The Civil War is a really big part of U.S. history

August 22, 2017

Until they brought it up the other day, it seems likely many Sussex Countians didn't even know there was a Confederate monument in Georgetown.

A month or two ago, the tear-down advocates, such as those in Charlottesville, Va., a week ago and in Boston last weekend, said such monuments should be moved to museums. Ours is at a museum. Apparently that's not enough anymore.

Ironically, even though it is the NAACP that wants the Georgetown monument removed, its then-leader was present 10 years ago when it was dedicated. As was Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat, by the way.

Times, they do change, don't they?

Nine years ago, then-candidate Barack Obama intoned that slavery was the "original sin" of the United States. He is absolutely right based on 21st century standards. Today, we can't imagine legal slavery, especially the racial slavery that was unique to North America.

But the Founding Fathers didn't live in the 21st century, and they didn't do their work based on our standards.

In fact, if one looks at the details of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, one realizes that there would not have been a United States of America without legalized slavery. Virginia and other Southern states would not have ratified.

But by the 1820s, slavery had become highly controversial, with abolitionists waxing strong in many northern states while slavery received an economic incentive with the invention of the cotton gin. This resulted in enormous profitability in the cotton trade in the South.

So if you think today's political polarization is bad, and if you think the ways of President Trump are bad, it really is nothing compared with the 1840-60 time period, a time of dithering presidents and sulfurous Senate debates.

Post-Civil War times in some ways weren't much better for our black citizens. True, they were free. But free to do what? Jim Crow segregation laws followed. It took nearly 100 years for civil rights laws to pass the Congress.

None of this is pretty. The question before us today, however, is whether you wish to erase all that history. Clearly, some elements of public education are embarked on doing that very thing. That is proved by the fact that in a poll, some college freshmen had never heard of the Battle of Gettysburg and had barely heard of the Civil War.

The current drive in some former Confederate states to tear down statues of Southern leaders is a manifestation of this. In Charlottesville, this was Gen. Robert E. Lee. You have to know that a lot of courthouse lawns across the South contain statues of General Lee. He was and is a true Southern hero. He existed. He is a significant figure in history.

Lee was a West Point graduate, finishing second in his class academically, and had a distinguished career in the U.S. Army. Yes, the United States Army. Before 1861, he commanded U.S. Army troops in the first Mexican War of 1846. But Lee had to make a choice in 1861.

He was offered command of the Union army. But he chose to stick with his state, which was Virginia. Lee is the son of a distinguished Virginia family and married into another. His father, Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee was one of the Founding Fathers.

He married Martha Washington's granddaughter, which explains the name on his home in Arlington, Va. Nowadays, it is in the Arlington National Cemetery and overlooks Washington, D.C. to the east.

We could, of course, stop teaching about the Civil War. It was ugly. Leaders on both sides made big mistakes, including Lee. But Lee had a lot less to work with, something he concluded after his defeat at Gettysburg in July 1863.

Lee had always known that for the South to win, he had to invade the North and prevail. Neither of his attempts succeeded (Gettysburg being the second). From then on, Lee played defense, knowing he had lost the war.

Lee did not want statues of himself put up. Although Lee was a slave owner before the Civil War, he was not a fan of slavery. Something similar might be said of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

It's impossible to know what these three men would think about today's events. Almost certainly, they would not be neo-Nazis.

One also supposes they might not be white supremacists, either.

There is no moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and white supremacists and Occupy Wall Street types, unattractive as that latter group is.

So pull down Lee statues if you want. But it's harder to erase history. The Civil War is a really big part of U.S. history.

Reid Beveridge has covered politics in Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Delaware and Washington, D.C. He is now retired at Broadkill Beach.

  • Accomplished writers appear in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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