Me and the General Lee
Twenty years ago during a family reunion in Central Louisiana, my cousin shared the genealogy work he had been doing on our family. It was fascinating looking at what had been a years-long project. Through records, he was able to show this history of the Sanders family from probably not long after we came to America in chains to the present. You could see how the family moved from South Carolina to Alabama and Mississippi, finally settling in Louisiana. It was fascinating because that movement was one that took place when my ancestors were slaves. We even found a name for one of the slaveholders, a gentleman who was originally from Northern Ireland. Knowing I descended from slaves is one thing, but seeing it there in yellowed papers is quite another.
When I was a kid, one of my most favorite television shows that wasn’t a cartoon was the Dukes of Hazzard. Growing up in Michigan where my parents were autoworkers, I had to love a show about cars. Friday nights were special as I would sit and see Bo and Luke Duke try to outrun the inept and corrupt Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane and the head of Hazzard County, Boss Jefferson David Hogg. But of course, the star of the show was the General Lee, a 1969 Dodge Charger painted in blazing orange with the Confederate Flag on the roof. The horn played Dixie when it was pressed.
I share these two stories, because they are a part of me, and yet they seem so diametrically opposed to each other. Here I am, the descendant of slaves, watching a TV show in the late 1970s that could be seen as a celebration of the Confederacy. I am a walking contradiction.
In the wake of the recent ghastly gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, which resulted in the death of one counter-protester and when we finally saw our president become the cheerleader for white nationalism, there is a frantic push to get rid of any statue or plaque that might look kindly on the old Confederacy.
Mentally, I think this is a good thing. A lot of the monuments that went up around the South were placed there decades after the Civil War in order to assert who was in charge to African Americans. They are paeans to a movement that sought to break the United States apart. It could be seen as rewarding people who are nothing more than traitors.
And yet in my gut, I feel that something is off. I wonder if we are moving too fast, too quick to try to brush away the bad in our history. I wonder what effect it will have on understanding the Civil War. I wonder if all of this purging will stop with the Confederacy or will it move on to other figures in American history who owned slaves. I worry this is being done out of fear and anger and maybe a bit of punishment rather than to right past wrongs. As a Christian, I wonder if we are leaning too much on judgement and not on grace.
I wanted to write more specifically about race relations after the horror of Charlottesville, but I feel the need to address this issue and more importantly how we as Christians should deal with it. I’ve hesitated talking about it, because it’s such a fraught issue and when it comes to dealing with controversial issues, I am a bit of a coward. I really, really don’t want people yelling at me. But I am more and more bothered with how this issue is being addressed, especially by those who are in favor of removing the statues. The issues that are brought to the fore, race relations, the uses of history and even how we deal with past enemies are things that must be dealt with carefully and in a spirit of love and reconciliation. But what I am witnessing in the aftermath of Charlottesville is more about settling scores than it is about doing justice, about right thinking than it is about reconcilation.
As a rule, I’ve come to the conclusion that Confederate statues should be removed or at the very least recontexualized. I do understand that many of the statues revering Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson were not put up in the immediate years following the war, but sometimes decades following the conflict, in the early 20th century and later in the civil rights era of the 50s and 60s. I also understand why they were put up: in most cases to send a message to African Americans about who was in charge here. So I get that the statues are not placed with noble intent.
But I worry how we are going about removing statues. In some cases, it is being done in a rush with no thought other than wanting to get rid of anything that reminds people of the Confederacy. But how we remove some past vestiges is also a matter of grace. How do we extend love in this situation? How do we show ourselves as following a better way?
In 1990, America was captivated by a mini-series on of all networks, PBS. It was Ken Burns, The Civil War. By using photos and actors to supply voices to major characters, he was able to make it seem like we were right there at some of the major battles. He could have used actors to stage reenactments, but the voices alone were captivating. His look on the Civil War was far from sentimental; it was hard-edged about the causes of the war (hint: it’s slavery).
