What Do We Say About Decent Men Who Died for a Wicked Cause?

People walk past a monument dedicated to the Battle at Liberty Place in New Orleans, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Southern slaveholders were rapists. We know this because only 73% of the DNA of African-Americans is African; the rest is Caucasian with a small fraction of Native American. Most of the admixture of DNA, a McGill University study concludes, occurred before the Civil War, that is, when slaveholders and their white employees could use female slaves at will. Keep that in mind the next time Foghorn Leghorn sounds off about the honor of Southern womanhood. To own slaves is wicked; to rape female slaves and sell one’s children by them is disgusting in the extreme. Yet that is what the Old South did, and the DNA evidence proves it.


This simple fact bears on the problem of Confederate monuments, which is far from simple.

Nonetheless “Gone With the Wind” remains the highest-grossing Hollywood film of all time (in inflation-adjusted dollars). Why do Americans wallow in nostalgia for the antebellum South? Partly for the same reason we like gangsters: We like the idea of getting something for nothing. We’ve always had a split personality, part Yankee farmer and part riverboat gambler. But part of our sympathy for the South, I think, stems from our horror at the scale of butchery required to win the war. Full disclosure: I’ve never been able to watch GWTW, except in brief segments. I wanted Scarlett O’Hara to pick cotton until her hands fell off.

Why hasn’t Hollywood ever made a film about Sherman’s march through Georgia? This is my favorite moment in American history. He killed very few people (and almost no civilians) but he burnt plantation houses and humiliated the South. As Machiavelli wrote, a man will forgive the murder of his father before the loss of his inheritance. Not Grant, who killed off Lee’s army, but rather Sherman–who kept casualties low but the flames high–is hated in the South. That shows what the South really was fighting for, just like their song says: “We are a band of brothers/Native to the soil/Fighting for the property/We gained by honest toil.” Sherman might be our greatest military commander of all time, yet we do not celebrate his achievements.


The wound that the Civil War left in the white South has never healed. Fully 28% of military-age Southern men died in the Civil War, comparable to the German death toll in World War II. The Germans were the better soldiers, with a killing efficiency 20%-30% higher than their British and American enemies, and the Confederates were the better soldiers in the Civil War, defeated by superior Northern numbers and industrial capacity–at least until Sherman’s Westerners arrived in Georgia. The fact that the Southerners were brave and capable soldiers is not by itself a cause for celebration.

I can accept the idea that Robert E. Lee was a decent man. Decent men fought for causes even more wicked than the Confederacy. Would the Germans erect a monument to Field Marshal Rommel, a professional soldier murdered by Hitler? Of course not. They are left to mourn their dead in private. America had a different sort of dilemma. We fought the Civil War to preserve the Union, including a South that was only sorry that it lost. In the interests of unity we tolerated (and even promoted) the myth of Southern gallantry, the Lost Cause, and all the other baloney that went into D.W. Griffiths’ “The Birth of a Nation” and GWTW. We allowed the defeated South to console itself with the myth that it fought for “states’ rights” or whatever rather than to preserve a vile system of economic (and sometimes sexual) exploitation. Meanwhile the freed slaves had a very bad century between Appomattox and the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Don’t expect them to look with understanding on the supposed symbols of “Southern heritage.”


We are left with a suppurating, unhealed national wound. Black America is in jeopardy. For every 100 black women of marrying age there are only 81 men: the rest are dead or in jail. Seventy-three percent  of African-American children are born out of marriage. Although universities admit blacks and whites in roughly equal proportions, only 40% of black men graduate within six years of matriculation. Agony over these circumstances motivates the witch-hunt against imagined “micro-aggression,” as I wrote two years ago. The “micro-aggression” theory does not explain why African-American women (who presumably are doubly oppressed for being both black and female) have a much higher college graduation rate (50% as opposed to 40%) than black men.

If southern whites cannot abide the memory of their humiliation and ruin in the Civil War, all the less can black Americans abide the memory of two centuries of slavery and another century of second-class citizenship. There is no path to national unity on this sort of issue. The Confederate monuments have been in place for almost a century and a half, and it is unreasonable to make an issue of them today. But people are not in the market for reasonable.

The best solution is a compromise which removes the issue from politics altogether. State and local governments should divest themselves of ownership of Confederate monuments and sell them to private associations who then may display them as a matter of First Amendment rights on park property leased for the purpose. That won’t do much good, but there isn’t much good to be done. The best outcome would be to defuse the issue, and hope that people can walk away from it and get back to the business of getting an education and making a living. Nothing will console Southerners for their defeat in the Civil War; nothing will compensate African-Americans for hundreds of lost years. The best anyone can do is to find a way to live with it and get on with life.



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