White-washing the Confederacy

In 2020, in a long-overdue move, Virginia removed from its state capitol the busts and statues honoring Confederate generals and officials. And recently, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Charlottesville could remove the statues of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

Of course, white Confederacy supporters opposed these actions. Reflecting on these developments and the opposition to them, an editorial in the Roanoke Times asked an important question, “why didn’t the South regard the Confederacy as a mistake?”

In 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, a British territory. The British sent a naval armada and defeated the Argentinians, killing 649 and capturing over 11,000, retaining control over the Islands.

This was a military catastrophe for Argentina, after which the military general who was president was forced to resign. Public discontent forced out the junta and installed an elected government.

The democratic government of Argentina put former military leaders on trial, sending some to prison and court-martialing others. They did not establish statues for these military leaders, and they removed their pictures from the National War College.

The Roanoke Times editorial asked the question,
“Why didn’t the South, after the Civil War, react more like Argentina? Why weren’t Southerners outraged and disgusted that the planter class had led them into a bloody war that left more than 290,000 southerners dead and an entire region economically devasted? After all, most Southerners didn’t own slaves, and many soldiers often enlisted simply out of a desire to protect their home state against what they considered a Northern invasion. Why didn’t they come to regard all that as a mistake? More to the point . . . as we ponder last week’s Virginia Supreme Court ruling on Confederate statues, why did 19th century and early 20th century Southerners set about raising statues to the men who had led them into that misbegotten war?”

After World War II, Germany and Japan turned away from their deplorable past. They built no statues to General Erwin Rommel in Berlin and none to General Hideki Tojo in Tokyo. Germany banned the symbol of the Nazis, the Swastika.

But there were statues to the Confederate leaders—American traitors–all over the South. Why? Simple answer–race in America.

A strong sentiment in the country pushed for reconciliation of the North and the South. This reunion occurred by the late nineteenth century, but at a terrible cost. They achieved reconciliation by the re-subjugation of many of the people whom the war had freed from bondage.

Frederick Douglas saw it coming. Ending a speech to a black audience in Washington D.C. on July 5, 1975, Douglass famously asked the question, “If war among the whites brought peace and liberty to the blacks, what will peace among the whites bring?” Looking back, we can answer Douglas. The answer is Jim Crow.

Douglass had spent the ten years since the end of the Civil War working with Republicans, advocating for full civil liberties of blacks in the South during Reconstruction.

By 1875 he had become disheartened as he saw how Northern whites were reconciling with Southern whites and making accommodations, ignoring the lynching and other anti-black activities in the South.

Further, the losing Confederates suffered no punishment. While recognizing their acts as treasonous and otherwise harmful to the nation, Presidents Lincoln and Johnson provided them pardons. These accommodations were the peace between whites Douglas was referring to.

This reconciliation without justice was how the South lost the battle but won the war. And the South secured that status with the myth of the lost cause and the assertion of white supremacy.