This first: feelings and opinions are not facts. It makes no difference how many people feel a certain way or how many have an opinion about something, having opinions or feelings does not make them facts. No matter how many people have opinions or how loudly they shout them, they are not facts.
I think a lot of people like to keep a “romantic” view when it comes to history. That means they have an idealized view of what happened as opposed to seeing things as they actually happened. In that romanticized version of history William Penn and his family established a colony based on tolerance, charity and fairness. So what about that famous “Walking Purchase” where the Penns cheated the local Indians? In 1737 the Penns hired three runners and acquired 1200 square miles of Lenape land in Pennsylvania, an area about the size of Rhode Island. In short the Penns (sons of William Penn) cheated the Indians. That is the realistic version.
Another thing we have often idealized is the Civil War. I have to admit that I also had a romantic view of that war as an adolescent. I thought of the “noble” southerners who fought against all odds to maintain a genteel way of life in a country covered with fields of cotton and tobacco while they sipped mint juleps and discussed philosophy.
Those plantations existed because they had slave labor to plant, care for and harvest cotton and tobacco. Without the slaves, and having to pay for the labor they provided would have spelled the end of the plantations and the owners who profited from them.
So much for background and reality.
Another reality is that both the soldiers and the generals who led the rebellion were, in a word, traitors. After all, anyone who takes up arms, betrays or fires on his country is a traitor.
We have no problem at all identifying Benedict Arnold as a traitor, but we gloss over the fact that he led American forces to defeat the British at Fort Ticonderoga. He had other successes as a general in the American army before he switched sides and joined with the British. Until 1779 he was a hero.
But we see no statues of Arnold in town and villages, on college campuses or in front of courthouses in New England. Reality has ruled and no one would think of raising a statue of a traitor.
But in our romantic view, statues of generals of the Confederacy seem not only appropriate but even patriotic. What is patriotic about protecting a statue of a traitor?
No one has been able to convince me or a lot of Americans that Lee, Jackson, Stuart, Longstreet (also educated at West Point) and the other generals were not, in fact, traitors. They led campaigns, troops and battles against the United States. Many of them, like Arnold, had been officers in the U.S. Army before they turned against their country.
So how do they differ?
They differ because a lot of people who are dissatisfied with the government we have see the South as somehow a better alternative. But they also forget that before there was a “united” government we had tried out a confederacy. It failed.
It failed because if disunited states join together in any kind of “confederacy” with the ultimate power in the states, those states could not survive. Benjamin Franklin is reported to have uttered the pithy phrase, “We must all hang together or we will all hang separately.”
Somehow I have my doubts as to whether he actually said that, but the truth is he was right. Suppose the South had won. Slavery would have continued, the South would have continued as a mostly agricultural society, the North would have developed its industry. Could that “confederacy” have defeated Germany or Japan in the Second World War”
The truth is that a confederacy would have been easy pickings for the rest of the world envious of the industry of the North and the farms of the South.
The realistic truth is that confederacies don’t last long. They are, by their nature, too weak to exist in competition with strong central governments.
So if we are going to continue our romantic view of the Confederacy, the Civil War and the leaders of that rebellion, we need to remember that Lee and others would have been executed as traitors had not men like Lincoln and Grant interceded on their behalf and stemmed the tide of emotions that many Americans felt at the time. Reason successfully overruled emotions.
So I think we, like Lincoln, Grant and other like them, need to check our emotions at the door and take a realistic view of the world, the people of history and our statues to them.
Were Lee, Jackson, Staurt and Longstreet great generals and commanders? Without a doubt they were. But there have been countless great commanders (like Arnold) whom we would never think of honoring with statues.
Another fact is that most of the statues in question were not built or raised in the aftermath of the Civil War, but some fifty years later in the era when segregation was the law of the land. They were monuments to something that never existed in reality. It is time to recognize reality and stop perpetuating a popular misconception that never existed.