There are times when I wonder if we’re coming to the harsh, bitter end of the American experiment. The weekend of August 12 was one of them.
My wife and I have lived in Charlottesville for the past 14 years, and on Saturday we got to see the sick political culture that’s infected this country for the past couple of decades sweep over our fair city, leaving three dead and many more seriously injured.
Beth and I like to run in the mornings, and that Saturday morning we headed over to the big four-story parking garage at John Paul Jones Arena, which we sometimes use as our running track when it’s raining or it’s very hot and sunny. Usually the garage is completely empty; that Saturday every bay was filled with a Virginia State Police car, with dozens of other police cars and vans parked along the side. Seeing them gave us both an eerie feeling filled with foreboding; I’d felt the same eeriness that Friday night, when white supremacists held their torchlight vigil at the University of Virginia, in a scene reminiscent of Nazi-party rallies in the 1930s.
Yet even with all these policemen in riot gear, no one could control the violence when extremists from the left and extremists from the right battled each other in the streets in Charlottesville — or the national political firestorm it set off. And all this happened because our city council decided in June it could score some liberal points by having the statue of Robert E. Lee removed from a park downtown, and by changing the name from Lee Park to Emancipation Park.
They’re not alone, of course; they’re part of a trend that’s sweeping — or, I prefer to say infecting — the country right now, and not just in the South.
I’ve heard many arguments as to why statues commemorating Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and other Confederate war heroes should come down in Charlottesville; and not many why they should stay, except from white supremacists who have no honest or rational views on the matter. So maybe it’s time for someone who is a scholar, a historian — a Pulitzer Prize finalist historian, and the New York Times–bestselling author of nine books — and a lifelong Civil War buff to rehearse the reasons why they should remain, and why, if they come down now under violent pressure from the Left, we may be losing a lot more than statues of dead Confederate heroes.
these are not ‘Confederate monuments.’ They are monuments to the dead, soldiers who fought and often died for the Confederate cause.
First of all, these are not “Confederate monuments.” They are monuments to the dead, soldiers who fought and often died for the Confederate cause. They were erected years after the Civil War. For example, the bronze Lee statue in Lee Park dates to 1924. It was begun by a French sculptor, completed by an Italian-immigrant artist, and then cast by a company in the Bronx. These monuments were dedicated to memorialize the courage and sacrifice that these Southern men and, in some cases, women (one of the sculptures in Baltimore pulled down earlier this week was dedicated “to the Confederate women of Maryland”) brought to a cause that they believed at the time deserved the same “last full measure of devotion” that their Northern counterparts brought to theirs. Of course, some of those who paid for and erected these statues also believed that cause had been right, not wrong. (I’ll say more about that in a minute.) But in the final analysis, they are monuments to timeless virtues, not to individuals.
Nor are they monuments to “traitors.” Abraham Lincoln set that issue aside as soon as the war ended, by making it clear that there would be no trials or punishments for the rebels who had fought for the Confederacy and that the national agenda would be reconciliation, not retribution, in order that Americans might come together again as one nation, indivisible. And that has been the lasting legacy of the Civil War, ever since. It is in fact the true face of American exceptionalism, that we Americans could fight a savage and bloody civil war, in which more than 600,000 died and thousands more were maimed and wounded, and still be able to honor the heroes of both sides. That never happened with other civil wars. It didn’t happen in Ireland or Spain or Russia, and it won’t happen in Iraq.
This is a personal issue for me. My great-great-grandfather fought for the Union in that war and was severely wounded at the Battle of Stone’s River. (I still have the rebel Minié ball the medics pulled out of his knee.) But I know that neither he nor the men he served with in his Wisconsin regiment would want, 150 years later, to change those parks’ names — any more than would Ulysses S. Grant or Lincoln, who after the war famously spoke of the need for “charity to all and malice towards none.” Lincoln sought “to bind the nation’s wounds” in the aftermath of America’s bloodiest conflict. It was a process of reconciliation and healing, which the Left is now determined to tear up and destroy.
This is why making Lee the target of these attacks is both ironic and tragic. Just before the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, one of his officers proposed instead that they draw off into the hills to continue the fight against the Federals in a guerilla war. Lee firmly said no. The South had fought its war and lost; after the surrender, he wanted his men to return to their homes and return to being Americans. As any reader of Jay Winik’s book April 1865 also knows, after the war Lee also worked for reconciliation between black and white, in hopes that together they could build a new South now that the slaveholding version was gone forever.
