The Emergent Fantasy of the Civil War



I like to think if I had turned 18 in 1861 instead of 1980 I would have gone north.  That I would have said a secret goodbye to my family and headed north from Dallas.  Across the Indian Territories, now modern day Oklahoma, heading toward Kansas and a Union recruiting depot.

Given the emotions of the time, I doubt I could have said goodbye to friends. I would have known that I could never return regardless of the coming war’s outcome.  In 1866 the only thing worse in the South than a carpetbagger was a Southerner who fought for the North.

But having a degree in American history, I know how unlikely that journey was for any Southerner.  I would have had to ignore the deep racism of the time. Put aside loyalty to my state, which was the dominant value in the North and South before 1865. And risked the danger of discovery and hanging on my way north.

In the last two decades the scholarship of the American Civil War has changed significantly for the better.  Much of that new scholarship focused on the neglected African American experience.  At my alma mater, Washington & Lee University, a search of the university’s records uncovered the university’s ownership and sale of slaves before the war.  The research caused the university to reconsider how it displayed flags and other artifacts from the war.

Most importantly that work continues. It was not a public relations stunt. It seeks to tell the whole story of the the war, not just the post-reconstruction falsehood of the “lost cause”.

But the central question today as cities such as Charlottesville, Virginia remove statutes of Robert E. Lee and other Civil War leaders is a difficult one.  Should this new scholarship add to our understanding of the Civil War or should it entirely replace it?

Any city or state should through its elected representatives revisit any statute or symbol on public display at any time.  But the latest discourse in Charlottesville seeks to replace not add to history.  It seeks to make my mythical journey north the only acceptable interpretation of the war.  Any thought that a confederate could redeem themselves is immoral bordering on hate speech.

How should we think about Robert E. Lee?  He resigned his commission in the US Army. For most of the war he led the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia on the principal front of the war.  Lee is often called a “traitor” in modern discourse, even though constitutionally he was not.  The US Constitution has a very narrow definition of the term “traitor” that requires a conviction in open court.

No confederates were ever tried for treason. But there can be no argument that Lee’s actions fighting for the Confederacy was an act perpetuating slavery.  How then can any institution or body politic memorialize Lee?

That Lee was a personally virtuous man held in high esteem prior to the war is irrelevant. As with the Confederate battle flag, subsequent events override. But what about the history after the war?

Lee spent the entire rest of his life after the war working for reconciliation.  He personally rebuffed and spoke openly against anyone advocating guerrilla warfare and resistance to the US government. Repeatedly Lee stated that the duty of all ex-confederates was to obey federal authority and work toward a united nation. And he accepted President Grant’s invitation to visit Grant in the White House in a show of unity.

Lee’s work at Washington & Lee was all about reunification.  He heavily recruited northern students for the school.  His curriculum changes were designed to bring the school into the modern post war world. And in 1975 the Congress and President restored his citizenship.

I would argue that to learn the lessons of the war we must tell the whole story in all its nuance. Rather than remove memorials to most confederates, we ought to erect next to them balancing memorials. Have Fredrick Douglas opposite Lee the way Martin Luther King stares across the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial. Our history is not a new fantasy. It is a stark lesson in the good and evil of Americans and their journey to redemption.  And our memorials should tell that story.




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