Time to Lay the Lost Cause to Rest, But Let’s Not Overreact

Every year about this time I expect to hear about the Lee-Jackson Day events in Virginia and normally I roll my eyes, take a deep breath, and forget about it—hoping that the Lost Cause will soon draw its last breath. It appears that will not be happening any time soon.

The recent controversy surrounding the Confederate flag in South Carolina has reinvigorated the Lost Causers to new heights of indignation. Of course, that other parts of the country are now talking about removing statues, plaques, and all manner of tributes does not help. People in the South feel like their heritage is under attack, and they are right—to a certain extent.

Let me explain.

In an article published in The Washington Times, December 2013, there was discussion at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA, as to whether portraits of Lee and Jackson should continue to hang in the hallways there. Spokeswoman for the college, Carol Kerr, wondered about the future of the depictions because “Lee was certainly not good for the nation.” Kerr stated, “This is the guy we faced on the battlefield whose entire purpose in life was to destroy the nation as it was then conceived.”

I do not know where Kerr is from or anything about her, except that she worked in an official capacity at the War College. And, I do not know if those portraits are still hanging on the walls. But, here is my point: we can take political correctness too far by removing all traces of unpleasant history.

I don’t like the Lost Cause romance. I don’t like people overly venerating (dare I say worshiping) historical figures like Lee (think of the recumbent statue of Lee in the chapel at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, VA). I think it is unhealthy. But, I understand people admiring Lee. He had some noble qualities. He also chose to fight AGAINST the U.S. government. So, if the War College had a portrait of Capt. Robert E. Lee, for instance, who served the country well prior to the Civil War, should we take that down because of his later choice? Should we erase Robert E. Lee entirely? I don’t think so. Lee made valuable contributions to the United States as Superintendent of West Point, as an engineer during the Mexican War, and he made valuable contributions to the United States once the Civil War was over by promoting peace. To my mind, he made the wrong choice by fighting for the Confederacy (he would say fighting for Virginia). But at other times in his life, he acted honorably and served with distinction.

It is a slippery slope when we start removing portraits and statues to avoid someone from being offended. If we take down all statues and portraits of Robert E. Lee, then to be consistent we must tear down the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument in Washington, DC, because those men were—after all—slaveholders. And while slavery was an abomination to the United States, it is far from the only instance. What about political corruption? Or adultery? Do we start tearing through the history books in a campaign to weed out all those who committed misdeeds, public or private? As I said, it is a slippery slope.

When we put up a statue or portrait, it is itself a historic act. If we tear them down, we are not only erasing the person being depicted but we are also erasing the act of those that erected the memorial. Sometimes there are great lessons to be learned about how we remember people if, instead of tearing down tributes, we ask questions and think critically. We might still be offended, but then again, reading the news produces the same effect.

About Derek Maxfield

Associate Professor of History Genesee Community College
This entry was posted in Emerging Civil War, Memory, Monuments, Personalities and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to Time to Lay the Lost Cause to Rest, But Let’s Not Overreact

  1. Good post. Regarding the “slippery slope” and where all this, by logic, must lead; I’ve made the same exact points for years. No historical figure could stand the scrutiny and the landscape would be bare of statues, memorials and portraits and our nation would be much the poorer.

  2. David Corbett says:

    Roman emperor Carcalla would be proud of this “damnatio memoriae.”

  3. Mark Hartshorne says:

    lets also recall the integral part the northern states played in creating and furthering the institution of slavery

  4. I appreciate the attempt to find a middle ground, but let’s call a spade a spade. Any portrait or statue or other such aesthetic likeness of a historical figure is, with some exceptions, intended to honor that person as a standout individual. And such depictions of Lee and Jackson do the curious job of honoring men whose primary contribution to history was, by definition, an act of treason. I can imagine other nations looking at us in puzzlement over that (though the continued presence of the Oliver Cromwell statue at the House of Commons causes some a controversy with some parallels across the pond). We actually have military bases, cities, counties, vehicles, and even legal holidays dedicated to people who took up arms against their nation. This fact is one peculiar remnant of the Lost Cause that just needs to go away. You don’t erase people from history by removing shrines to them from prominent places; rather history becomes more clear.

