The aftermath of the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA, continue to rock the country. What happened there, just a short drive away from my home, was unthinkable. But not really.
The demonstrations were reportedly sparked by an effort to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee. Proponents of removing the statue see it as a monument to white supremacy. Opponents accuse them of trying to erase history. The demonstrators who gathered in Charlottesville seemed to support the assertion that the statue is indeed a monument to white supremacy.
As the debates raged, my family was touring the battlefield at Gettysburg, where three days of fighting produced 51,000 American casualties, almost a third of the soldiers on the field. The Confederates lost, as history tells, us, and the battle is considered the turning point of the war.
There’s more to the story, of course. Lee was a dedicated Union general who opposed the secession of Texas, where he was posted in 1861. It’s important to recognize that the issue of secession wasn’t addressed in the Constitution, and no court case dealt with it until Texas v White in 1869. But Lee didn’t favor secession. He wanted a strong and united Union.
Lee was also a slaveholder, and by some accounts not a good one. But his reason for resigning his commission in the U.S. Army had nothing to do with slavery– he simply could not conceive of being ordered to attack and kill his own friends and family. He struggled with his decision, but eventually decided to side with his people rather than his country. I’m not sure most of us outside the South or the state of Utah can conceive of having to make that choice.
As the Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863, Lee was seen by some Union leaders as invincible. He’d fought an amazing series of campaigns with limited resources. The first day of the battle seemed to support that reputation as Lee crushed the Union lines. However, the Union reformed, and after three days of fighting, Lee failed to break the Union Army. He retreated, and Union General Meade was later criticized for not pursuing him, though at that point both armies were in shambles. The war would continue for two more years, finally ending with the surrender of the last Confederate general, Cherokee Chief Stand Watie and his Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, and Osage fighters on June 23, 1865, and the surrender of the CSS Shenandoah on November 6, 1865.
Today, the Gettysburg National Military Park is a poignant and tasteful memorial to the Americans who fought and died there. Memorials to the units that fought stand at the positions they were posted. These memorials recognize soldiers from Maine to Florida, and from Virginia to Minnesota.
In 1938, veterans from both sides gathered to dedicate the Eternal Peace Memorial. A Confederate veteran unveiled the statue, and Union troops fired an artillery salute. The base of the monument is inscribed, “Peace forever in a nation united.”
Today, we don’t much look like a nation united in peace. There’s a movement to erase the history of the South. Groups have even threatened to burn Confederate flags and deface Confederate gravestones at the Gettysburg National Military Cemetery. And there’s a counter-movement of white supremacists who take these threats personally.
In a recent and unsatisfying discussion with two liberals, one of them presented a singular and simple view of the Civil War: it was about slavery, and therefore the Confederate flag is a racist emblem. The North abolished slavery, the South seceded rather than following suit, we fought a war and beat them. Over and done.
Unfortunately, this is a primitive and, at best, outdated and conservative view of history. Historian Philip Sheldrake calls such linear view of history the “Whig view” (though in actuality I would characterize this gentleman’s view as more of a middle school understanding).
Lee’s own struggle with which side to support shows that nothing was that simple. Lee believed in the Union, despite its actions that would eventually take away his slaves. What he could not do was fight against his own people, his friends and family.
We might also consider the case of Charles Crockett, who was 17 years old when he died at the Battle of New Market in 1864, along with nine of his classmates. He’d been a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute here in the Shenandoah Valley. Was he fighting to protect slavery, or for his state and his people?
It’s easy to say the Civil War was about slavery and racism–and in part, it was. But remember that four slave states and nearly half of Virginia remained loyal to the Union. Virginia first voted to stay with the Union, and didn’t change its mind until after the battle at Fort Sumter. Moreover, History.com says,
Concerned about the loyalty of the border states of Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky, the new [Lincoln] administration went so far as to offer the slave states an amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee slavery where it legally existed.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the rebel states, not in the five loyal slave states and not in Louisiana, which had surrendered. Its purpose was to inflict damage on the rebel economy, not to outlaw slavery.
Yes, the southern states claimed slavery as the issue over which they seceded. But it wasn’t really the issue. As I’ve said before with regard to analyzing conflict, “It’s never about what they say it’s about.” This was a war about how far the Federal government could intrude on states’ rights– and that’s an issue that is still unresolved.
It’s easy to wave the American flag and claim that anyone who opposes it is a traitor. It’s not that simple. California and Colorado defy federal law every day with their tolerance of marijuana. Utah and Idaho have defied federal law on guns. None of them have seceded, though some in California would like to and it looks like they’ll put an initiative to that effect on the ballot next year. (Texas v White, however, says that a state can’t secede “except through revolution, or through consent of the States.”)
But let’s get back to the issue at hand: Why are we so upset about Civil War memorials? Why, 80 years after veterans of both sides declared “Peace forever in a nation united,” are we tearing open old wounds?
Do liberals really believe that Southerners who fly the Confederate flag support slavery? My neighbor, an old Baptist minister, flies it next to an American flag on his motorcycle. He does so not because he’s a racist, but because his ancestors fought and died in what they believed was a fight to protect their liberty. Yes, they lost. So did Vietnam vets, but I would never tell them they can’t be proud of what they tried to do, misguided though our leaders were who sent them there.
I’ve been told (by white people) that “some black people are uncomfortable when they see a Confederate flag.” I’m sure that’s true. But what many black people have told me is that badges and uniforms make them uncomfortable. Racism is not confined to the South, nor exclusively represented by one particular flag.
Is there a history of racism in the South? Yes. The protests by white supremacists make that obvious. And it needs to be productively addressed.
But what do we accomplish by addressing not acts of racism, but the symbols of the sacrifice of people’s ancestors? Will telling someone that 17-year-old Charles Crockett wasn’t a hero, he was just a stupid kid who should have known better, win you any friends? Or will tearing down a stature of one of America’s greatest generals who did a very respectable job even though he fought for the losing side? It’s history. It happened. We should learn from it. If we deny it, we risk reliving it.
Therein lies the problem: we’re not trying to fix things anymore. We’ve become a nation of insults and disrespect. We’ve become a nation that wants to fight, not reconcile. And we surely don’t want to convince or be convinced. While I blame a generation of conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh for starting this, I’m now equally offended by liberal hate speech.
I stood on Oak Ridge, looked down over the fields, and felt the weight of 51,000 American casualties. North and South, they were Americans. Are we going to have to fight some more before we remember that?
I pray we will not.