Streetwise Professor

December 26, 2020

Lee & Jackson Come Down: It’s More About the Future Than the Past

Filed under: Civil War,History,Politics — cpirrong @ 4:40 pm

Among other things, annus horribilis 2020 will evidently mark the final eclipse of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as Virginia icons. Lee-Jackson Day (commemorated under various names since 1889) was eliminated as a state holiday. The statue of Lee was removed from the U.S. Capitol, and his statue on Memorial Avenue in Richmond was defaced by massive graffiti during the George Floyd protests, and Virginia’s governor ordered its removal a month later: its fate now hangs by a thin legal thread. This month, Jackson’s statue was removed from the Virginia Military Institute, where he taught before achieving fame in the Civil War.

Even more than erecting them, the removal of monuments is a statement of political power. Thus, the monument controversy is a testament to political realignment. The controversies have been particularly intense in Virginia because the realignment has been so pronounced. This is directly attributable to the vast expansion of the Federal government since the 1960s, which has resulted in the dramatic growth of the northern Virginia suburbs, with the burgeoning population consisting disproportionately of non-Virginians, most of whom have direct or indirect ties to the national government, and hence have an antipathy towards, or at most an indifference to the most renowned rebels against that government. Similar things are happening in other Southern states with burgeoning urban populations, e.g., Georgia. In many respects, the Yankee invasion of the Sunbelt that started in earnest in the 1970s is doing what Yankee Reconstruction in the 1870s could not.

As I have written many times in the past four years or so, this iconoclasm disturbs me. It disturbs me in part because I dislike the naked assertion of political power and the marking of political territory. Waving the bloody shirt 155 years after the fact seems particularly unseemly. It is largely presentist bigotry which refuses to countenance context. And as I discuss in the closing, it will have baleful political effects.

Moreover, I dislike the erasing of history. We need to understand our past better–including understanding how previous generations understood their past. ISIS wants to destroy everything that predated Mohammed. The topplers of monuments in Richmond or Portland or Madison (and I could go on) what to destroy everything American that predates The Woke. What they have in common is a deep antipathy of anything that angers their gods.

The removal of the Jackson statue is particularly ridiculous. VMI is, after all, a military school. It trains officers. Jackson, although an indifferent teacher at VMI, was a living embodiment of many military virtues, and a general of some genius. For those reasons, he is a good example for cadets to contemplate. And as for the cause in which he employed that genius and virtues, cadets are also better off understanding it and what brought it into existence than having it extirpated from memory. The statue’s removal will also remove a reminder to strive for such an understanding.

There is also an element of cheap virtue signaling, and in fact cowardice, in removing Jackson’s monument. Truth be told, if Jackson’s legacy is a blot on Virginia that must be removed, so is VMI itself. Twenty-one of its graduates served as Confederate generals: many more as colonels (including George Patton’s grandfather) or in lower ranks: approximately 1,800 VMI graduates served in the Civil War–all but 19 for the Confederacy. The Corps of Cadets delivered a decisive charge at the Battle of New Market on 15 May, 1864.

VMI is therefore inextricably linked to the Civil War, and on the “wrong” side. If such historical bonds require removal from public space, intellectual consistency would require VMI to be burned more thoroughly than David Hunter’s Union troops did on 12 June, 1864. Getting rid of Jackson’s statue is a cheap and cowardly way of reckoning with the past.

We are now entering a period in which the subject of relations between states, and the relations between the states and the Federal government is being questioned as it has not been since 1865. The topic of secession has been broached, especially in the aftermath of the fiasco that is the 2020 presidential election. There is greater distrust and alienation between different regions of the US today than there has been since the era of Reconstruction, and by a large margin. What was universally considered settled is no longer so.

In such a febrile environment, a better understanding of how sectional distrust and alienation (North-South then, Red-Blue today) can lead to disastrous rupture is imperative. “No more Munichs” informed post-War US foreign policy: this was an attempt to learn from past mistakes in order to avoid their repetition. “No more Civil Wars” is equally important, if not more so, and we should think seriously and deeply about the period 1820-1860, in order to learn from the mistakes of that era–mistakes that culminated in a bloody war and bitter Reconstruction.

