I grew up to understand that slavery was horrendous and the Civil War a slaughter house, and one of the most noble moments in American history occurred when Grant said to Lee, “Keep your sword.” The bloodletting was done with, the slaves were freed, and the task ahead was to reconcile north and south, which meant the white people who’d hated each other. And so America did. In the decades ahead, the battles pitting Blue forces against Gray would be college all-star football games.
The former slaves and descendants of those slaves were left out of the reconciliation project, which proceeded triumphantly without them. Today’s debate over whether the time has come to remove the south’s memorials to its military and political leaders out of respect for the feelings of those descendants has glossed over the point that reconciliation made them the north’s memorials too. To the south the memorials advanced the myth of the Lost Cause, which years after the insurrection failed romanticized its purpose. To the north the memorials were harmless tokens of that romance, a photographable expression of it that appealed to northern tourists—just as movies like Gone With the Wind and The General marketed southern gallantry in defeat. We were one nation again. Though no one I knew condoned lynching, no one I knew questioned why the subject was never raised in comic strips that found their humor in southern idiosyncrasies. The north didn’t press matters too hard. We all got along.
It’s puzzled me that the argument for reparations has focused on slavery. Slavery was legal, acknowledged right there in Article One of the Constitution. And slavery was long ago and paid for with rivers of southern and northern blood. Slavery is water under the bridge. Jim Crow, on the other hand, persisted well into my lifetime and violated its victims’ new constitutional rights. It was perpetrated by the still-living and sustained by upright Americans, north and south.
Educators, clergymen, journalists, lawyers and judges, business leaders, titans of Congress, and presidents preached and practiced Jim Crow or simply abided it, enforcing quotas wherever blacks weren’t categorically excluded in the first place. They touted equality as an ideal worth striving for in the whenever but disparaged “so-called Negro leaders” as their people’s worst enemies whenever they impatiently insisted on it.
Just as northerners discovered to their exasperation that they couldn’t tell African-Americans who their leaders should be, today it’s not our place to say to southerners what monuments belong in their town squares. But we’re not disinterested bystanders. Those are our town squares too. The myth of the Lost Cause has had too much impact on all Americans everywhere for the most tangible evidence of it to be eradicated. I don’t want Robert E. Lee reduced in popular history to the two-dimensional role of treasonous slave-owner, but how can we ponder his complexities and contradictions if he’s nowhere we can see him? Do we clean up history when we remove it? And why would we want to clean it up? My wife calls the task she and I turn to the night before the cleaning service comes a “phony cleaning.” Is this statue removal a phony cleaning? It tidies up southern history but it doesn’t touch the grease stains.
A wave of protest greeted word that HBO is planning a series, Confederate, based on the premise that the south won the Civil War. Writing for the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that given the slavery the south fought to defend and the Jim Crow that soon followed defeat, it can hardly be said the south actually lost. And he wrote, “Confederate is the kind of provocative thought experiment that can be engaged in when someone else’s lived reality really is fantasy to you, when your grandmother is not in danger of losing her vote, when the terrorist attack on Charleston evokes honest sympathy, but inspires no direct fear. And so we need not wait to note that Confederate‘s interest in Civil War history is biased, that it is premised on a simplistic view of white Southern defeat, instead of the more complicated morass we have all around us.”
I think Coates is selling our imaginations short. Let’s suppose the south did win the war—let’s say McClellan defeated Lincoln in 1864 and pulled the north out: we’d have had two versions of the United States going forward, one agricultural and slave-sustained, the other industrial and entrepreneurial. Very likely the war would have soon resumed over the western territories each country coveted: the last battle of the second civil war might have decided whether slavery would extend to San Francisco. And what about foreign wars? Would either of the two splinter countries have been as adventurous apart as they proved to be together? Would the more martial south have felt strong enough to go to war against Mexico, and would the north have had any interest in one? Would there have been a Spanish-American War? Would Canadians have been the only soldiers from this continent to fight in World War I? Is it possible the south, sensing the legitimacy of its “peculiar institution” was facing the greatest challenge ever, would have signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler?
Or should HBO think a little harder about the best way to frame its hypothetical situation? What about this? The north prevails. Grant seizes Lee’s sword and hangs him. Then what?