Monday, August 21, 2017

Time to put the "Lost Cause" behind us

John Hunt Morgan memorial, Lexington, KY

One of the most interesting things to learn from this brouhaha over Confederate memorials is how many of them there are and that they are spread all over the United States, not just the South.  You can find them as far west as California and as far north as New York.  There are dozens in Kentucky and West Virginia, neither of which were part of the Confederacy.

Kentucky had declared itself neutral at the outset of the war but when Major General Leonidas Polk got it into his head to invade the Bluegrass State, the governor solicited the United States for help and none other than Gen. U.S. Grant responded to the crisis.  The state was visibly torn on the issue.  A shadow government was formed that supported the Confederacy, but ultimately the state swore its allegiance to the United States.  Yet, no less than 60 Confederate memorials are scattered throughout Kentucky.  

The other irony is that Abraham Lincoln's boyhood home is in Knob Creek, not far from Louisville, which has three Confederate memorials despite the war never reaching this part of Kentucky.  At least Lexington is trying to make things right.

It's even stranger that West Virginia would have so many Confederate memorials, as it seceded from Virginia in order to stay in the Union.  Yet, there are scores of monuments scattered throughout this state as well.  It really makes you wonder if any of these persons studied their state's heritage?

Most of these memorials were erected during the peak years of segregation, and both these states were as notorious as their fellow Southern states in this regard.  The KKK and other white supremacist groups are still very much active here, even if Sen. Mitch McConnell says they are not wanted in Kentucky.  In fact, this photo surfaced a few years ago of Mitch getting an award from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which makes you wonder where his sympathies actually lie.  So far, nothing to disprove the image posted on twitter.

Sympathy for the South made it into the mainstream decades ago thanks to Gone With the Wind.  These feelings were further reinforced by Ken Burns epic series on the Civil War, which heavily featured the Dean of Southern Apologists, Shelby Foote.  There's something about a "Lost Cause" that attracts many persons, which I guess is what keeps Donald Trump going.

Conservative websites like The Blaze have jumped all over a recent Marist poll that showed 62 per cent of Americans feel the statues are part of history.  An astonishing 44 per cent of Blacks agreed.  Not sure what the matrix for these polls were but you can sort it out here at PBS.

Nonetheless, many cities and college campuses quietly took down Confederate monuments this past week -- Duke and the University of Texas among them.  After all, this is a local issue and if city councils and university boards feel the statues impose on their way of life it is their choice to make, regardless of what Condoleeza Rice or anyone else thinks.

A memorial isn't really a part of history.  It is a marker.  If you want to learn the history of your country it is better to read a book, not the bronze placard on a monument, which most likely was written by the Sons of Confederate Veterans or other similar organization.  This is "sanitized history," to use Aunt Condi's term, in which the South becomes some kind of evocative "Dixieland," as Elvis might sing.  These monuments might be beautiful but it doesn't make Dixie right, especially when you don't even know which states were in Dixie to begin with.


  1. If more people understood when the vast majority of these statues were erected, it's possible the polling numbers would look somewhat different. Th NYTimes published a very good piece by Eric Foner either yesterday or today on this very subject.

  2. I shall have to take a look at that Foner article. You might recall when we were in the NY Times American History forum, he was interviewed by that paper. Readers were invited to pose a question to him and seven queries were posted. You may possibly recall that he singled out my question re Congressman Bingham (Ohio) and his creation of US Constitutional Amendments 13-15 for having discussed the single most significant but under rated issue in American history. Needless to say, to this day I still feel highly flattered by his compliment.

    Re these statues, history is history. Such commemoratives which honor murderers and traitors have no business being displayed in public. Should we create a statue to honor Benedict Arnold for his success at Fort Ticonderoga? Should we erect another for Timothy McVeigh to honor his work in Iraq? How about one for Osama bin Laden for his fight against the Soviets?

    Therefore, these disfavored creations may be left in a museum financed with private dollars. Better yet, melting them down just like we did with statues that honored Hitler and the swastika, would not be entirely objectionable. Robert E Lee and other traitors, do not deserve to be honored. He and his peers richly deserved the hanging tree and to be condemned by all patriotic Americans. That's what patriots do to traitors all over the world.


    Yes, indeed. Highly ironic.

  4. Foner also heavily criticized Ken Burns for romanticizing the Civil War and not including Reconstruction. Eventually, PBS did a documentary on Reconstruction. So little is said about how the South fought Reconstruction kicking and screaming, viewing it as an imposition worse than the Civil War itself, which is why we have so many of these damn memorials.

  5. Foner's article in NYTimes:

  6. As I've probably mentioned before, Foner's "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution: 1863-77" is a sobering and disheartening read.

  7. Great book. He and Leon Litwack did a great job of resurrecting Reconstruction as it had long disappeared from most history books. They focused heavily on WEB DuBois classic book from the 1930s which revealed the so-called Dunning School for the fraud that it was.