Virginia Removes the Nation’s Largest Confederate Monument

(Photo by Bob Brown – Pool/Getty Images)

Yesterday the state of Virginia permanently removed the nation’s largest confederate monument, a statue of Robert E. Lee, from its place on Monument Avenue in the capital city of Richmond, Virginia, where it had been erected in 1890. All other confederate monuments have already been removed. This was the last one to go. Lee was the famed confederate general who led a southern army of rebellion against the United States government during the American Civil War.

It was the right decision and long overdue. The historical truth is that Robert E. Lee and the confederate army fought a long and bloody war against the federal government of the United States over the legal right of the southern states to preserve and expand the institution of chattel slavery.

In reflecting on Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the cause for which Lee and his army had served, U.S. Army General Ulysses S. Grant wrote in his post war memoir:

I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. [underlining added]

Sowing the Wind

Bruce Catton:

He liked to say that he was in morals, not politics. From this the logical deduction was that people who opposed him, numerous though they undoubtedly were, must be willfully wrong. . . .

Yet angry words were about the only kind anyone cared about to use these days. Men seemed tired of the reasoning process. Instead of trying to convert one’s opponents it was simpler just to denounce them, no matter what unmeasured denunciation might lead to. . . . Men saw what they feared and hated, concentrated on its wide empty plains, and as they stared they were losing the ability to see virtue in compromise and conciliation. The man on the other side, whatever one’s vantage point, was beginning to look ominously alien. . . .

A philippic, as he had promised. No single vote had been changed by it; the Senate would decide, at last, precisely as it would have done if he had kept quiet. But he had not been trying to persuade. No one was, these days; a political leader addressed his own following, not the opposition. Summer had been trying to inflame, to arouse, to confirm the hatreds and angers that already existed. In the North there were men who from his words would draw a new enmity toward the South; in the South there were men who would see in this speaker and what he had said a final embodiment of the compelling reasons why it was good to think seriously about secession.

These excerpts are from Catton’s book, This Hallowed Ground. Though he is describing something that happened 165 years ago, it feels eerily contemporary.

In the opening pages of his book, a section aptly subtitled “Sowing the Wind,” Catton is describing the mood of the U.S. Senate (and the nation really) as Senator Charles Sumner prepared and delivered a speech on the Senate floor denouncing slavery and calling for the territory of Kansas to be admitted to the Union as a free state.

A few days later, on the Senate floor, as a result of that speech, Sumner was attacked and almost beat to death with a cane by Preston Brooks, a senator from South Carolina, and a strong advocate for slavery and states’ rights.

It was May, 1856. The nation was just 5 years from the opening shots of a bloody civil war.

Free State of Jones

While walking through the Gettysburg battlefield museum this past June, I noticed something I hadn’t during my previous 6 or so trips: a display listing the total number of white southern men, per confederate state, that had fought for the Union and its army. The total number was over 100,000 men. That’s basically a large army of southern men rallying to Old Glory and President Lincoln. The largest number, I noticed, came from the southern state of Tennessee, where about 42,000 southern white men joined the Union army ranks. This gives a whole new meaning to the motto “the volunteer state.”

No doubt these southern men were labeled “traitors” by many of their fellow southerns. But these Southern Unionist or, more aptly, Union Loyalists, might have reminded their secessionist brethren that they had rightfully acquired that label first.

I had always known there were white southerns during the American Civil War that didn’t support secession, but they got outvoted. I think one might argue that most southerners got out-maneuvered politically and psychologically as well. Many got pulled into the war by the southern planter class who benefited the most from slave labor and the wealth it generated for their vast plantations.

This brings me to a civil war era movie I watched on Netflix the other night. It’s based on a true story. This particular story had escaped my readings over the years until the other night when I saw the movie the Free State of Jones. I hadn’t known that men (and women) in the deep southern state of Mississippi had taken up arms against the confederacy—a rebellion within a rebellion you might say.

Newton Knight was their leader and in the movie he’s played by Matthew McConaughey. Knight was a confederate solider who got furloughed by General Braxton Bragg to go home and to be with his dying father. (The movie has Knight leaving the army to bring his cousin’s—killed in battle— body home). But back home, in Jones County, Mississippi, Knight found the confederate army was confiscating food and other supplies from the locals, and not necessarily in nice way either. And of course the confederate army was hunting down deserters…at gun point…and hanging some of them, too.

On top of that, the confederate government had recently passed a new conscription law that favored wealthy southern families. The law said that for every 20 slaves a family owned, one of its male draft age members was exempt from conscription—the draft. Well…of course…it was mostly wealthy southern planters who owned 20 or more slaves. Almost needless to say the vast majority southern men (didn’t own more than 20 slaves, if any at all) in the confederate army and many weren’t pleased when the word got out about the new law. This aristocratic exemption only added to the confederate army’s desertion rate. On top of that, the whole idea of seceding from the Union hadn’t been particularly popular with many Mississippians anyway.

So Newton Knight, along with a growing band of confederate army deserters, and a number of local run-away slaves formed their own resistance army in Jones County, Mississippi. Basically, at first, their intent was to assist the Union army. They began ambushing confederate army wagon-trains and skirmishing with confederate army troops. Ultimately Knight and his band ran the confederate army out of Jones County and seized Ellisville, the county seat. Initially, Knight tried to get help from the Union Army, but he and his rebel band weren’t happy (at least in the film) with the answer they got from General Sherman. So Knight and his band declared Jones County Mississippi the Free State of Jones. They held on to Jones County until the war ended. Of course after the war you had the continuation of war (against the freed black population) by other means: the rise of the KKK, lynchings, voter suppression, etc, etc, and all kinds of other cruelties by white southerns determined to keep blacks disenfranchised.

It’s well worth your time to watch the Free State of Jones. Overall a good historical drama. A pretty good movie about an interesting aspect of Civil War history.