    • Mark Hartshorne says:

      Dave -with compete respect, the overbroad statement “honoring men whose primary contribution to history was, by definition, an act of treason.” lacks relevancy and insight, in my view. Were that the case, then statues to Washington, Jefferson, et al also need to come down, as by definition their declaration of independence was treasonous as well. Even Abraham Lincoln supported the concept that when government becomes injurious to the governed, said people have the right to replace that government. So, the message you have apparently received by the existence of the statues is certainly not the message delivered by those who created the statues. A complicated matter, to be sure!!

      • Ryan Quint says:

        The comparison of Lee/Jackson and others to Washington/ Jefferson doesn’t work in a case like this. Washington and Jefferson could be considered traitors to their country, that country being Great Britain. Exactly how many statues does G,B. have to Thomas Jefferson? A statue of Washington in London is because it was a present in the 1900s– the British certainly didn’t go out of their way to put one up. A better case for Lee/Jackson statues would be Benedict Arnold– a traitor in a time of war to the United States, and in that case, Arnold’s most famous statue is of a boot and doesn’t even have his name on it.

      • Ryan, to totally get the gold star of the day for mentioning Benedict Arnold’s boot!

  5. Bob Ruth says:

    We can all admire Lee’s generalship. But all of us should despise the Confederacy’s cause for which he fought, a cause that called for the preservation of slavery and the dismantling of our great country.

    Thank God the South lost. Too bad it cost 650,000 American lives.

  6. You started off so well that I thought for a moment you actually “got it”…and then you went off the rails like so many others do. Few people are for removing monuments, portraits, flags or memorabilia displays simply because the Confederate leaders were “slaveholders”. If that was the case, then yes, many more monuments would need to come down. But that is not the case.

    The Confederacy and the Confederate leaders were not the only slaveholders and not the only people who believed in the right and the righteousness of slavery. They were not even the only folks to believe in white supremacy to their core. BUT, they are the only people who seceded from the nation because of a fear of losing it. They are the only people who started and fought a terrible bloody war to keep it; to be free to start a slave republic. Thomas Jefferson did not do that. George Washington did not do that. Abraham Lincoln did not do that. Only the Confederacy and the Confederate leaders did that.

    There is no comparison to the rebellion against the monarchy and the rebellion against the constitution of the nation they willingly joined. Their list of “grievances” are petty, slavery induced, childish and reckless rhetoric of a South losing power even as they could still count their slaves as “represented” for purposes of Congress. They had representation and then some, they had a voice and economic power, they had resources and they had the ability to change. They CHOSE not to. They CHOSE to nullify an election with secession. They CHOSE to occupy federal property. They CHOSE to fire on federal troops. They CHOSE to commit treason. That Andrew Johnson rushed in with pardons and kisses after Lincoln was assassinated cannot change the truth.

  7. I think these are all local decisions. If a given town/county/state/organization wants to retain whatever Confederate iconography they have, it is their decision. If they want to get rid of it, or modify the presentation, it is also their decision. In either case, they will be obligated to explain that decision to their constituents. All of this is as it should be, and should not be very controversial. No matter what decision is made, some people will be upset.

  8. DAVID says:

    Benedict Arnold also served the country well before his act of treason. Should we have his painting in the halls of the Army War College?

    No, Dave Montrose (above) has it right: Lee is remembered largely because of his actions in the Civil War. Those actions were treason and we should not honor them.

    The slavery argument is a red herring: Jefferson and Washington are *not* honored for their slave-holding but for other things. Lee is honored for his commitment to a slave holding state; take that away and his portrait simply would not exist at the War College (unless the War College has a portraits of every colonel in American history who did reasonably well).

    Nor is the “Washington was a traitor too” argument anything but silly. Washington wasn’t a traitor to the *United States.* He was a traitor to _Britain_. This is not Britain. This is the United States and — unlike Lee — George Washington did not betray the US.

  9. Native-Americans also fought against the United States army. How many of you who believe that Confederate monuments have no place of honor would say the same about the American Indian?

    • DAVID says:

      I wasn’t aware that there were paintings of the Native Americans who fought against the United States in the Army War College. Do enlighten me.

      • No need to enlighten you David, since I didn’t say there were paintings of Native Americans in the USAWC. Rather, I was referring to the overall efforts to remove Confederate monuments, etc.