Sadly, erasing visible traces of this era does not encourage such consideration: it prevents it. Much the worse, the intensely partisan and triumphalist way it is being done actually widens the fissures in American political and social life that are becoming more apparent by the day. Again, it is an assertion of political power by one faction that is deliberately intended to demonstrate to other factions who is in charge, and that they don’t matter. That will only intensify the already manifest centrifugal forces at work in the United States. That is the last thing we want to do now, for reasons that a better understanding of the Civil War Era should make more than plain.

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  1. Your post is unclear. Are you saying that the confederacy was about states rights and that we need to learn to respect said rights?

    Comment by aaa — December 26, 2020 @ 5:44 pm

  2. I am a major Civil War buff and have been since I was 8 years old. I love monuments. I think they represent a lot more than just a “tribute” to an individual.

    But, at the same time, the removal of Civil War statutes or renaming U.S. military installations does not bother me, even the Jackson statue at VMI.

    Here is the reason why. The modern world has very little connection to the Civil War. Modern people have absolutely zero knowledge of how people of the era lived or thought. They can only apply their own viewpoints and cannot look at history from the viewpoints of someone living in the 19th century. Few people have interest in Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and as time moves on, fewer and fewer will.

    History is history. It cannot be “removed”. But public “history” should be related to the current world. So, instead of Stonewall Jackson, Robert Rodes, and Billy Mahone VMI should move to the next century of US fighting men like George Marshall, George Patton. Leonard Gerow, Chesty Puller, and even the late actor Fred Willard. Military bases like Ft. Benning, Bragg, and Gordon could be renamed after WWII, Korean, and Viet Nam war heroes. Time moves on. It brings changes. Changing is not the worst thing in the world.

    Comment by mark — December 26, 2020 @ 8:48 pm

  3. @aaa. Not even close.

    Comment by cpirrong — December 26, 2020 @ 11:49 pm

  4. What is especially ridiculous is assertion that statue of Jackson somehow contributed to supposed racism directed to black cadets at this military school. Monuments to dead generals can harm people by some way!

    Comment by mmt — December 27, 2020 @ 9:52 am

  5. “Jackson, although an indifferent teacher at VMI, was a living embodiment of many military virtues, and a general of some genius.”
    Agreed. But he was also a traitor to the United States (or at least the rump that constituted the State during the War of Secession).

    Traitors can be great generals. Why not? Try on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus for size.

    Is loyalty to the Constitution the supreme virtue?

    Comment by Simple Simon — December 27, 2020 @ 11:18 am

  6. @Simple Simon In his times many people believed in right of states to secede from the Union. Lincoln held this view in 1848. Moreover, then many people’s loyalty was primarily to their state, not the country as whole. It’s good that North won in the Civil War because America remained united country and slavery was abolished, but it’s oversimplification to call people , who fought on the Southern side, traitors.

    Comment by mmt — December 27, 2020 @ 11:37 am

  7. I feel like a good solution would be to replace them with statues of leaders of slave rebellions. Honor people who sacrificed their lives in a struggle against tyranny.

    Comment by aaa — December 27, 2020 @ 1:12 pm

  8. @7 aaa, your preference would require a huge preponderance of statues of Caucasian generals, soldiers, and abolitionists, Cassius Clay among them. How do you feel about that?

    Comment by Pat Frank — December 27, 2020 @ 6:06 pm

  9. have you not been paying attention, cervantes (who was a slave in an algerian dungeon) frederick douglas a danish abolitionist have all been deemed not woke enough,

    Comment by miguel cervantes — December 28, 2020 @ 12:39 pm

  10. They are coming after the battlefields next.

    Comment by Joe Walker — December 28, 2020 @ 4:41 pm

  11. Public monuments to Confederate generals were mostly erected as symbols of resistance to the civil rights movement in the postwar era. They were not teaching tools or neutral reminders of history, but celebrations of the rebellion in political support of Jim Crow. Each generation chooses the monuments that reflect what they wish to celebrate. It isn’t too surprising that the current population is less eager to dig in on the glory of secession and the cause it stood for.

    Comment by SRP — December 30, 2020 @ 4:25 am

  12. @11 SRP — the contemporaneous people pulling down those statues do so in a cause as evil as the cause of those people of the Civil War past who put them up. Antifa and BLM have no moral case. None.

    Those statues can be turned into very useful teaching tools, exposing the mistakes of our past culture. Tearing them down erases the modern lesson.

    Comment by Pat Frank — January 2, 2021 @ 2:06 pm

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