“In the North one hears the war mentioned, in social conversation, once a month; sometimes as often as once a week; but as a distinct subject for talk, it has long ago been relieved of duty…The case is very different in the South. There, every man you meet was in the war; and every lady you meet saw the war. The war is the great chief topic of conversation. The interest in it is vivid and constant; the interest in other topics is fleeting. Mention of the war will wake up a dull company and set their tongues going, when nearly any other topic would fail. In the South, the war is what A.D. is elsewhere: they date from it.” - Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi.
My Papaw was a preacher and farmer in the South. He was a poor man with eleven kids. One of my favorite stories when I was a kid was when my mom would tell me about when she was a little girl and my papaw was finally able to move them out of a dirt-floor shack where she woke up some winter mornings covered in a fine layer of snow that had blown in through the cracks in the walls, and into a fine old farmhouse owned by an elderly lady who needed someone to manage the farm (my Papaw) and take care of her (my Mamaw and the girls). It was there that Papaw became the pastor of a nearby Pentecostal church and made the acquaintance of a black preacher who had just started holding brush-arbor services out in the woods. These were the days of segregation and that applied to church services as well, but Papaw decided to start having a monthly fellowship meeting with the black congregation. During one of the first of these meetings, the sheriff had shown up to break the gathering up but left after failing to find anyone who could talk coherently. We would find out years later, from the daughter of one of the conspirators, that several armed men had come to the church one night with deadly intentions. The choir was singing when they got there and they listened outside for a bit, then decided to stash their guns and go listen some more. My mom was playing the piano that night, so who knows, maybe black rhythm saved my life. There were no restaurants that would serve the black preacher and his family anywhere along the long drive they had home, so Papaw would have them come over to the house and have dinner with the family. The black preacher’s mother-in-law, the daughter of a slave, initially wouldn’t come inside their house because in her generation, you just didn’t do such a thing. So Mamaw would take her plate outside to eat with her on the stoop. She finally came in and took her seat at the family table, and overlooking the table was one of the few pieces of artwork my grandparents ever bothered to obtain: a large portrait of General Robert E. Lee.
These days, Southerners, like my grandparents, who keep the memory of the war heroes alive are subject to ostracism by that collection of politicos, journalists, and very online losers that yammer on about how scary they find any reminder of the Confederacy. In-group narcissism, mass-amnesia, self-loathing, resentment, ignorance - the pathologies driving this hatred of the cultural symbology of the South are many. Slavery has become foundational to the modern liberal conception of America, yet curiously, few are interested in knowing much about it. But that’s a topic I’ll save for some other time.
The contradiction of the Lost Cause is that it doesn’t have much to do with the original causes of the War between the States. It is said that the war was over slavery. That seems at least partially true, the secession documents of the lower South did mention slavery as a primary reason for them wanting to leave the Union. But Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee did not see slavery as a reason to secede, but rather Lincoln’s planned invasion of their Southern neighbors. And there are a number of other compelling alternative hypotheses for the causes of the war. In any event, I have yet to meet a Southerner who approves of slavery. On the contrary, the most radical ones wish that it had never existed and regret that a single slave was ever brought to the South. And it’s no accident that your typical son of the South can recite a long list of Confederate generals and battles from memory but can barely name a single Confederate politician. It’s because this mythos isn’t rooted in ideology, but in nationalism and martial glory.
The Confederate army was never supposed to make it past the first battle. It was the ultimate underdog. The Union army, the first major military force to make full use of industrial production of materiel, with a limitless supply of Irish migrants to conscript and send into the meat grinder, against an army of ragtag farmers and agrarian gentlemen. Washington elites went out to the Virginia countryside to have a picnic and watch the Union army make quick work of the ragtag rebels at the first major battle of the war. They ended up fleeing in a panic back to D.C. when the Federal troops were overrun by Jackson’s brigades. That expected “quick work” turned into a war that went on for four long years before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. In those four years, the soldiers of the South and their commanders fought with such brilliance, bravery, honor, and spirit, under the harshest of conditions, that upon their surrender, Union General Joshua Chamberlain ordered a salute of arms to the men of Lee’s army, recording later:
Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond;—was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?