    • DAVID says:

      No need to enlighten you David, since I didn’t say there were paintings of Native Americans in the USAWC. Rather, I was referring to the overall efforts to remove Confederate monuments, etc.

      Well, Richard, since in this post we’re talking about the Army War College, I’d still like to know. I take it that your answer is actually “no,” there aren’t paintings of Native Americans at the Army War College.

      But in any case, even if someone were to try to parse a difference between the two, it wouldn’t change that Robert E. Lee was a traitor. It might possibly expose the parser as a hypocrite, but it wouldn’t change what Lee had done. He was and is a traitor and does not deserve to be honored for it by the country he betrayed.

      • David:

        As I noted, I was referring to the overall efforts, as mentioned in the 2nd paragraph of the original post:

        “Of course, that other parts of the country are now talking about removing statues, plaques, and all manner of tributes does not help. People in the South feel like their heritage is under attack, and they are right—to a certain extent.”

        Well, I’d disagree with your characterization of Lee. I believe all of us have limits as to our loyalty to any institution. To quote G.K. Chesterton: “‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’”

        Lee was, in my opinion and that of many others, a patriot.

      • DAVID says:

        As I noted, I was referring to the overall efforts, as mentioned in the 2nd paragraph of the original post:

        I understood what you were referring, but the lion’s share of the post is about the War College, so I’m sticking with that.

        Well, I’d disagree with your characterization of Lee. I believe all of us have limits as to our loyalty to any institution.

        Lee didn’t betray an institution, he betrayed a country.

        Lee was, in my opinion and that of many others, a patriot

        He certainly wasn’t a patriot to America, since he betrayed the country.

  10. “Loyalty to country always. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.”—Mark Twain

    Lee was a “conditional Unionist.” His loyalty stopped when he had to choose between the government and his family and Virginia. Certainly you would have limits to your loyalty, wouldn’t you? Surrendering one’s conscience to a government is, in the mind of many, sacrilege and dishonorable. It is the worship of the state.

    • DAVID says:

      He didn’t choose between the “government” and his family and Virginia. He chose between the United States of America and the slaveholding Confederacy. You can frame that however you want but that’s what he did. He was not loyal “to the country always.” He abandoned his country in its hour of need.

      • He very clearly chose between the “government” and his family and home as demonstrated by resigning his commission. That’s not “framing” what he did. That is a fact. Lee stated so very clearly: because he could not “raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.” How much plainer could that be?

        He chose his family and his home in their hour of need.

      • DAVID says:

        No, he chose between the United States of America and the Confederacy. He chose not to raise his hand against his relatives and his children by betraying his country. It’s remarkably plain, thanks.

        Why the protest at recognizing Lee was a traitor? He fits the definition in the Constitution to a T (“Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”). You could certainly argue that his treason was justified, but not that it doesn’t exist. Lee was a traitor, plain and simple.

  11. Bob Ruth says:

    I fear the debate about memorials, flags and statues is getting diverted from the main issue. The main issue is simple: Should we honor men who fought on behalf of two terrible causes – the perpetuation of slavery and the dismemberment of our beloved country?

    All other issues – Were Lee and the other Rebel generals good, God-fearing men? Were they great generals? Were they traitors or patriots? Were Northerners racists, too? etc. – don’t really matter.

    Lost Causers want to concentrate on the minutia and shy away from the main issue. Their reluctance is understandable. Who in their right mind wants to defend human bondage and the dissolution of the United States?

  12. I truly regret participating, for a number of reasons. At least the comments reflect a modicum, and more, of politeness and regard. Such conversations often lack basic consideration. However, I am compelled to point out the difference between a presentist and relativist approach to such analysis. For us to truly understand the actions, motives, and emotions of ANY historical figure, we would be best advised to employ a relativist approach, and view events and people BY THE STANDARD OF THEIR DAY (relativist) rather than by the SOCIAL MORES AND BELIEFS OF THE PRESENT (presentist). Only then can we actually understand and consider, from long years separate, the actions of others. BY THE STANDARDS OF THEIR DAY, Lee and Jackson are figures of great character, and their decisions and actions must be considered in that light. To judge them, or anyone, by the STANDARDS OF OUR DAY does them, and us, a disservice. ANd with that I bid you all adieu — with this quote from Francis Bacon — “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.”

