During the last several days two commentaries struck me as offering an interesting juxtaposition of perspectives on the American Civil War. In the Washington Post, Richard Cohen called upon readers to reconsider celebrating Robert E. Lee. After all, look at what Lee fought to preserve … slavery. How can we admire that? How can we admire him?
Meanwhile, over at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates offered two commentaries (here followed by here, followed by more commentary here) on why he dissented from viewing the Civil War as regrettable. After all, the war destroyed slavery, and that’s a good thing, right? Certainly one can’t see the destruction of slavery as a bad thing, especially as slavery was a Bad Thing.
I did not respond immediately to these commentaries, because by themselves they were of less interest to me. After all, as one can see here, Cohen’s call for a reassessment of Lee can turn into an obnoxious flamewar between two bitter and bored retirees who have nothing better to do than chip away at each other. Coates’s observations reminded me of Frederick Douglass (boy, I’m sure he’ll like that), because Douglass welcomed war as offering the opportunity for slavery to collapse at a time when Douglass was beginning to despair that slavery would never end. And, if we bring Tony Norman’s recent piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette into the mix (hat-tip to Kevin Levin, who highlighted the piece and reactions to it for different purposes over at Civil War Memory), we are reminded yet again of the importance of memory to present-day perspectives about politics, meaning that what Cohen and Coates are doing at the least is to challenge mainstream memory and present alternative ways to remember the past.
These authors are advancing an argument for the centrality of race and slavery as part of what we should remember about the American Civil War. The destruction of slavery is a central event in African American history as well as American history, and everyone should be interested in how that came about and what that process tells us about so many things. As for Lee, Cohen observes:
Whatever his personal or military virtues, he offered himself to the cause of slavery. He owned slaves and fought in the courts to keep them. He commanded the vast army of a nation dedicated to the proposition that white people could own black people and sell them off as the owner saw fit. Such a man cannot be admired.
That’s as blunt as it gets. Moreover, he adds:
I also wondered what a black person was supposed to think. Chagrin or rage would be perfectly appropriate.
These seem to me fair observations. After all, who we admire and who we despise reveals something about us. Now, I don’t think people who admire Lee do so because they admire slavery or because they must be white supremacists (some would say that those people prefer Nathan Bedford Forrest as their icon, but I digress). But what is evident is that in crafting a symbolic or mythical Lee to admire in the popular mind one may distort the historical Lee, and it’s evident that such has been the case. As Cohen asserts:
After the war, the South embraced a mythology of victimhood. An important feature was the assertion that the war had been not about slavery at all but about states’ rights. The secessionists themselves were not so shy. In their various declarations, they announced they were leaving the Union to preserve slavery. Lee not only accepted the Lost Cause myth, he propagated it and came to embody it.
We see something of that “South as victim” in the discussion group exchange previously highlighted. Yes, comparing Lee to Rommel raises the “good general in service of an evil cause” comparison. One hopes that the participant in that discussion who complains about this is not defending slavery or the Confederacy as a Good Thing in his haste to distort Cohen’s comparison (although Cohen might have chosen more wisely). And yes, “the South” as a term serves to distort history, because not all white southerners felt the same, and not all southerners were white. Are you listening, Mr. Cohen?
Just as Coates wants us to celebrate the destruction of slavery (no objection here), Cohen wants us to reject Lee and celebrate others:
In the antebellum South, there were plenty of people who recognized the evil of slavery and the folly of secession. Lee was not one of them and deserves no honor. In the awful war that began 150 years ago this month, he fought on the wrong side for the wrong cause. It’s time for the South to honor the ones who were right.
And yet it is also here that Cohen and Coates part ways. For it is hard to see how the destruction of slavery would have achieved peacefully, and certainly not in the lifetimes of those engaged in political debate in 1860-61. Secession was not folly: it was a reasoned response to a real threat. That it became counterproductive … that the war to protect slavery became the process through which slavery was destroyed … is another issue altogether. And of course there were plenty of people in the South who recognized the evil of slavery. We might start with the enslaved. Coates would, and rightly so.
Was it an awful war? Sure. Was it tragic? In some ways, yes, but not necessarily in the ways in which Coates contests the term. It was tragic that white Americans could not bring themselves to realize the promise of their own revolutionary and Revolutionary rhetoric. It was tragic that in the end they could not bring an end to slavery short of secession and war. Doubtless Coates would agree that Reconstruction was a regrettable tragedy that illustrated the same shortcomings. In short, even as the destruction of slavery is cause for celebration, that it had to come to that through war is cause for reflection and contemplation. Moreover, if we continue to concentrate on the story of the destruction of slavery and the achievement of emancipation as a wartime phenomenon, we risk losing sight of the fact that what freedom meant remained undefined and incomplete, and that during Reconstruction, a truly tragic era, white Americans once more fell short of realizing the ideals which they claimed to cherish, leaving a legacy with which we still wrestle.