When I was a junior at Sonora Union High School, studying the Civil War in my American history class, I encountered a theory about the war that was entirely new to me. My white male teacher, a man who in my opinion was a boring lecturer and who rarely held my attention, one day gave an impassioned and thoroughly supported lecture about the real reason for the Civil War.
“This was not a war about slavery,” he told the class. “It was about economics. It was about two conflicting economies — one based on agriculture and one based on industrialization. The South could not survive without slavery, and the North, which did not rely on slavery, refused to understand that without slavery, the economy of the South would crumble.”
I was mesmerized by his lecture. I had never considered such a theory before. When I had last studied the Civil War, during eighth grade, I had been taught it was a war about freeing slaves. But this new interpretation seemed more nuanced, more informed, more sophisticated. I bought my teacher’s interpretation hook, line and sinker. For a few years, when the subject of the Civil War came up, I would opine that the war was really about economics. I thought such a stance made me seem informed, even though I had done little to really examine my teacher’s claims. After all, he was a high school history teacher. Surely he knew what he was talking about.
Now, of course, I recognize this line of reasoning as the revisionist Lost Cause nonsense it is. Positing that the Civil War was about economics is equivalent to saying the Holocaust was not really about anti-Semitism, that it was instead about the hardships imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. Well, yes, the Treaty was one element that led to World War II, but that does nothing to explain the atrocities perpetrated against European Jews by Hitler’s Nazi party. And to suggest that the Civil War was not really about slavery ignores the fact that, had the South determined from the outset to grow its agricultural economy by more honest and humanitarian means, the Civil War would never have happened.
It turns out that my history instructor had a bit of an agenda, one I was too naïve and ignorant to see until I grew up a bit. He also described Robert E. Lee as a brilliant general who abhorred slavery, completely ignoring Lee’s record as a brutal slave owner known for his cruelty and his philosophy that slavery was better for black people than it was for whites. And, considering that Lee eventually surrendered, it could be argued that maybe he was not as great a general as, say, Ulysses S. Grant.
So, when I heard President Trump’s comments about the removal of a memorial to Lee this past Tuesday, I was taken aback by his comparison of Robert E. Lee to George Washington. “So, this week, it is Robert E. Lee . . . I wonder, is it George Washington next week?” our president stated during a derailed press conference that was supposed to be about infrastructure.
But, while Lee was related by marriage to George Washington (his wife, daughter of one of the wealthiest plantation owners in Virginia, was a great-granddaughter of Washington, who had adopted her father), his historical legacy bears little resemblance to Washington’s.
First, of course, is the fact that Washington won his war. And, while Washington did own slaves, some inherited and some bought before the Revolutionary War, by the late 1770s he had become an advocate of legislative emancipation. He also allowed black soldiers to enlist in the army, and in his will provided for the education of child slaves, who were to be freed at the age of 25, and the life-long support of elderly and infirm slaves on his plantation. His will also stipulated the emancipation of all of his slaves upon his death. Though he might have done more for emancipation, and sooner, his historical record on slavery is far better than Lee’s.
Lee had his slaves beaten and ordered salt applied to their wounds. He was especially infamous among Virginians for breaking up slave families, a circumstance most wealthy plantation owners avoided. He refused to emancipate slaves passed down from his father-in-law’s estate, though this had been called for in his father-in-law’s will, until eventually he was ordered to do so by a Virginia court. During his time as a general in the Civil War, he allowed his troops to capture free African Americans and take them to the South, refused to cooperate in an exchange of prisoners with Grant because such an exchange would have required the release of black soldiers and was silent when his men slaughtered black Union soldiers who attempted to surrender at a battle in 1864. And on the issue of emancipation, Lee wrote to his wife that “The painful discipline (slaves) are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race. . . . How long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise and Merciful Providence.”
Lee was not a hero, not during the Civil War and not after. He gained this appellation among white supremacists during the 1920s, when Jim Crow laws and the KKK reigned in the South. His statue in Charlottesville was completed not in the years following the Civil War, but in 1924, when the kind of revisionist history taught by my teacher had gained momentum. For Trump to equate a statue of Robert E. Lee to one of George Washington is simply more revisionist history.
It is true, as stated by some who purport not to be white supremacists but who nevertheless oppose the dismantling of Lee’s statue in Charlottesville, that we must not forget the horrors of slavery. We should write about it in prose, poetry and drama. We should create monuments to the slaves who suffered and to those who tried to ease their suffering. We should require our children to learn about slavery in public schools. But we should not memorialize those who perpetuated its evils by displaying heroic statues of them on valiant steeds in community spaces.
To Robert E. Lee’s credit, he was opposed to such memorials. After the war was over, he advocated for the South to accept its defeat and move forward. I wonder what he might say today about the racists who, in 2017, are still fighting a war that ended 152 years ago. And I wonder what George Washington, one of our greatest presidents, might say about Trump’s support of them.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.