Why Does Brian Beutler Hate the South?

The New Republic's Brian Beutler has what is easily the silliest idea of the year to date. He thinks we should make April 9th -- the "end" of the Civil War -- a national holiday. The date he has in mind commemorates the surrender of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant's Union army at Appomattox Court House.

But as any high school sophomore knows, that event hardly brought down the curtain on the Civil War. There were several pitched battles between large numbers of union and Confederate soldiers before President Johnson formally declared the war over on August 20, 1865. General Joe Johnston didn't surrender his Army of Tennessee to General William T. Sherman until April 26th. The states of Alabama and Mississippi, and Eastern Louisiana surrendered on May 4. Jefferson Davis wasn't captured until May 10. It is generally acknowledged that the last battle of the Civil War was fought at Palmito Ranch outside of Brazos, Texas, on May 13. And, of course, the citizens of Missouri and a few other border regions would argue that the war continued for years after the formal surrender.

Aside from Mr. Beutler's grade-school notions of Civil War history, his reasoning for making April 9th a federal holiday is insulting and derogatory toward the south. And his second bright idea -- renaming landmarks and monuments named after Confederate soldiers and leaders -- shows his utter cluelessness about southern history and how many southerners view that history.

This week provides an occasion for the U.S. government to get real about history, as April 9 is the 150th anniversary of the Union’s victory in the Civil War. The generous terms of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House foreshadowed a multitude of real and symbolic compromises that the winners of the war would make with secessionists, slavery supporters, and each other to piece the country back together. It’s as appropriate an occasion as the Selma anniversary to reflect on the country’s struggle to improve itself. And to mark the occasion, the federal government should make two modest changes: It should make April 9 a federal holiday; and it should commit to disavowing or renaming monuments to the Confederacy, and its leaders, that receive direct federal support.

Beutler believes letting the south off easy by not placing the federal government's foot on their necks and forcing them at the point of a bayonet to accept black suffrage and equal rights was a missed opportunity. But the government didn't enforce those concepts in the north. The only reason to pick on the south was that they were defeated and helpless.

That lack of consensus was an ineluctable consequence of concerted postbellum efforts to sand down the seams reuniting the states. There was a real but inadequate constituency for crushing the Southern establishment after the Civil War, and reintegrating the country under an entirely different paradigm. Instead, the North enabled the South by giving it unusual influence over shaping the official mythology of the war. Yes, the South surrendered. The states ratified the 13th Amendment. The Union survived. These facts couldn’t be altered. But memorializing the rebellion as a tragedy of circumstance, or a bravely fought battle of principle—those narratives were adopted in part for the unspoken purpose of making the reunion stick. "You lost, we won, and we're all living in the USA," Talking Point Memo's Josh Marshall once wrote. "But we'll let you win in the battle of memory and valor and nostalgia."

The "constituency" of which Beutler writes were many of the radical Republicans, who dreamed of making the south a kind of protectorate, presumably forever. One of their most eloquent spokesmen was Rep. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, who once made this cheery speech on the House floor:

"It is said the South will never submit — that we cannot conquer the rebels — that they will suffer themselves to be slaughtered, and their whole country to be laid waste. Sir, war is a grievous thing at best, and civil war more than any other ; but if they hold this language, and the means which they have suggested must be resorted to ; if their whole country must be laid waste and made a desert, in order to save this Union from destruction, so let it be. I would rather, Sir, reduce them to a condition where their whole country is to be re-peopled by a band of freemen, than to see them perpetrate the destruction of this people through our agency. I do not say it is time to resort to such means, and I do not say that the time will come, but I never fear to express my sentiments. It is not a question with me of policy, but a question of principle."

Stevens and his radical Republican friends were known as "hard war" men, and they constantly complained to Lincoln that he was being too soft on the traitors.

Beutler would appear to agree:

It’s unfathomable that anyone today would attempt to name a new military installation, or rename an old one, after a Confederate general. But at the time these bases were named, there wasn’t nearly as much of a consensus behind the argument that the Confederates committed treason against the United States in support of a war for slavery.

