Amid the controversy this past week surrounding the decision of New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu to remove Confederate monuments from the city, especially that of Robert E. Lee, taken down by men in bullet-proof vests and at night, I would like to offer a phrase from a speech I gave at Harvard University some years ago. The occasion was a Festschrift (memorial) for the late Prof. Ernest May:
“The South’s war, brilliantly fought, was not only a lost cause. It was a bad cause.”
The South has never fully accepted this. Instead, its reaction has morphed into a kind of super-patriotism.
But the stain of slavery remains, as was evident in the repressed racism we saw throughout the presidency of Barack Obama and which was a factor in the reasons why Obama’s term was not the unalloyed success that many hoped it would be.
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Robert E. Lee had been in the Union Army and, together with his subordinate, Jeb Stuart, had put down the putsch of Jorhn Brown at the Harpers Ferry armory shortly before the Cvil War. Lee made the fateful decision to leave the Army and join Virginia, his native state, at the beginning of the war. It was at a time when loyalties to the states was still strong.
During the Civil War, Lee turned out to be the equal of Ulysses Grant as a Grim Reaper of men, though it was Grant, in the end, who overwhelmed Lee. Grant, despite his bibiiiusness in the field, was later the author of a presidential autobiography that is a gem in American history.