Although Abraham Lincoln promised to respect the institution of slavery where it existed, his policies would have circumscribed not only slavery but also the South’s political power. Pressure from the national government and a free state majority would make the institution’s survival much less certain. South Carolina, said by the state’s attorney general, James L. Petrigru, to be “too small for a republic but too large for an insane asylum,” started the secessionist parade. There were 14 more slave states, but only six initially followed South Carolina: Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Delaware was too small and distant to leave. Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky were too divided to do so.
That left Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Secessionists pressed their case, but unionist majorities prevailed — until Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call on the remaining states to provide troops to invade the South. That was the trigger for the outer four to exit the union. They shared their sister states’ commitment to the “peculiar institution,” but left to defend the principle of a voluntary union. The result was to dramatically increase the Confederacy’s population, industrial capacity, and military strength. It also increased the conflict’s deaths — recently estimated to run as high as 750,000.
Fort Sumter was an ironic triumph for Lincoln. He simultaneously united the North behind him and sacrificed the support of most Southern unionists. By refusing to yield the installation while sending a resupply vessel, he successfully maneuvered Southerners into firing the first shot. Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy’s president, could not easily restrain the “fire‐eaters” in Charleston. And the Confederacy could not easily exist as an independent nation while hosting federal forts in major ports. The assault was an act of war, but Lincoln need not have responded by initiating a state of war. Doing so, however, was his intent all along.
Had Lincoln framed the war as one for abolition, he would have had few recruits. In fact, out of concern over a popular backlash, he reversed early military commanders who freed slaves in occupied territory. Even the Emancipation Proclamation only applied in areas not under federal authority.
Lincoln insisted that he pursued the war only to preserve the union. He made that very clear in his famous letter to Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune: “My paramount object in the struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” Had the war ended quickly — say, had Robert E. Lee accepted Lincoln’s offer of command of the Union military — the “peculiar institution” likely would have continued undisturbed.
Set aside the constitutional and legal arguments over secession. Even if the Confederate states were wrong to exit and would have lost in court, that is no justification for war. Lincoln put a united America in moral, even mystic, terms. But political arrangement — who is legally linked with whom — is fundamentally a practical issue. Why should people be killed for desiring to change their government?
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that Washington would today respond similarly if California, Texas, or other states declared that they intended to go their own way. Bomb Sacramento to prevent secession? Occupy Houston and Dallas to hold the Texans in? The principle seems to violate America’s founding principles. Both Lee and Greeley, despite their sectional differences, doubted the virtue of a coerced union.
Before resigning his military commission, Lee observed, “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union…. Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me.” Greeley used similar imagery to describe his view: “We hope never to live in a republic whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets.”
When Americans careened off to war in 1861, most people on both sides assumed the war would be short and sweet. Southern secessionists were seen as cowardly blowhards while it was believed inconceivable that northern shopkeepers would fight. Sen. James Chestnut Jr., who resigned his seat to leave with South Carolina, offered to drink all the blood shed as a result of secession. Alas, America’s landscape soon was drenched with blood. The names of battlefields made sacred resounded over the decades: Sharpsburg, Shiloh, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Wilderness, Franklin, Spotsylvania, Stones River, Cold Harbor.
No doubt, many Americans in both North and South soon wished they could turn back time. The price of both secession and union became unbearably high. After the carnage of the 1864 Overland campaign, which cost the Union’s Ulysses S. Grant nearly as many men in casualties as Lee had in his entire army, Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts regretted his earlier determination to hold the South. Wilson said, “If that scene could have been presented to me before the war, anxious as I was for the preservation of the Union, I should have said, ‘The cost is too great; erring sisters, go in peace.’ ”
The one clear, certain, and vital benefit of the conflict was the elimination of slavery. But that only emerged as a war aim, reinforced by the enmities and passions inevitably unleashed by such a fight. After four years of horrid combat, military conquest of so much southern territory, and flight of so many freedmen, it would have made no sense to reinstate the institution, rewarding the very planter class that orchestrated secession. Near the end even many Southerners backed arming the slaves, who would be rewarded with their freedom for fighting on behalf of the Confederacy. Abolition was an unintended benefit of, not a justification for, initiating hostilities.
Nor was war necessary to end slavery. Only one other slave society, Haiti, used violence to eradicate the vile practice. In every other case, including the United Kingdom before and Brazil after the U.S., slavery was abolished peacefully. Moreover, a century after the Civil War Americans were still struggling to bring justice to African Americans, showing just how incomplete the military victory in 1865 had been.
All of which is a lengthy way of suggesting that the issues raised by the war are complex, serious, and worthy of discussion. No one today backs slavery. Looking back, those who chose union over secession were not necessarily morally superior to those who made the opposite decision. The victors wrote the history books and retrospectively sanctified earlier controversial, and even dubious, decisions. The conflict killed more than 2 percent of America’s population; a similar death toll today would be an astonishing 7.9 million. Who would pay that price to maintain the national union in 2020?
What, then, to do about “Confederate paraphernalia”? It should go.
I write as someone fascinated by a conflict that could tear apart nation, community, and even family. I’ve made multiple trips to nearby battlefields, even walking the course of Pickett’s Charge. I’m a great admirer of Lee for reasons other than him being the leading representative of the “Lost Cause.” I mourn the Civil War’s role in centralizing power in Washington. Nevertheless, there is nothing inviolable about old historical monuments, past school names, and other Confederate symbols that prevents updating them as circumstances and opinions change.
