Sunday, August 13, 2017

Monuments To Lasting Peace

There is a deep irony in the efforts to remove monuments like those to Robert E. Lee in the name of "healing from the Civil War". To a great extent, the efforts of people like Lee after the Civil War are why we have a country to heal in the first place. Lee, Confederate General Longstreet, Union General Sherman (among others) worked tirelessly to end the Civil War and knit the country back together.

Lee took efforts at Appomattox to endure that he was not surrendering merely the forces under his command but signing an overall armistice. He made particular efforts to stop groups of Confederates who wished to wage a guerrilla campaign after the stacking of arms. The entire process was conducted with such dignity and honor that Union General Chamberlain ordered his soldiers to salute their defeated foe--- a salute which was returned by the Confederates in the first step of becoming a single nation again. Rarely in history does any civil war end in that kind of mutual respect.

After the surrender, Lincoln, Lee, Longstreet, and Sherman, along with Grant and Breckenridge (the last Confederate Secretary of War), worked to get people to come together to build a new peace without endless reprisals. They managed to hold the fragile peace together through and after Lincoln's assassination. Lee himself died five years after the surrender. Longstreet and Sherman--- perhaps one of history's unlikeliest combinations--- became good friends, working to keep Lee and Lincoln's vision of a new nation going through the upheavals of reconstruction and economic collapse. Longstreet and Sherman, with Lee's support, lead efforts to get land, education, and economic self-sufficiency to freedmen (much of which was later undone by others).

This is all, of course, a simplification, just one piece of a very complex period, of complex people, but the point is, there is more to war than who won and who gets blamed in the victor's history books. Victory is imposed on the battlefield, but establishing lasting peace takes something more. By attacking the memory of people like Lee, Longstreet, etc., we are attacking the precarious peace that they gave us. The "we won, now shut up and go away" attitude is exactly what people--- better people than us, apparently--- fought to prevent. We were shown the right way to end a war: all we have to do is keep walking in that direction.

Further Reading

There are many books and many primary sources on the fighting of the Civil War. Finding good accounts on the establishment of peace afterwards is surprisingly hard and woven into many other sources. As Union General J. L. Chamberlain noted, once the fighting ended, so did the official record of the Civil War. Here are a few sources which may be a good start:

  • William C. Davis, "An Honorable Defeat: the Last Days of the Confederate Government" Harcourt. New York. 1946
  • Joshua L. Chamberlain, "The Passing of the Armies; An Account of the Final Campaign of the Army of the Potomac, Based Upon Personal Reminiscences of the Fifth Army Corps" J.P. Putnam and Sons. New York. 1915. (Chamberlain was responsible for organizing the surrender ceremony and receiving the stacking of arms on behalf of the V Corps, U.S. Volunteers. He also notes his fears for the loss of the peace after Lincoln's assassination. A more compact record of just the surrender is here:
  • Eric Foyner, "A Brief History of Reconstruction" Harper and Row. New York. 1990 (Woven in and out of this larger work are accounts of people who tried to keep Reconstruction on track and meet their obligations to former slaves, including, at various points,  Lee, Longstreet, and Sherman. If you have not read about the tortured history of Reconstruction and its dramatic failures, this is not a bad place to start.
  • The personal memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, now in the public domain, also contain personal recollections bearing on these issues, including his fears of a collapse of the peace--- or of large-scale retribution against the South--- after Lincoln's assassination.
  • Information on the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church monument to Stonewall Jackson commissioned by Rev L. L. Downing, the son of a slave Jackson taught to read. The stained-glass window behind the pulpit is beautiful, and worth seeing. If you do not understand the inscription, they are the last words Thomas J. Jackson spoke in the presence of his wife and surgeon on his death bed after the Battle of 2nd Chancellorsville.

Other commentary

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Eric. As always you bring an interesting, poignant, and timely perspective.