    • DAVID says:

      view events and people BY THE STANDARD OF THEIR DAY (relativist)

      By the standard of their day, Lee and Jackson were traitors, were labeled as traitors, and lots of folks strongly argued should be put on trial as traitors.

      • True. Many Radical Republicans were keen to have them fitted for a noose, and would likely have gotten their way if one of their number were elected president.

      • motoman172 says:

        Your definition of treason is a curious one… I never quite understood this arguement. First off you would have to assume that the Federal Govt existed before the states… Lincoln Rubbish… Prior to Lincoln’s war we were known as THESE United States… and the Constitution was known as the Constitution FOR these United States… Which obviously leads to believe that the Constituion was a compact between sovereign states (nation states!)

        According to that agreement the Constituion, treason is act of waging war against “them” the them being the states…

        It’s totally dishonest and agast to take the most admirable of men and taint them with your Lincolnion rubbish.. Lee and Jackson were great men… who were forced to defend their homes against an invading horde of mostly immigrants….

      • DAVID says:

        Lee and Jackson were great men… who were forced to defend their homes against an invading horde of mostly immigrants…

        Oh, good. Now the racists show up.

  13. Bob Ruth says:

    Mark:
    OK. Let’s judge Lee and the Confederacy for which he fought by THE STANDARD OF THEIR DAY.

    Slavery was not THE STANDARD OF THEIR DAY. By 1861, all of Europe had banned slavery. A majority of the states in the Union had banned slavery. My goodness, even tsarist Russia had banned serfdom. Yet, the Confederacy’s Constitution guaranteed slavery in all of its 11 states and in any new states or territories that would be annexed in the future. And although the Constitution allowed amendments, one provision could never be amended, according to the Confederacy’s Constitution. Guess what that non-amendable provision was? You guessed it. The one guaranteeing slavery.

    Like slavery, secession was not THE STANDARD OF THEIR DAY, either. As I’m sure you know, only 11 states voted to secede. The rest of them – a clear majority – opted to remain a part of the United States of America.

    Lee and his fellow Confederates were the ones who were out of step with THE STANDARDS OF THEIR DAY.

  14. David:
    There are principles and causes that are higher than loyalty to a government. That was Lee’s position. Men on both sides made difficult choices. Of course, you’re not the first nor the last to have this view of Lee. President Eisenhower was once criticized by someone for displaying a portrait of someone who gave “his best efforts to the destruction of the United States Government.” This was Eisenhower’s response:

    “Respecting your August 1 inquiry calling attention to my often expressed admiration for General Robert E. Lee, I would say, first, that we need to understand that at the time of the War between the States the issue of secession had remained unresolved for more than 70 years. Men of probity, character, public standing and unquestioned loyalty, both North and South, had disagreed over this issue as a matter of principle from the day our Constitution was adopted.

    “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.

    “From deep conviction, I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s calibre would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities, including his devotion to this land as revealed in his painstaking efforts to help heal the Nation’s wounds once the bitter struggle was over, we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.

    “Such are the reasons that I proudly display the picture of this great American on my office wall.”

    Though Lee’s critics have been relentless, his reputation remains largely intact in our modern age. That alone is evidence of Lee’s greatness.

    • DAVID says:

      There are principles and causes that are higher than loyalty to a government. That was Lee’s position.

      And because of that position, he betrayed his country. You dance around that simple fact, but there’s no avoiding it. Lee believed that there were things that superseded his loyalty to his country, and so he betrayed his country rather than betray them.

      • No, you’re dancing around the fact that Lee’s principles and loyalty to family superseded his loyalty to a government.

        “he betrayed his country rather than betray them.”

        So would the alternative have been preferable, given Lee’s view of family and his priorities? He was damned if he did, damned if he didn’t.

  15. Mark Hartshorne says:

    motoman172 and Richard Williams, thank you. David, I steadfastly believe you are entitled to your views and opinions. However the “Oh good. Now the racists show up” isn’t necessary or accurate.

    • DAVID says:

      However the “Oh good. Now the racists show up” isn’t necessary or accurate.

      It is when people start making racist remarks.

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