I grew up in Houston, Texas in the south. As a child I remember hearing Dixie being played and sung now and again. When I was young I actually believed that I had descended from Confederate Rebels and it was only later that I found out how wrong I had been. Of course my mom’s ancestors were busy chafing under the rule of Hungarians while the Civil War raged here. It was from my father’s side that I assumed that I had come from bonafide Johnny Reb stock. Imagine my shock, and maybe even a bit of relief, when my genealogical searches revealed that my great grandfather, John William Seth Smith, was a Lieutenant in the Kentucky Volunteers and that he fought for the Union. In fact, he participated in a number of crucial battles and was around to bury the dead at Shiloh. It ends up that the inclement weather and horror of that event badly affected his health in later years and after the war he seemed rather intent on putting his days of fighting behind him. I suppose that those of us who are still arguing over the aftermath of that terrible conflict might be wise to follow his lead.
I’ve always had a fascination for history and so I have read a number of biographies and historical texts. Robert E. Lee was someone about whom I wanted to know more. In so many ways he was an enigma. He graduated from West Point and for a time was one of the most highly respected generals in the Army of the United States. He sometimes questioned the morality of slavery, but nonetheless held the odd belief that it served a purpose in helping the enslaved humans to learn the necessary skills to be full fledged members of society. He loved his country but felt a higher allegiance to his state. He saw secession as treason, but agreed to join the Confederate cause nonetheless. In other words he was a highly conflicted man who wanted to be honorable but often demonstrated profound confusion about how one should live. In the end he actually felt that the long war should never have happened, and he spent much of his later years attempting to free his soul from guilt.
The aftermath of most wars becomes a time for trying and punishing those guilty of crimes or treason, while the rest of the population goes on to live ordinary and quiet lives like my grandfather. The days after the Civil War were different. Both Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant felt that no purpose would be served in meting out vengeance against their fellow countrymen who had gone astray. There were no trials in which Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders were held accountable or punished. Instead they were allowed to live with only their own self reflection to determine the final chronicle of what they had done. For Robert E. Lee it was a bitter pill to ruminate on the utter folly of the war and its impact on the entire country. He must have asked himself time and again why he had gone against his own beliefs that secession would be a fools errand.
Time has a way of glossing over the ugly realities of history. As the years passed people from the south often found ways to excuse the actions of their ancestors who had believed that destroying the country was actually the only way to deal with political conflicts. They saw the war as being noble and courageous, but the truth is that it was a horror that need never have happened. To celebrate those who led their fellowmen into the very jaws of hell seems to be a rather ridiculous idea, and yet that is what happened in cities and towns all across the south where monuments and statues were erected to honor men who in many ways had been fools. Perhaps it was a way of ignoring the truth of how incredibly wrong the entire conflict had been.
It would be one thing to mourn the lost souls who died in those terrible battles that pitted American brother against American brother, but it is quite another to glorify those who had took the common people so far astray. It would be akin to building monuments in honor of Adolf Hitler all over Germany. We would surely see the inappropriateness of such memorials, but somehow we fail to realize how ludicrous it is to honor men who literally performed treasonous acts against the United States when they chose to go to war against the government. Perhaps Robert E. Lee said it best. “I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”
We have harbored the feelings of separation and divisiveness far too long. Walking through the Shiloh battlefield I felt no glory, but only a deep sadness that people were unable to find ways to settle their differences through any means other than fighting and killing. There is no magnificence at Gettysburg, only despair that man’s anger overwhelmed his ability to find common solutions. War is always hell. Slavery was wrong. We all know in our hearts that these are truths. Why then do we continue to quibble over hunks of stone and metal that remind us of a past that was horrific by anyone’s standards? We can remember all of those who lost their lives with compassion, but we need not attempt to honor those who were responsible for the carnage. Taking down the troublesome statues does not erase the history, for we can never forget how terrible it was. Instead it focuses on understanding and a willingness to move on and let go of feelings that seem to have festered long after they should have been set aside.
I suspect that if Robert E. Lee were to hear of the battles that now ensue over the appropriateness of monuments to in his honor he would remind us of his own words and respectfully ask us to take the monoliths down. We should do so not out of a sense of political correctness, but because it is time for healing that will never fully happen until we are willing to admit to the wrongness of that terrible chapter of our history. We can place those images on battlefields or inside museums where the story of that time might be told, but it is no longer necessary to glorify the mistakes of our past. We must move ever forward and remember the words of another contemporary of Robert E. Lee.
As the war neared its end and President Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address his mood was melancholy and compassionate. He pointed to the horrific waste of the war but also its necessity in bringing justice to our land. Still he wanted all of us to come together as brothers “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have born the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and all nations.”
This is our challenge as the American people. In the name of all 600,000 men who lost their lives as well as those who were forever altered, it is time for us to heed the words of our great president who himself became a martyr to his noble dedication to the proposition that all men are created equal. It is far past time to stop the fighting and to let it go.