But there was something that was unique to the series, something that shows how different we are as a nation in 2017. He portrayed the people in the Confederacy as human beings, not sadistic monsters or traitors. The cause was wrong and the series is clear about that, but when it focuses on the people who made up the Confederacy, they were treated with a sense of dignity. Here’s how Matthew Cooper described this in 2015:
… at a time when the confederate flag is rightly being taken off of public buildings and put in museums — though individuals may unfurl it as they wish — it’s startling to see that the Robert E. Lee that Burns presented is a sympathetic, noble soldier, not a 19th century version of Heinrich Himmler. The narration of Mary Chesnut, a white antebellum woman whose diary runs through the film like a red skein, inspires understanding, not scorn. We hear the voices of Confederate soldiers — hungry and homesick — like their counterparts in blue.
Shelby Foote, the author of a three-volume work on the war, is a central narrator. The grandson of a Confederate, the Mississippian even looks like a gray-uniformed officer and, as the New York critic John Leonard put it in 1990, “Everything during the war seems to have happened, that afternoon, on his porch.“ Foote’s drawl and deep interest in the details of battle — Stonewall Jackson eating a peach on his horse, surrounded by corpses, saying, “God has been very kind to us this day” — made him one of the breakout celebrities of the series.
Today, I think Foote would not be so well-received. The desire to banish any praise of Confederates, even if it’s their heroism in battle, and the urge to remove all tributes to them is common now. And it’s understandable in the age of the Charleston, South Carolina, shooting, but it’s not commendable. Burns showed that there was plenty of humanity in the Southerners promoting a cause. On a much smaller scale, the German film Das Boot tells the story of Nazi sailors on a doomed submarine. Having empathy for those who fought on the wrong side of history doesn’t mean condoning the wrong side of history. Removing monuments to Confederates or no longer holding a Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, as the Iowa Democratic Party has decided to do in a fit of piety, seems more like a desire to cleanse history rather than reckon with it.
Burns understood that the tragedy of the Civil War wasn’t just the body count — 625,000 military deaths, still the largest of any American war — the mother who lost five sons, the piles of limbs, the Dachau-like skeletal cadavers at the Confederate prison in Andersonville, Georgia. The tragedy of the war is also that it was a necessary war, a conflict begun with the political objective of keeping the Union together was lifted to a higher plane as Lincoln and the North came to see that emancipation was the fight.
I think Burns exhibited a sense of grace about the project. The Confederate soldiers didn’t deserve it, but it was extended anyway. Burns sought to treat these soldiers who fought in some ways to tear the young nation apart with a sense of mercy.
I say this as an African American: we must see our enemies as humans. Yes, the Confederates’ cause was wrong, but that doesn’t mean the people who took the wrong side in the war must be discarded like trash. People have said that some of the leaders in Confederacy were old timey Nazis, going as far saying that Robert E. Lee dedicated his entire life to working against the Union. History shows that he was a loyal Union solider who made a grave mistake in choosing to side with an unholy government. But Lee still had features that people might want to emulate. Empathy, caring for the enemy, means we see our enemies as far more complex. It doesn’t ignore sin, but it does put it in context. Grace demands we treat the past with care in this case.
There is room for judgement as well. In the case of statues, it means being honest about past history and who deserves to be remembered and who doesn’t. It means looking at the different statues and learning who should have a statue and maybe who shouldn’t. Robert E. Lee has a more mixed history than you can give to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the Klu Klux Klan. It makes sense to keep one and maybe have it in a battlefield or cemetery, and another that probably shouldn’t see the light of day. They aren’t all bad. But you have to have empathy to see that.
Why should we remove a statue? What is the good that it will do? Is it being done in a hurry to quell outrage? Is it being done after some sense of consensus and thought (and if people are Christians, prayer)? Is the desire to foster better race relations or is it to bring shame to those we don’t agree with?
From what I’ve seen in this frenzy, it feels like a desire to score points against the South instead of racial reconciliation. There is a reminder to tell people who won the war, rather than humble thankfulness of its conclusion.