"Treason" is always defined by the victor. Our founding fathers were all traitors. And as first the Declaration of Independence announced and then the Constitution codified into law, the war for independence was a war for self-determination -- of which slavery was to be a big part. Did that make the Revolutionary War a "war for slavery," too?

Beutler has an interesting point about the hagiography of the southern fighting man and the cause itself. He brings up President Obama's Selma speech about American exceptionalism and why renaming places and monuments is part of the growth of American society.

This was both a rejection of the fairytale America perpetuated by American conservatives, in which national virtue overwhelms sin, and a statement of faith in the country’s robust capacity for self-improvement. And he delivered it in Selma, Alabama—a Southern city whose folksy name evokes state-sanctioned, state-administered violence against black citizens—on the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Selma would be a perverse venue for celebrating the Jingo’s exceptional America, but it was the perfect backdrop for Obama’s more nuanced rendering: the convening point of the march to Montgomery, on a bridge named after Edmund Pettus—a vicious white supremacist, who committed treason against the United States as a Confederate general, and later terrorized former slaves as an Alabama Klansman and Democratic Senator.

In the self-critical America of Obama’s imagination, more people would know about the Edmund Pettus bridge and its namesake. The bridge itself wouldn’t necessarily be renamed after Martin Luther King or John Lewis or another civil rights hero; because it is synonymous with racist violence, the bridge should bear Pettus’s name eternally, with the explicit intent of linking the sins of the Confederacy to the sins of Jim Crow. But Obama’s America would also reject the romantic reimagining of the Civil War, and thus, the myriad totems to the Confederacy and its leaders that pockmark the South, most of which don't share the Pettus bridge's incidental association with the struggle for civil rights.

"Fairytale America"? I dare say that for every conservative who believes the U.S. to be perfect as our "virtue" overcomes all, there is a liberal who believes the U.S. is evil and the cause of all the problems in the world. That's a fairytale, too, one that is celebrated on the left every day. Excessive ideology short-circuits critical thinking skills on both sides.

This is a strawman argument, as few conservatives I know take such a Pollyannaish view of American history. And it's just as ridiculous to take self-criticism to the dizzying heights that the president and Mr. Beutler take it as it is to celebrate only America's greatness.

Beutler's cognitive dissonance toward the south results from viewing the people and the history of the region through a prism of race. What should matter is that all of these men -- slaveholders or not -- were Americans. They weren't Nazis, as Beutler would like to treat them. Some of them, like Nathan Bedford Forrest, were nauseating racists. Many were no more racist than northerners who voted against politicians advocating for equal rights for freed blacks and former slaves.

Beutler seeks to overlay a modern template of morality on people who lived 150 years ago. When Lincoln mused that perhaps some day, some of the more intelligent freed slaves might even be allowed to vote, he was expressing a racist viewpoint common even among enlightened Republicans. Why should the south and southerners suffer for the exact same sins committed in the hearts and minds of northerners? And the idea that there was no racial oppression in the north at the time is bizarre. Some of the Klan's biggest chapters were in northern states like Indiana and Michigan. Lynch mobs were not confined to the south.

The United States -- all of it -- is collectively guilty of the unpardonable sin of slavery. The war that ended the execrable practice was unspeakably bloody and tore the country apart. The process of healing continues to this day. Part of that healing process is in acknowledging the contributions of fighting men on both sides, leaving their personal prejudices and bigotry out of it. Yes, sometimes the "Glorious Cause" is celebrated -- far less so today than previously. But in this "New South," there is an acceptance of why it was necessary for the Confederacy to be defeated, even if the men who fought for it did so in the finest traditions of the American military and with a skill and cunning that had European military men in awe.

Only those obsessively critical of the U.S. begrudge the southerner these traditions. Those who see the glass of American history half empty rather than half full should not be allowed to trample on history and, like authoritarians everywhere, scrub the past clean of people whose views on race may jar our sensibilities, but were not uncommon at the time in north or south.