It’s true that Lee failed. His dream of a new South descended into Jim Crow after he died. This is in fact the best argument that those who want these statues gone can make: that the “reconciliation” between North and South was done on the backs of blacks, and that the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow were the price America paid to have peace in the aftermath of civil war. From a historical point of view, it’s almost convincing, even though what American blacks suffered under segregation was nothing compared to what liberalism has inflicted on them since the 1950s, as it destroyed their families, their schools, and their young men and women’s lives through drugs and guns and the gangster-rap culture “lifestyle,” which is really a death style.
It’s a deceptively specious proposition. We must remove these statues, is how the argument goes, as a form of symbolic reparation to African Americans who suffered not only slavery but its Jim Crow aftermath. The monuments may be to the right people — men who served with honor, dedication, and valor — but they were too often erected for the wrong reasons, not to close the books on a bitter war but to open a new chapter in a segregationist South.
They are monuments to Southern heroes, symbols of Southern courage and heroism. The subtext was: When the South rises again, it will produce heroes like these again.
But again, this argument runs up against the monuments themselves. They’re not to leaders of the Ku Klux Klan or the architects of segregation or to George Wallace or Lester Maddox. They are monuments to Southern heroes whom the segregationists could cling to as unexceptionable symbols of Southern courage and heroism. The subtext was: When the South rises again, it will produce heroes like these again. Instead it got Theodore Bilbo and George Wallace and Robert Byrd; but that was not Lee or Jackson’s fault, any more than an American flag displayed at a KKK rally is a reason to ban the Stars and Stripes. In that sense, one could say that these statues and monuments were vice’s tribute to virtue, and Jim Crow’s tribute to dead heroes, because even Jim Crow knew they represented human qualities — duty, honor, valor, sacrifice — that transcend race, color, and political ideology.
That is, of course, what those who want the statues torn down deny. Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and sundry activists who gathered to do battle in Charlottesville that day believe that there are no intrinsic human virtues, only politics and power. They are our totalitarian Left: Their ideological roots run much deeper than Ferguson. Reared on Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, they see America as the Evil Empire and the Confederacy as a face of that evil. The people who led the destruction of the statues in Durham, for example, were members of the World Workers Party, a Communist faction that supported the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The party’s latest cause happens to be defending North Korea. Tearing down statues of dead Confederates is just one more means to their Marxist end.
Those who convince themselves that removing these monuments will calm political passions and make the issue go away know not with whom they are dealing. The totalitarian Left is just getting warmed up. To them this is not a campaign about racism or slavery; it’s one more step in transforming America by effacing and defacing every aspect of its history, going back to the founding. Once Lee and Jackson are gone, attention will turn to Thomas Jefferson. (It already has here in Charlottesville, where he made his home at Monticello, and at the University of Virginia, which he founded). Jefferson was a slaveholder, after all, who actually knew it was wrong; why are so many statues and highways named after him, and likewise after his fellow slaveholders James Madison and George Washington? Clearly we need to start correcting that.
And what about Lincoln himself? How would he pass the latest litmus test on what constitutes racism? Or how would many or even most of the men who wore blue and fought for the Union, including my great-great grandfather? They may be heroes for now, but when Governor Andrew Cuomo says he has ordered removing the names of Lee and Jackson from street signs because New York “stands against racism,” where does that leave most Americans born before the Second World War?
The truth is that, while Cuomo, Black Lives Matter, and the Workers World Party claim to hate racism, what they really hate is America. America is a country where the process of conflict and reconciliation, combined with the passage of time, brings out and embeds the qualities that make the United States one people and one community. That process includes the Civil War. This is not my insight, it was Abraham Lincoln’s. He believed that the Southerners who had left the Union in 1861 and had fought a war with every ounce of savagery and bitterness could be welcomed back in 1865 and that the nation could made whole again, because the virtues (not the vices) the South displayed in that conflict — honor, valor, sacrifice — were in fact American virtues.
Now 150 years later, extremists on both sides have brought the anger and bitterness back, deliberately. When I think about the riots in Charlottesville, I hear these lines from Dover Beach: “We are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight / Where ignorant armies clash by night” — and while statues of dead heroes watch impassively overhead.
So when should those statues come down? I’d say when honor, valor, and sacrifice no longer count for anything in this country. Until then, let them stay. Don’t let extremists on both sides destroy the virtues they stand for, even as they seek to destroy everything else.