The US is re-fighting its Civil War narrative – analysis

Officers under Gen. Lee are seen today as ‘traitors’ and ‘white supremacists,’ part of an unfolding narrative in the US that sees the current police brutality and racism as linked to the Civil War.

A sign reading "Hate Has No Home Here" hangs by the statue of Civil War Confederate General Robert E. Lee, ahead of the one year anniversary of 2017 Charlottesville "Unite the Right" protests, in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 10, 2018 (photo credit: BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)

A sign reading “Hate Has No Home Here” hangs by the statue of Civil War Confederate General Robert E. Lee, ahead of the one year anniversary of 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” protests, in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 10, 2018

(photo credit: BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)

In March, just before the COVID-19 crisis broke and lockdowns began, I was in Washington. With some extra time on my hands, I drove several hours southwest of the capital through the area that was once scarred by Civil War battles.

This is rolling country of farms, dotted with a few towns and highways. Storied battles like Chancellorsville came and went beside the road. Old cannons and markers for where various regiments once held tenuous firing lines were marking the spot. Today, Americans are once again having a kind of Civil War over the history of this conflict.

At Appomattox Court House in Virginia, where Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to US General Ulysses S. Grant in 1865, the buildings have been preserved. A painting shows Lee and one of his staff officers signing the document that gave over his dwindling army to defeat.

According to the plaques and explanations of the National Historic Park marking the site, the beginning of the end of this war was not as rancorous as one might expect. Despite an estimated 620,000 deaths from the war, a huge bloodletting for the American republic, the soldiers honored each other as the Virginians gave up their arms. The historic site has a “wall of honor” for the various soldiers who were present.

But today on social media, this war is being refought – and not in the terms that took place 150 years ago. Today, those officers under Lee are seen increasingly as “traitors” and “white supremacists,” part of an unfolding narrative in the US that sees the current police brutality and racism as linked to the Civil War era.

This isn’t the kind of debate that once took place in US classrooms. When I was in high school in the US, there was discussion of what caused the Civil War. Was it about slavery or states’ rights? What was the essential issue at hand?

Lee, the Confederate general, had been offered command of the Federal forces Abraham Lincoln wanted to use to fight the succession of southern states. He chose his state over the Union. Today, that is seen as treason – even though at the time, the Lincoln administration generally did not hang southerners for treason.

PART OF what is happening in the US is anger over the reverence shown for Confederate soldiers and generals in the US South. After the Civil War, the South was briefly occupied by Federal soldiers, and there was reconstruction. However, when that era ended, the South rapidly reverted to an attempt to resurrect aspects of the pre-1860 period. African-Americans were deprived of voting rights, segregation became a form of American-style apartheid, the KKK rose and lynching increased.

Alongside this racist system, the Confederate flag returned to adorn state institutions and a lobby pushed to see the Confederacy as quintessentially American.

Oddly, there was more reverence for those like Lee than Grant, the Union general sometimes portrayed as a corrupt, callous, drunkard. Other Union generals, such as William T. Sherman or Phil Sheridan, did not do well in history. Sheridan is thought to have said that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Sherman burned cities and invented total war.

While the Union generals suffered critique in US historiography, the Southerners received reverence in popular culture. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and others appeared honorable and pure in 20th-century films and documentaries.

There is some inconsistency here because James Longstreet, a key Confederate general, was seen as a relatively ineffectual commander in film, despite his apparent opposition to slavery and his record after the war supporting Grant’s presidency. He suffered for being seen as “disloyal” to the South, even though he was a Confederate general. Today, he will once again suffer being seen as a “traitor” and “white supremacist.”

What we have today is a reaction to this, which has given the whole discussion over whether these men were decent or not, or supported slavery or not, a clear conclusion: The Confederacy was a white-supremacist cause, and its soldiers and generals were traitors.

As statues of the Confederates have been toppled – and calls to rename US military bases that are named after Confederate generals are pushed forward – US President Donald Trump waded in on Wednesday, arguing that Fort Hood or Fort Bragg are part of America’s history and heritage. “These are traitors” were the replies on social media.

If you search Twitter now for “Bragg” and “traitor,” most of the talking points have the same refrain on this. These American generals, whose names adorn bases and who were generally not seen as traitors either in the time of Lincoln or after, are now seen as traitors.

