Confederate statues are under fire. Cultural warriors are demanding their removal. The more aggressive activists are taking matters into their own hands. What’s feeding this frenzy?
Don’t get me wrong. I am all for putting a leash on radical protesters vandalizing public property. But if statues in the public square send the wrong message, haven’t these modern-day de-Stalinists got a point?
Bad Southern generals fought for slavery. Noble Northern generals fought for freedom. What could be more straightforward? The right thing to do is honor the Union fighters and cast aside Confederate tributes – right?
Not so fast. History is a bit more complicated than an episode of The Lone Ranger. The guys in blue were no saints. And the guys in gray weren’t so clearly the villains they’ve been made out to be.
Let’s start with General Ulysses S. Grant. The leader of the Union forces is credited with saving our great nation. Okay, but he also ordered the expulsion of Jews from territory conquered by the Union Army. Grant’s “General Order #11” was a vile racist edict that could have served as a template for Nazi policy in Europe a century later.
Grant later became our 18th President. His White House tenure is considered one of the most corrupt and ineffective in history.
Other Union leaders offered no greater portraits of public rectitude. In their literally scorched earth march through the South, General Sherman and his men intentionally terrorized civilians with actions clearly violating rules of war prevailing at the time. These same military leaders then carried out brutal campaigns against Native American populations.
In contrast, the Confederate army was more constrained. General Lee was a principled man, who insisted that civilian populations and property be spared wherever possible. As evidenced by his writings, he also gave no quarter to Grant’s anti-Semitic sensibilities.
But Lee chose the wrong, losing side of the war. For what was from his perspective an honorable decision, he is vilified. Having graduated near the top of his class at West Point, he resigned his U.S. Army commission to stand with his native State of Virginia when it seceded from the Union.
Under today’s litmus test of identity politics, this transgression is irredeemable. So Lee’s statues are coming down while Grant’s image still adorns our $50 bill.
When complicated men are reduced to caricatures, the debate is no longer about history. Or even values. Commemorations become a flag to be captured. Politics decides what gets a place on the mantle.
Popular this year? Get a statue. Next year? Only time will tell.