I am reminded by something pastor Doug Skinner wrote in the aftermath of Charlottesville last week. He talked about how the removal of statues is only part of the solution:
As I understand it, the trigger for the violence on Saturday was the decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from the campus of the University of Virginia. This is something that is happening all over the South these days, including right here in Dallas. There is a debate brewing about the future of the Robert E. Lee statue in Lee Park where Arlington Hall, a reproduction of Robert E. Lee’s ancestral home in Virginia, sits and hosts some of this city’s most fashionable weddings. The original Arlington Hall was confiscated by Abraham Lincoln to become the grounds for our National Cemetery when Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army to become the Commanding General of the Army of Virginia in the Confederacy. Trust me, there are going to be some tense debates at City Hall and some very vocal public protests along Turtle Creek about this before too long, and I get it.
I appreciate the wound that these monuments inflame. I see the offense that these memorials perpetuate. And personally I think that they more properly belong in a museum where they can be viewed and be interpreted as part of our history and not prominently displayed in a public space where their presence can be construed as some kind of lingering approval of slavery, or as some kind of latent longing for secession. But here’s what I also think, even if all the monuments go, even if all the buildings, parks, streets, and schools get renamed, we are still going to have a problem. Removing a statue and changing a name are ways of addressing the symptoms of a much deeper problem, the problem of racism. And the crucial question as I see it, is, how do we address this deeper problem? How do we put an end to racism?
Which leads me to another fear: that people will see the removal of every trace of the Confederacy as having done the job of dealing with racism. I can imagine a number of whites saying “Whew! I’m glad we got that settled.” We will look at racism as if it was just the problem of some statues and loser millennials and not a larger problem that will take decades to deal with. Removing statues is the easy part. It can make us look virtuous. The harder challenge is then tackling some of those living issues that are a result of America’s racist past: like the ongoing police brutality problem or the disparities in wealth. Dealing with changing people’s hearts takes a lot of time and is much harder than removing a statue.
But I think the rush to expunge the Confederacy from American history has another consequence: to not see American history for what it has been, a very messy endeavor, one that is far from perfect, but has values that are still worth reclaiming. In 2017, we have reduced the Civil War to being a war with good and bad guys. But in doing that, we lose learning a lot of lessons from it. As an African American, I could just limit myself to talking about the war about slavery and wanting to damn anyone involved with the Confederacy. Slavery was the factor and the Confederacy aren’t heroes, but even people on the other side are human and there are lessons to be learned.
Future Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes had this to say about the Civil War, 20 years after having served in it:
We believed that it was most desirable that the North should win; we believed in the principle that the Union is indissoluble; we, or many of us at least, also believed that the conflict was inevitable, and that slavery had lasted long enough. But we equally believed that those who stood against us held just as sacred convictions that were the opposite of ours, and we respected them as every man with a heart must respect those who give all for their belief.
Holmes was magnanimous towards his former enemies without saying their cause was just. He could see that his Southern enemies were human, just like himself, and were deserving of respect, even though they were on the wrong side.
This war over the Civil War is in many ways another way of fighting the culture wars and it shows how we view the other. Our widening political polarization means that the other side is not honorable. We can’t look at someone with another view as simply having another view. We have lost empathy towards the enemy or the other.
As I’ve said before, I do think there is a case for moving the statues to museums and battlefields, but I don’t like why we as a culture are doing this. What made the Civil War interesting is because it is so complex and so much what America is, complex and messy – just like how an African American who is aware of being descended from slaves, loved an old TV show that was the Confederacy on 4 wheels.
Thirty years ago, I went with my parents to Washington, DC. We went to Arlington and that’s when I heard about the history of Arlington, that it was the residence and grounds of one Robert Edward Lee. The guide told a story of how Lee looked out from his house to the rolling hills as he made the decision to join the Confederacy, knowing it would be the last time he would be here. And it was. The Union appropriated the property and it became Arlington National Cemetery.
I knew that Lee was on the wrong side. I was glad his side lost. But I did in that moment understand how it felt to lose something because of a choice — and I felt for this long dead Confederate.
Lincoln said at the end of his second Inaugural that the task of the nation was to come together.
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Lincoln was able to see that we were more than the cartoons we sometimes hurl at each other. I wish that our modern America was more nuanced in how we viewed the past as well as the present and join in Lincoln’s endeavor.