A Memorial Day for Every American Soldier

The city of New Orleans recently removed three memorials to Confederate leaders (and a fourth marking an obscure clash during Reconstruction.)  Why did they do this? Because someone today was offended by a time in American history that they would prefer to obliterate. I believe they chose to demonize these men by viewing them solely through a 21st-century prism.    

Revisionist history is a trait of autocracies, not democracies. 

A willingness to reduce historical events to a sound bite is worse: “North good. South bad. Destroy anything causing offense today to people who weren’t there and don’t care to learn. Story at 11.”

We need to be clear-eyed about this: the American Civil War was about slavery, not states’ rights. That argument is mostly postbellum revisionism, creating a myth of nobility where none existed. Treating any human being as bereft of intellect, emotion, or soul to be bought and sold as property is a heinous and loathsome assault on all of us. 5000 years of world history in which it occurred on every continent and by nearly every culture does not make it right.

But let us also remember a bit more of our history, a subject seemingly under-taught in U.S. schools today.

The U.S. abolished the Atlantic slave trade in 1807 under President Thomas Jefferson, but it took the Civil War to abolish slavery itself. During these years from 1807-1861, the United States had grown to become a transcontinental power, but one based upon very different regional economies. It should be no surprise that the more industrial, more urban, more economically diversified North would have less in common with the more agrarian, more rural, and more economically commodity-driven South.

There is nothing “civil” about civil war. It is a terrible thing when a father turns against his own son or a brother against his only brother. More than once, I imagine, both died on the same battlefield, each willing to give his life for his beliefs. To suggest today that such a decision is taken lightly is to belittle the anguish of a time we can only view but not experience.

With this history as context, were the three men whose statues were removed traitors or some sort of heinous monsters? Only if you believe the U.S. Military Academy at West Point turns out heinous monsters.

All three, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Robert E. Lee attended West Point and prior to the divisiveness that created the war, served with bravery and distinction as officers in the army of the United States of America. In addition, Jefferson Davis served as the U.S. Secretary of War in President Franklin Pierce’s cabinet. General Beauregard was appointed superintendent of West Point, but left that position as war clouds gathered. General Lee did serve as superintendent and, when the war began, was offered a leadership position as a Major General in the U.S., or “Union”, Army.

Yet in 2017 the mayor of New Orleans decreed, “It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America. They fought against it.” How easy it must be for some to believe there is no gray in this world and how cavalierly a decision can be made to resign your commission and end your life’s work because you also hold another disparate belief.

These men did, of course, choose the path of secession, as did most of the six million residents of the South and between 750,000 and 1 million men who served in the Confederate Army. Davis, Beauregard, and Lee lost. The South lost. The idea that one man could be the slave of another lost.

Some became embittered and refused to accept the outcome. But not the three men whose statues were toppled. Robert E. Lee became president of Washington College (since renamed Washington and Lee University), P.G.T. Beauregard became president of the New Orleans and Carrollton Street Railway, and Jefferson Davis the president of a life insurance company (having turned down the presidency of Texas A&M.) All contributed once again -- as Americans. As Americans, they deserve our remembrance and respect.

What does this have to do with our remembrances on Memorial Day? Everything. We fought with and killed each other during a terrible time in our nation’s history. We can either stupidly pretend the war is still ongoing, as the KKK does; we can be embittered as some descendants, both black and white, are; or we can be thankful that out of such devastation and such hostility and bitterness, we have forged a better nation, a more tolerant society, and a more enlightened people.

It isn’t about a stone or marble statue or memorial. To raise a statue is a decision for each individual on their own property or each city or state on its public land to make. But it is about remembering the sacrifice of all Americans who served and fought, including all soldiers of the Confederacy whose advice to their children and grandchildren must have been to defend the renewed American nation that arose from the ashes of the Civil War, and they have done so all out of proportion to their population.

I choose to honor even those I would have fought as my enemy in that most catastrophic of wars. The men represented by these statues were born Americans and died Americans, buried on American soil.

There are those who would disenfranchise our fathers, sons, and brothers as venal traitors rather than conflicted human beings fighting for a cause who, after losing to loftier ideals, rejoined mainstream American society.

If you are among those who cannot bring yourself to forgive and show respect this day of remembrance for the men in gray, the men in blue, and the millions of men and women who have followed them in some variation of blue, gray or olive drab, may I suggest you visit Robert E. Lee’s former plantation.

You may know it by a different name. It is the final resting place for numerous men and women dating from the Civil War, Confederate and Union, black and white, native-born or once an immigrant. They are Americans one and all. Today it is called Arlington National Cemetery.