This isn’t just a reaction to Trump or the recent protests. There has been a rising crescendo to write off the Civil War as a war against traitors. Many commentators seem to agree. Joy Reid writes: “Name another country anywhere on earth, I challenge you, that has ever named military bases after and raised statues to traitors.”

THE CRESCENDO portraying these Confederate generals and soldiers as traitors and white supremacists raises some questions. In general, the men did not see themselves as seeking to betray the United States; instead, they wanted to secede from them.

Regardless of whether their cause was slavery, most of these men articulated their views quite clearly at the time. They discussed slavery, so we have ample recourse to their own views on white supremacy or slavery.

They tended to write letters and diaries. Many wrestled over whether they should be loyal to their state or the federal government. Many went to West Point and ended up fighting their friends. They had mostly served together in the Mexican war, subjugating Mexico. They may have served in the Indian wars.

These men who joined the Confederate army didn’t see themselves as betraying their country to a foreign power; they chose state loyalty over federal loyalty. Many younger men were conscripted to the Confederate army.

In many countries, the passage of time tends to soften the image of civil conflicts. Kurdish fighters in Iraq who fought Saddam Hussein’s regime are not seen as “traitors” today, and neither are those Shi’ites who served with Iran’s army against Iraq in the 1980s.

History has many examples that lack clarity on who is a traitor. Those men who fled Poland or France to serve with the Allies ended up sometimes on the right side of history; other times on the wrong side. Frenchmen who fought Vichy were first thought to be traitors and then heroes. Poles ended up in exile as the Soviets and Communists occupied Poland after the war. History is not always simple. The Irish who rejected the deal Michael Collins signed: Were they traitors, heroes or neither?

In the US the issue is more deeply linked to the issue of slavery. No one would care if the southern generals were “traitors” if they had not backed slavery. The question then is more about slavery – and regarding this issue, American history is also complex.

Not far from Appomattox is Monticello, where Thomas Jefferson had his home and his slaves. Why is Jefferson today seen in the US as more acceptable than many southern soldiers who never owned slaves? Jefferson owned and abused slaves. Many of the US founding fathers had slaves. In this respect, they might be called white supremacists as much as the Confederates.

Furthermore, those like Sheridan and others who fought against Native Americans after the Civil War were brutal in their treatment of nonwhites. John Chivington, who massacred Native Americans at Sand Creek in 1864, was a Union officer. He fought against the Confederacy, but was his cause less white supremacy than those he fought?

THE US today appears to want to rip away the history of the period before 1860 – perhaps even before 1960. It doesn’t want to explain or discuss this history. US Democratic candidate Joe Biden was in his twenties when African-Americans and whites could not marry in many US states. It is quite shocking that it was not until 1967 that people from different “races” could marry one another in many places.

Unlike many countries that have tried to wrestle with their pasts, such as the Fascist or Communist past of many countries in Europe, the US debate wants a more clear bifurcation between the “traitors” and “white supremacists” and the others.

When I was younger in the US, the debate was more complex. In high school in Arizona we read a paper titled “Lincoln: Honkie or Egalitarian,” which discussed whether Lincoln was in fact a white supremacist. In those discussions we examined whether those American founding father, or even ostensibly liberal politicians such as Woodrow Wilson, were racists.

This more-nuanced view might reveal that US history is not a simple story of traitors and patriots. But that’s not what the US wants to discuss today.

There is another question that may loom over all this. What about the minorities, nonwhites, who served the Confederacy? If all the Confederates were traitors, it might be good to look at the history of some Jewish Confederates, such as Judah Benjamin, a politician and member of Jefferson Davis’s cabinet.

A son of Sephardi Jews from London, he was born in the British West Indies and moved to the United States. Was he a traitor and white supremacist or a local politician thrown into a maelstrom who thought he was serving his state? It’s not clear if there are any statues of Benjamin in the US today, so they can’t be torn down.

In the end, the US debate is more about Trump and what is happening today than about history. But history will suffer a rapid revision in the name of redressing historiography’s past misdeeds in portraying the South as honorable and a glorious “lost cause.”

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