The ludicrous 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia did more than any other recent event to discredit white supremacists.
The media suggested a national movement threatening to use President Donald Trump’s victory to grab a share of political power. However, only a few hundred racist malcontents turned up with the bright idea of staging a torchlight march reminiscent of the Nazi celebration of Adolf Hitler’s appointment as chancellor. The denouement was a mix of farce, tragedy, and idiocy, in which a pitiful, nutty remnant imagined itself as a future electoral tsunami.
Although the white power activists’ political impotence was immediately evident, the financial impact took longer to play out. Last month a jury imposed more than $25 million in damages on protest organizers in a suit filed by nine people injured at the time. Little of that is likely to be collected — it turns out planning a white-wing takeover of America was not a growth industry and several defendants appear to be what first-year law students learn are called “judgment proof.”
Oddly, however, there was one more victim, though long dead: Robert E. Lee. The spark for the rally was a proposal to take down a statue of Lee. Although the increasingly fevered attempt to remove memorials and rewrite commentaries reflected an understanding of history usually as flawed as that the activists claimed to be confronting, surely the residents of Charlottesville were entitled to decide what historical memorials should stand on city property.
Moreover, if alive today, Marse Robert would not likely be in the company of Richard Spencer & friends. Yes, Lee’s racial views were retrograde — but at a time when they were shared by most of the country, including Union generals and troops. Nothing in his character suggests that he would not have learned from his mistakes as have most Americans. Moreover, he would have been horrified by the attempt to create racial division for political gain. And especially to make him the center of such an effort.
Indeed, as I wrote before, the reason to move his and other statues was not because of the usual reasons advanced. Heck, George Washington was a traitor, saved by being on the winning side. Lee did not want to attack the shrinking national government but chose to defend his state — to which in that very different time he, like many other Americans, felt a greater loyalty — from federal troops. He was typical of many white southerners and northerners, a believer in white supremacy and critic of slavery, who believed the institution should disappear but was unprepared for the social consequences of abolition. One of the great ironies of his life is that he became a symbol of the Lost Cause after his death. He spent the last years of his life urging reconciliation and avoiding war remembrances.
Rather, the reason to retire his statues is because that is what he likely would have desired. Indeed, he would not have supported raising them in the first place. When asked to join a group of officers from both sides to plan monuments for the Gettysburg battlefield, Lee responded: “I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”
Yet seeking a balanced understanding of history is not the Charlottesville city council’s intent. Refusing offers of up to $50,000 to buy the statue, local legislators voted to give the statue to a museum to be melted down and turned into something to “reflect racial justice and inclusion.” The organization’s executive director said, “It really is about taking something that had been harmful and transforming it into something that is representative of the city’s values today.”
Making new artwork would seem laudable. However, the statue’s “ugly history” as some called it was not due to Lee but rather those misusing him for their malign purposes. Destroying the statue is a hateful act of historical nihilism directed not against racists, but those who understand the complexity of Lee’s record and character and see much to admire in and learn from him. Among those seeking to buy the statue: a Los Angeles museum organizing an exhibition on the Lost Cause, another museum seeking to exhibit the statue, and a Texan who wanted to display it, along with one of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, on his property. (I offered to take Richmond’s Lee statue off that city’s hands, but never heard back. My offer still stands!) The city council no less than the 2017 protestors plans to twist history for political and ideological purposes.
None of this is restricted to Charlottesville. In mid-December a story emerged about Pennsylvania rewriting Civil War markers. Reported the Spotlight News: “Two of the items have been revised to position the Union army more centrally in the historical narrative and to depict the Confederates as a destructive invading force. The items were reinstalled in May, said Howard Pollman of the [Pennsylvania historical] commission, which oversees the state’s historical marker program.”
Destructive invaders the Army of Northern Virginia soldiers undoubtedly were. But so were Union forces that went in the opposite direction. Much has been made about providing the proper historical “context” for Confederate monuments. However, that should be an honest historical assessment, not a woke political judgment.
First, the war was over union, not slavery. After Abraham Lincoln’s election, the seven deep southern states seceded, to secure their “peculiar institution.” Thus, slavery drove secession. Lincoln then called out the troops to put down the “rebellion,” with the promise that slavery would be undisturbed. Thus, union caused the North to wage war on the South. (Lincoln famously wrote that “What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.”) Four border southern states — Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas — seceded only then, rejecting Lincoln’s call for troops to attack the seceding states. Thus, the final round of secession was triggered by Lincoln’s decision for war. Americans, both south and north, ultimately fought over Washington’s refusal to allow dissenters to leave peacefully.
Second, the central government/northern states were the aggressors. The South simply said to the North, leave! Give up your government installations and military posts and we can go on as neighbors. The North said to the South, submit! Come back into the Union or be killed, conquered, and occupied. (South Carolina committed the first act of war, bombarding Ft. Sumter. Lincoln turned that into a general state of war, leading to four years of bloody, tragic combat.)
Had the objective been to destroy the odious practice of slavery, the Civil War would have had a moral purpose. But who today would suggest invading Los Angeles and San Francisco if California sought to secede? Absent the Civil War, slavery likely would have eventually died peacefully, as it later did in Brazil, Portugal, and Spain, for instance.
So when it comes to markers describing northern armies heading south, calling them “a destructive invading force” would be the most accurate characterization. While southern armies went north occasionally for tactical reasons, northern armies went south as a matter of strategy, since that was Lincoln’s very purpose in calling out the troops.
Even some unionists came to regret the resulting carnage. Roughly 750,000 Americans are thought to have died in the Civil War, which proportionally would be about eight million today. After the summer 1864 “Overland” campaign whose battles — Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Bloody Angle, Cold Harbor, and more — generated a bloody flood of casualties, Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts said that “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’.”
Americans, no different than other peoples, tend to believe in their nation’s history as it should be, not as it was. Alas, that goes for wokester revisionists no less than the traditionalists the former criticize. Better to seek to understand history, its abuses, tragedies, and horrors included.
Unfortunately, the Charlottesville City Council is in full destructo mode with its plan to eradicate Lee’s statue. It’s only a matter of time before those in ascendency today find their historical heroes disappearing too. Then it will be too late for them to speak up on behalf of confronting history as it is and seeking to understand rather than manipulate the past.
Doug Bandow is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.