While I literally stood up and applauded in my office when I listened to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu break down why it was important to remove monuments to Confederate leaders from public display to private museums, it occurred to me that one reason that so many Americans remain indifferent about such monuments and even public schools named in honor of slave-owning traitors is because in the decades following the Civil War, those who fought for the rebellion became heroes of sorts even among their northern white brethren.
(Union and Rebel veterans shaking hands during the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg)
Indeed, instead of being executed or imprisoned as traitors, men like Robert E. Lee were soon and forever thereafter exalted by non-Southerners who should have known better. For example, during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, former World War II Army general and then President Dwight Eisenhower was known to routinely praise Lee, even going as far to pen a personal letter to a New York medical doctor who had written to criticize his praise of the Confederate general as the nation drew closer to the centennial of Southern secession. Wrote Eisenhower:
“General Robert E. Lee was, in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. He believed unswervingly in the Constitutional validity of his cause which until 1865 was still an arguable question in America; he was a poised and inspiring leader, true to the high trust reposed in him by millions of his fellow citizens; he was thoughtful yet demanding of his officers and men, forbearing with captured enemies but ingenious, unrelenting and personally courageous in battle, and never disheartened by a reverse or obstacle. Through all his many trials, he remained selfless almost to a fault and unfailing in his faith in God. Taken altogether, he was noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history.”
Noble? While Lee may have made comments prior to the Civil War that suggested a moral equivocation regarding slavery, his mental gymnastics did not prevent him or his family from maintaining black slaves or by several accounts, ordering brutal whippings for enslaved Blacks who were deemed insolent or lazy. Unsullied? I suppose that Eisenhower, a well educated West Point graduate, like Lee, was insouciant about the 1864 Petersburg Campaign where during the Battle of the Crater in June of that year, soldiers under his command executed in excess of 200 Black Union troops that had been captured. Knowing these facts, I refuse to heap praise upon a soldier who kept slaves, led the armies committed to keeping slaves enslaved, and was a war criminal who oversaw the execution of Black Union Soldiers.
The problem, however, is that ours has become a society where it is cool to be ignorant about basic facts. Too many Americans run with a comment or a quip that they have heard on talk radio or cable news, and instead of delving deeply in the subject, they fire off half-truths, like the one Tallahassee area conservative pundit, Preston Scott, wrote to me a few years back blasting an article I had written about the Emancipation Proclamation by “telling” me that the South fought for “States rights, not slavery.” Too many folks of this ilk are neither intellectually honest or adroit enough to finish the simple phrase—-“states rights to own slaves.” This basic truth was best stated by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, who in 1861 wrote “Our new government is founded upon exactly [this] idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
For these reasons, I am very pleased that the Confederate monuments will no longer be on public display in New Orleans, a city that is 60 percent black. A city, as I often remind, that owes so much of its culture and mystique to the formerly enslaved men and women who created the music and the food that folks worldwide have come to love.
Lest we forget, the monuments to Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were erected beginning in the 1880s around the same time that Louisiana and her fellow rebellious southern states were convening Constitutional Revision Commissions to enact laws that would dismantle each and every right that newly freed blacks had gained during Reconstruction. So in a way, those monuments were about southern heritage and pride—a heritage of enslaving, beating, raping, killing and terrorizing Black people under color of law, and a pride in reminding all that while the Yankees officially won the Civil War in 1865, that the Rebels had won the peace by developing laws and a culture in which the races and the justice system in the south still remain separate and wholly unequal. A system in which Black men, women and children who were lynched by white mobs up until the late 1960s saw the Confederate Battle Flags flying before they closed their eyes for the final time. A system in which in the days following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in 1968, the Montgomery Public School system named the new high school after Robert E. Lee, a high school that in 2017 is almost 100 percent black and plays against its cross-town rival, Jefferson Davis High, which is also almost 100 percent black. A system in which my late father, an Army Officer commissioned in 1963, had several duty assignments at Fort Benning, Fort Gordon and Fort Bragg, each named for a Confederate Civil War general.
(1965 picture of a Rebel sympathizer holding the Rebel Battle Flag as Dr. King leads the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama)
As one who earned two degrees in history and as an avid reader, I know that we cannot erase the past or wipe the former rebels from the annals of history. But those men belong in books and museums, not in places of public honor and veneration across America. The New Orleans monument removals were a great step, but we have so much further to go to ensure that the descendants of enslaved Blacks and those who lived during the Jim Crow days of terror are treated with the level of respect our past sufferings deserve.