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

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."