In my soon-to-be renounced city of residence, efforts are ongoing to rename Robert E. Lee High School. One proposal is simply to designate it Lee High School. That seems a very appropriate solution to me. All parties concerned represent elements of the community too incurious to ask, “Which Lee? Lee who?” in the future, and also too intellectually inept to do any historical research. As for the honorable burghers who will likely reach this non-decision resulting in a wrap-around smoke screen, they will effectively initiate themselves into Dante’s outer circle of Inferno’s Indecisive, who would cry neither “fair” nor “foul” during the War in Heaven. Welcome to Hell. Pass on through—your place is waiting.
I also don’t think it does justice to the memory of Robert E. Lee to assign his name to the largest zoo of adolescents in our county.
The self-righteous pile-on launched against Confederate veterans was only one stop in a whirlwind tour last year. Taking a knee at football games, the “#metoo movement”, post-atrocity gun grabs, a “culturally appropriated” prom dress, more gun-grabbing, more outed Hollywood predators… now the cry and hue is about whether you can ever designate human beings as animals. I personally think this Trumpian epithet does an injustice to real animals, inasmuch as our furry friends have no natural endowment of free will which they may renounce in deciding to “go ape”… but I don’t believe my disagreement deserves two-weeks-and-counting of air time.
No casus belli appears to be too harebrained (sorry, rabbits!) for our society to get worked up about. I’ll limit myself today, however, to the Confederacy.
I’ve floated these figures before, for anyone who cares: 95 percent of the boys in gray came from families that owned no slave at all, and about 95 percent of the slaveholding families had five or fewer. Let’s see… five percent of five percent is… a quarter of one percent of one percent, or even less than the amount of “deadly carbon dioxide” in our atmosphere. Yet no less a conservative luminary and self-styled guardian of historical veracity than Glenn Beck grows audibly irate when one of his humble audience dares to challenge his assertion that the Civil War was fought entirely and exclusively over slavery. You can imagine what the poor dumb kid who just likes to shoot hoops or play video games must know about the subject after our schools put their stamp of approval on his shrunken cranium.
If I give my horse the rein, there will be no stopping him; so let me just toss out a few remarks drawn directly from the memoirs of two men who were “on the ground” as the war was being fought. Amazon’s Kindle program has made the rather brief and direct works of Sam Watkins and John S. Mosby available for practically nothing—so you can buy and read these testimonials yourself without great expense either of money or of time.
Watkins never mentions any slaves in his family references. His first mention of the subject is a bitter commentary upon the privileged few who were allowed to return home once their year of enlistment had expired: members of families that owned twenty or more slaves. They who remained under duress, he writes, felt that they were now fighting against the very principle of self-determination on whose behalf they had volunteered their lives.
Much later, in the war’s final months and as their dwindling numbers sought to obstruct Sherman’s scorched-earth frenzy of pillaging Georgia, Watkins observed entire companies of black soldiers led by white officers. These were freed slaves who were immediately presented with the option of enlistment: a “no-brainer” for many of them, since they would otherwise have faced starvation in a war-ravaged landscape. (It’s beyond the scope of Watkins’s recollective undertaking… but one may speculate that the Emancipation Proclamation was at least partly engineered to refurbish depleted Union ranks as the South’s heartland was penetrated and populations in states like New York and Illinois violently resisted conscription.) The recently freed slaves in blue uniforms surrendered a position to Watkins and his comrades without a shot on at least one occasion. It was evident to him that they were caught almost literally in a crossfire.
The Mosby family’s circumstances were such that they very likely had slave girls in the kitchen and a “boy” or two in the stables—but these were not plantation folk, who authored the horrendous corporal punishments dramatized in Roots and were roundly loathed by most other Southerners. I’ll confine myself to two incidents late in the Mosby memoir. One concerns the guerrilla leader’s nearly fatal shooting by intoxicated Union troops as he dined with sympathizers behind enemy lines. The Federals left him for dead after searching the premises carelessly; but Mosby’s hosts feared that, after a little sobering up, the Yanks might return to give their victim a second look. The wounded colonel was therefore loaded into a buckboard and consigned to “two negro boys” for conveyance to a neighboring farm. These young slaves were unsupervised. They might have delivered the most wanted man in Virginia to any Union outpost and won, not only their freedom, but probably a rich reward. Yet they considered themselves part of the family and did their part to confound the invaders. The Becks of the world can cite Stockholm Syndrome all day long—but this was an isolated rural family headed by two old white folks (their sons having gone to war), not a Mansonesque cult conditioned by drugs and sexual deviance.
After the war, an extraordinary friendship evolved between the one-time mounted guerrillero who had animated so many Yankee nightmares and the victorious General Grant. The latter showed himself an advocate of clemency and amnesty on numerous occasions when his titular superior, the drunken sot Andrew Johnson, treated Southern petitioners with complete contempt. Mosby actually helped to secure Grant’s election to the presidency, arguing to his fellow Virginians that the inequities of Reconstruction could only be resolved by working with reasonable men of the Republican persuasion. On one occasion late in their acquaintance, Mosby asked Grant whether he would have worn gray if he had been a born Southerner. Grant answered, “Of course!” noting his admiration for the Virginians with whom he had attended West Point.
Similarly, General Lee’s remark to a third party in strong disapproval of secession on the eve of war is reported by Mosby. Lee’s final choice was dictated utterly by the allegiance he felt to his “homeland”: i.e., his state—Virginia. His slaves were set free as hostilities began precisely so that his motives would not stand in doubt. (General Grant, in contrast, held on to all the many slaves he had acquired through marriage until Lincoln’s Proclamation made retaining them impolitic. Their release by a Northerner such as he was not legally required.)
But… yes, tear Lee’s statues down, by all means! Rename all the streets and schools, and continue to teach that Southerners were American Nazis and their black slaves American Jews. Keep encouraging idiot white boys to associate the Stars and Bars with the KKK and the Swastika. Turn up the flame on both burners of the stove, making Holocaust survivors out of political pawns and “rebel fringe” bad boys out of semi-literate couch potatoes. Thank you, Glenn Beck, for promoting all that shameless and indefensible claptrap; and please, Tyler, Texas, remove Robert E. Lee’s name from your sprawling house of pedagogic malpractice.