removal of the monument statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. There are plenty of terrible things to say about the radical right (or “alt-right” in modern terms) and the violence that it fomented, violence which led to the death by automotive terrorism of a young woman who was part of the crowds that came to Charlottesville to counter-protest the radical right. And since there have been plenty of writers and commentators who have already expressed those things in ways that are much more cogent and eloquent than I can, I will pretty much leave untouched the tragic events that transpired in the home of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and in more recent times, writer William Faulkner and pop-singer Dave Matthews.

What I would like to ponder a bit further is the issue of removing statues, monuments and other symbols relating to the Civil War and the Confederate movement of the 1860s. In quite a few towns in the South and also further north, local community activism has led to the removal of Confederate flags along with a wide variety of statues and monuments relating to the Confederacy. The City Council of Charlottesville had recently approved the removal of Robert E. Lee and Traveler (his horse) from the downtown pedestal where they stood since 1924, although the actual removal has been delayed by a lawsuit. There doesn’t seem to be any set plan as to where the Charlottesville statue will wind up, but other cities have moved similar statues to museums.

Although I completely agree that General Lee and other tributes to the Confederacy need to be removed from pedestalled places of honor on public grounds, I do hope that these artifacts will be preserved and made available to the public, although in a context where the great sufferings that were at the heart of the conflict (i.e., the institution of slavery) can be balanced with the “southern pride” aspects of the rebellion. The terrible nature of slavery must remain at the forefront of our remembrances of the history of America through the 1860’s.

But the South is still entitled to some pride regarding how it responded to increasing Northern pressure for it to alone bear the consequences of restricting and eventually ending slavery, an institution that the great majority of northern leaders had acquiesced to and even shared in over the previous century. The Confederate armies fought bravely and valiantly, and even though their cause was ultimately the wrong one, the many great battles that Robert E.Lee and some of his fellow generals (especially Stonewall Jackson) won against numerically superior and better outfitted forces should not be forgotten.

But neither should it be lionized. The South is entitled to its history; that should not be taken away from it. But neither should that history be allowed to deny what was and still is owed to the millions who suffered at the hands of white slave masters, and their descendants. Striking the balance is still a difficult and sometimes impossible task. Recent surveys show the great and on-going divisions in attitudes towards symbols of Southern pride between whites and blacks. E.g., a 2015 poll showed that 72% of blacks see the Confederate flag as symbol of racism, vs. 25% of whites; while 66% of whites saw it as a symbol of southern pride, vs 17% of blacks. A recent update from a 2018 YouGov poll showed that 62% of Southern whites say the flag is a symbol of Southern pride, versus 28% who attribute it to racism. Whereas, 68% of Southern blacks say that it is a symbol of racism vs 9% who would allow it as a statement of Southern pride. The biggest difference between these poll results is in white attribution of pride to the Confederate flag, falling by 10% points in 3 years. But still, a wide gap remains between how blacks and whites in the South see the stars and bars.

It is edifying and healing to know that Robert E Lee’s great-great-grandson has denounced the radical right violence in Charlottesville. Robert E Lee V told Newsweek that “General Lee would not tolerate that sort of behavior either. His first thing to do after the Civil War was to bring the Union back together, so we could become a more unified country.” Furthermore, Jefferson Davis’s great-great-grandson stated that the Lee statue in Charlottesville should be removed from its public location. Bertram Hayes-Davis agrees that since the statue is found to be offensive and hurtful by a significant portion of the population, it needs to be preserved in a less prominent and more appropriate space, such as a museum. It’s nice to know that at least the Lees and Davis’s have accepted that the Civil War really is over.

Interestingly enough, however, the Lee monument in Charlottesville is not as racially divisive as the Confederate flag is. Regarding the Lee statute in Charlottesville, 44% of Southern blacks strongly or moderately approve of its removal, versus 23% who are opposed (with 33% having no opinion). Interestingly, Southern whites were a bit more accepting of the notion that Lee’s time was up – 57% strongly or somewhat approve, while 23% disapprove (same number for blacks), with 16% having no opinion. So as I suggest (and as many communities have chosen to do), the Confederacy tributes still need to be taken off the pedestal, but they should still be given some acknowledgment and respect, albeit in context with the struggles and sufferings of the slave population. One fairly common disposition for Confederate monuments is at a local museum, where the great leaders and fallen soldiers and angels of the cause can be viewed eye-to-eye.

Another interesting footnote to the whole Confederate statute hub-bub. In a recent post, I mentioned that my favorite Confederate general was James Longstreet, colloquially known as “Old Pete” to his Confederate cronies. Longstreet was born in South Carolina and grew up in Georgia and Alabama – the first few states to break away from the Union in 1860. He was a major figure in the Confederate army, second only to the legendary Stonewall Jackson in terms of importance behind Lee. Longstreet was there at Bull Run / First Mananas in 1861, was heavily involved in defending Virginia during McClellan’s uninspired Peninsula Campaign of early 1862, fought well during the short-lived Rebel invasion of Maryland at Antietam in 1862, was a key figure in the major Southern victories at Fredricksburg and Second Manassas in early 1863, was the Corp commander at Gettysburg, and after some action in Tennessee (which I discussed recently), Longstreet took some Confederate lead in his back during the 1864 battle at the Wilderness (shot by accident by one of his soldiers). And yet he recovered and fought in the final eastern battles at Petersburg and Richmond in 1865. Longstreet remained with Lee through the final moments of the Confederacy at Appomattox.

