This nation just can’t seem to get over the Civil War.
It’s been more than 150 years since Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant, so you would think we would have put that war in the past, but it keeps coming back.
Most recently, it has come back in the form of disputes over a bunch of monuments honoring people who fought for the Confederacy. Apparently there are around 1,500 such memorials across the South — so many that, if a guy didn’t know better, he might think it was Grant who surrendered to Lee, not the other way around.
Many of those memorials are dedicated to southern heroes of the war, specifically of statues honoring a few heroes of the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee is, of course, one of those heroes, as are Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson, Confederate States of America president Jefferson Davis, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forest and a few others.
Today, many Americans oppose those memorials and are campaigning to have the memorials removed from public places. Their reasoning is that the memorials glorify men who fought to preserve slavery. Further, some of the men honored by these memorials — Gen. Forest, founder of the Ku Klux Klan, in particular — worked after the war to deny full citizenship to the former slaves and used terror to maintain white supremacy across the South.
In response, many southerners claim these men didn’t fight to preserve slavery, but only to maintain state’s rights, and even though they were defeated on the battlefield, they deserve to be honored for defending their states. They claim that they are simply honoring their history, and there is no racial animosity intended by honoring the men who fought to preserve their “peculiar institution.”
I suspect many of them, especially those whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy, actually believe that, but history doesn’t support their belief. For one thing, when the southern states seceded, they openly cited the maintaining of slavery as necessary to maintain the plantation system that was at the root of the southern economy, and the way of life of those who profited from the system.
Then there is the story of Gen. James Longstreet, who may have been the best the South had. He felt that the South’s best chance to win the war was to stay within the Confederacy and defend it from invasion. So when Lee decided to invade Pennsylvania, Longstreet tried hard to convince him it was a mistake. When the invasion became the Battle of Gettysburg, he tried to talk Lee into abandoning the fight after the second day and retreating south to avoid further casualties after two hard days of fighting. Lee refused to take his advice, and despite his misgivings, Longstreet followed orders and ordered Gen. George Pickett to make the disastrous charge that decimated his division and forced Lee to abandon the fight. One wonders if the war would have turned out differently if Lee had listened to Longstreet.
The war dragged on for months after that, but Gettysburg took the heart out of the South’s armies. In the end, Lee followed Longstreet’s advice that he should surrender to Grant because Grant would be “magnanimous” is giving his terms for surrender.
Longstreet knew that because he was well-acquainted with Grant. He was in his second year at West Point when Grant enrolled at the academy, and the two became friends. After graduation, they served together for a while at a post in Missouri and during the Mexican War. While there, Grant met Longstreet’s fourth cousin, Julia Dent, and when they married, Longstreet was part of the wedding party.
After the war, Longstreet urged southerners to cooperate with the North’s objectives in order to regain control of their own affairs. In addition, he became a Republican and a strong supporter of Grant’s presidency. Southerners considered Longstreet a traitor as a result, and their anger at him increased when an organization of whites, many of them ex-Confederate soldiers, attempted to remove the governor of Louisiana by violence. Longstreet, who had been given command of the state militia, whose members were black men, led them against the revolt.
Attacking white men with a militia of black men is probably why Longstreet, despite his military service for the Confederacy, has no statue or other memorial honoring him in the South. As far as I know, the only statue of him was erected in 1998 in the North, on the Gettysburg battlefield where he never thought the southern army should be.
That brings me to the present, and another historical event we Americans can’t forget. In 1959, Cuba’s dictator was overthrown by rebels under Fidel Castro and either Fidel or his brother Raul has ruled over Cuba until surrendering his post last week. We have spent almost 60 years trying to get rid of the Castro regime, and we have never gotten over losing Cuba to Communism. We have tried our best to isolate Cuba from the rest of the world with a trade embargo. Ultimately, the boycott has failed, and it took old age to end the Castro era. And despite their disappearance from the scene, communism still rules Cuba.
Maybe we should get over 1959 and rethink our foreign policy toward Cuba.