The military represents the nation and has a special responsibility to combat xenophobic and racist contamination. That requires reconsidering imagery that may be abused to represent, however unfairly, extremists today. It doesn’t mean every mention in every context should go, but that use of Confederate paraphernalia requires a stronger than average justification.
Perhaps the toughest question is military base names. Ten bear the names of Confederate generals — unsurprising given the number of facilities located in the South. A few commemorate successful generals, such as Lee, A. P. Hill, and John Gordon. Other posts are named after less productive men: George Pickett, Braxton Bragg, Leonidas Polk, and John Bell Hood. All of them represent notable American military men.
Some of these names have become disconnected from their namesakes, rather like the way Xerox and Kleenex turned into generics. How many people know that the famous Fort Bragg was named after the Confederate Bragg, one of the least well‐regarded Southern commanders? Other Americans might be vaguely aware of and unconcerned about the connection. Some doubtless even view the names positively.
But a growing number of people likely remember these former generals more for the cause they promoted than the battles they fought. Those views deserve consideration. So why not look elsewhere for new names to commemorate later American successes? Much, even most, U.S. military history — the Spanish–American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, the first and second Iraq wars, the Global War on Terrorism — occurred after the Civil War. One strategy would be to keep the best of the Confederates and replace the others.
State flags should be easier. They should unify people, acting as a symbol for the entire state population. These days Confederate symbols divide. They should not be part of any official emblem or representation. Imagine if America’s break with the United Kingdom had been nonviolent and the new nation retained British symbols. There would be no reason not to reconsider their use today. Indeed, there is an active republican movement in Australia seeking to oust England’s queen as head of state.
Statues of Confederate figures abound in the South. There is an argument for recognizing one’s history, even if that history is flawed. Europe is filled with statues of historical figures who contributed greatly to those nations but who would be barred from polite society today. While it would be myopic to purge representations of Confederate history, which is an essential part of America’s history, it would be equally foolish to insist that changing populations with changing values cannot reconsider what they want to commemorate and especially celebrate.
Certainly, private institutions should be free to change the imagery that defines them, though they should do so for reasons other than mindless surrender to the latest PC. Local public institutions, most notably in this regard cities and counties, have a responsibility to listen to those they represent. That doesn’t necessarily require removal; shifting monuments to less prominent or sensitive areas is an option, as is adding more detail to explain the context involved. These should be decisions for governments closest to people, not states, which sometimes have barred localities from making decisions desired by their residents.
Of course, one would hope that communities realize history transcends politics. There is something iconic about Monument Ave. in Richmond, with extraordinary statues of Lee, Jefferson Davis, Jeb Stuart, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. They should remain, but their role should be understood as different from what it was in 1890, when the first statue — to Lee, who spent four years defending the city militarily — was erected. Properly understanding their context matters.
Although for some Lee has become the representative of all that is wrong with “Confederate paraphernalia” — the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville was directed at proposals to move the statute of him located there — he actually offered an answer. Once the war ended, he urged Southerners to reconcile with Washington. He vetoed proposals for the Army of Northern Virginia to dissolve into guerrilla bands. He urged former Confederates to apply for a pardon, as he did. Rather than trade on his name, which would have made him a very rich man, he accepted an offer to head a small, nearly bankrupt college in Lexington, Virginia, so he could contribute to the education of younger generations.
Most important, he did not romanticize the Confederacy. That does not mean he had warm and fuzzy feelings toward the victors. Unsurprisingly, four years of battle left him angry at the North for inaugurating what he believed to be an unjust war and ravaging his state, what he considered to be his “country.” The conflict appeared to turn the onetime southern unionist into a southern nationalist. But he left his criticisms behind. Contrary to today’s culture of total disclosure, he did not believe that his every thought had to be shared with the world.
Publicly he never deviated from his message of reconciliation. He neither obstructed reconstruction nor promoted what Southerners called “redemption,” or reclaiming control of state governments. He told his former countrymen to concentrate on rebuilding the South and reintegrating into the Union. He sought to defuse racial and political tensions that affected Washington College. And he insisted that students avoid controversies that might bring the school into disrepute.
Most dramatically, he never promoted memories of Confederate glory. He never attended military reunions. He never put on his wartime uniform. He never relived his grand military victories. He looked ahead, not back.
Ironically, the Lost Cause mythology, which centered on him, began not with him but after him. He almost certainly would not have approved efforts to make him a secular saint and symbol of what never was. The campaign was perhaps most dramatically orchestrated by former corps commander Jubal Early, a profane, dyspeptic Confederate diehard of whom Lee had been fond. But Early knew enough of Lee’s attitudes not to push such efforts during the latter’s lifetime.
As has often been pointed out, the surge in statues and monuments appeared to be politically motivated, as part of an effort to reestablish white supremacy and rule as Reconstruction ended. Lee appeared on Monument Avenue two decades after his death. Another explosive period for Confederate hagiography was the civil rights era, when the process became another weapon of total resistance. It is unlikely that Lee would have sympathized with either effort, especially his image being used to divide people and spread hatred. The Charlottesville protestors were much different than Lee in approach and desire. Americans should consider doing what best matches his spirit, which would have been not to erect the Charlottesville statue in the first place.
Controlling history is an important tool for controlling politics. So it is with “Confederate paraphernalia.” It is a mistake to treat everything about the Confederacy and Civil War as being about slavery, evil and unmentionable. As Robert E. Lee realized, however, sometimes being right was not the only or even most important virtue. Bringing together a fractured people was more critical in 1865. The same might be true today. Let’s leave yesterday’s symbols behind when necessary to build a better tomorrow.