So Longstreet was just as deeply soaked in the Confederacy tide as any man. And yet, when it was over, he had the good sense to accept that it was over. Longstreet quickly used his friendship with General Grant to get right with the Union, and thus served the Republican Party and the US Government for many years after 1865. He never joined up with the “Lost Cause” defenders of the Confederacy, and was thus roundly and unfairly criticized in public by some of his former fellow officers (such as Jubal Early and William Pendleton; but not by Robert E. Lee, who was too classy for that). As a result, for many decades, Civil War historians blamed the defeat at Gettysburg mainly on Longstreet. This trend continued thru the 1950s and 60s and included the writings of Shelby Foote, the historian who Ken Burns utilized and popularized in his Civil War series. Only after the 1970s did a “Longstreet revisionism” take hold amidst history scholars.

As such, it’s not much of a surprise that you don’t see any articles about Longstreet statues being pulled down by angry protesters or removed by lifting cranes from town square. Because, there aren’t any !!! About all that Old Pete got were a handful of roads and bridges named after him. Most of the streets named for Longstreet were Avenues or Drives, as you might guess; but in Fitzgerald, Georgia, there actually is a “Longstreet Street”! There is also a small town in Kentucky named after him (recall that Kentucky stayed in the Union, but not by much), and a Longstreet Theater at the University of South Carolina. Actually, there is a statue of Longstreet on horseback, one that was dedicated in 1998. But given the appropriate location (Gettysburg, PA), Old Pete’s one monument is probably safe for now. (PS, it’s on the ground, not on a pedestal.)

At present there is a controversy going on in New York City about re-naming some streets near Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn named after Lee and Stonewall Jackson. So far, however, no one seems to have noticed Longstreet Avenue in the Bronx, out in an obscure corner near the Throgs Neck Bridge. I hope that the more pragmatic Broxites will continue to focus upon the Yankees’ pennant race with the Red Sox, and give Old Pete a break. Yes, Longstreet was born the son of a planter who kept slaves, and fought long and hard to defend the slavery-based economy and lifestyle of the South during the Civil War. But once it was over he accepted that the pre-war Southern way of life had passed; in an 1867 letter he said “The surrender of the Confederate armies in 1865 involved . . . surrender of the former political relations of the negro . . . [and] surrender of the Southern Confederacy. These issues expired on the fields last occupied by the Confederate armies. There they should have been buried.”

A cynical southern newspaper said in 1875 “we have infinitely more respect for Longstreet, who fraternizes with negro men on public occasions, with the pay for the treason to his race in his pocket [i.e., his post-war service to the Union and Republican Party], than with [former Confederate Generals] Forrest and Pillow, who equalize with the negro women, with only ‘futures’ in payment.” It sounds like the post-war Longstreet had gotten pretty far ahead of his time for an old guy from the racist deep south. I’m sure that he couldn’t pass today’s “implicit bias” tests, but I would still argue that his few public tributes should be left in place, even as those of his Civil War brethren (Lee and Jackson) fall.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:17 pm      

  1. Jim, A good post on the Confederate Monuments. I’m not quite sure what I can add to or discuss re this post, so all I have to contribute are some tangential tho’ts (as usual).

    To me it seems there are very few things, when it comes to America as a nation that, when one digs deeper, do not end in showing the vast number of serious mistakes humans have made throughout history. Most of these mistakes have involved people who see each other as “different”.

    As I read your post, I tho’t not only of all the various White people who held slaves, but also of the “Free People of Color” (who were a larger number than one might initially think) who also had slaves. Among Native American Indians there was much war between tribes before the Whites came and gave them one group to hate for how they treated the indigenous.

    So much of life is complex and has so many sides that simple answers are inappropriate and just don’t work. But today it seems that most people want simple answers, to immediately lay responsibility for almost anything that happens at the foot of some specific person or group.

    I also think that in our present day circumstances there are a couple of unique things that affect the whole attitude of what has happened in our history. I read an article in the “Chicago Tribune” recently (I am terrible at giving references and do not have any.) that noted that the Internet and Social Media make the entire planet available to everybody knowing one’s business and everyone considering it his/her right to judge the others. It seems to me that the concept of a “considered opinion” has completely disappeared from today’s society; everyone’s opinion, no matter how uninformed, is important. (No, it is not.) People don’t seem to realize that some opinions may have more value than others’.

    Then there is the “Alt-right” and “Alt-left” business. I personally find this a strange concept: What precisely does “alt” mean in this concept. Does it mean “alternative”? If so, what would be “another” concept of “right” and “left”? Perhaps it means “farther than”; that might make more sense. Yet again, some people’s opinions may have less “consideration” than others have.

    Then there is an editorial in the “Chicago Tribune” (you’d love it, Jim; it’s complete with serious stats to prove the point of the author). It indicates that both the “alt-left” and “alt-right” are not that large when it comes to groups. However, Breitbart and Steve Bannon who are “anti-democratic” have a much larger “toehold in our political discourse” and deserve some attention lest they really begin to have some serious influence on our (world-wide?) society.

    This entire business leaves me sitting and wondering at the general fear that seems to embrace so much of the world these days. On the one hand all the technological and scientific change that has brought us to where we are now is embraced with enthusiasm; yet on the other hand it is feared for the change it will bring. Perhaps what is needed in the world is a time to adjust to the changes brought about by science and technology; maybe then people will get some perspective on the changes and adjust to them.

    Well, this is not quite what you posted about; but it is the tho’ts your post brings to mind as I read it. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 26, 2017 @ 2:28 pm

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