This is the core reason behind the enduring legacy of the Confederacy. The old Anglo-Saxon code of honor where even an enemy was due respect for his virtues. The glory of the Southern armies have echoed down through the decades. It’s why the Confederate flag became prominent in the army that once fought against it. When the Allies secured military victory over Germany in World War II, a tank officer carried the Confederate flag into Berlin. As the USS Mississippi steamed into Tokyo Bay after Japan’s surrender, it was flying the Confederate flag.
Beyond the martial glory, it is the recognition of the South’s past as a distinct nation bound by history and culture, a humanist agrarian society that stands in contrast to the materialist industrial society of the north. In this way, the memory of the men who fought and died for our homeland and our way of life stands as an eternal rebuke to the mass dehumanization and materialism of Modern America that stands as the monument to the Union victory. The Southern tradition in its essence has little to do with race or states rights, but in its vision of the good society: the community of individuals that retain their human dignity and love of leisure, that seek to live in accord with nature rather than dominating and exploiting it, that love beauty and truth more than the false god of progress. And if this vision was never achieved, it was at least recognized as the ideal.
For a long time, this cherished memory of the heroes was understood as something beyond the reproach and approbation of outsiders. But in particular, that of General Robert E. Lee, who has long been admired by a long string of Presidents.
FDR in 1936 had this to say:
All over the United States we recognize him as a great leader of men, as a great general. But, also, all over the United States I believe that we recognize him as something much more important than that. We recognize Robert E. Lee as one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.
President Eisenhower, himself a great General (who liberals claim was Supreme Commander of the Antifa forces in WWII) received a letter from a citizen asking how he could display Lee’s portrait in the Oval Office. This was his response:
August 9, 1960
Dear Dr. Scott:
Respecting your August 1 inquiry calling attention to my often expressed admiration for General Robert E. Lee, I would say, first, that we need to understand that at the time of the War between the States the issue of secession had remained unresolved for more than 70 years. Men of probity, character, public standing and unquestioned loyalty, both North and South, had disagreed over this issue as a matter of principle from the day our Constitution was adopted.
General Robert E. Lee was, in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. He believed unswervingly in the Constitutional validity of his cause which until 1865 was still an arguable question in America; he was a poised and inspiring leader, true to the high trust reposed in him by millions of his fellow citizens; he was thoughtful yet demanding of his officers and men, forbearing with captured enemies but ingenious, unrelenting and personally courageous in battle, and never disheartened by a reverse or obstacle. Through all his many trials, he remained selfless almost to a fault and unfailing in his faith in God. Taken altogether, he was noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history.
From deep conviction, I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s calibre would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities, including his devotion to this land as revealed in his painstaking efforts to help heal the Nation’s wounds once the bitter struggle was over, we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.
Such are the reasons that I proudly display the picture of this great American on my office wall.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
*Also worth reading are President Eisenhower’s remarks on Lee and Jackson in a speech given to at the convention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy
President John F. Kennedy, a dyed in the wool Yankee, had this to say:
As a New Englander, I recognize that the South is still the land of Washington, who made our Nation - of Jefferson, who shaped its direction - and of Robert E. Lee who, after gallant failure, urged those who had followed him in bravery to reunite America in purpose and courage.
And in 1975, after Senator Joe Biden helped to win passage of legislation posthumously restoring General Lee’s citizenship, President Ford remarked upon signing the legislation:
"General Lee's character has been an example to succeeding generations, making the restoration of his citizenship an event in which every American can take pride."
What does it mean when interlopers now demand that we not honor the memory of this great man? It means that any cultural artifact that is distinct from our materialist mass culture represents an intolerable threat to the hegemony of this mass culture. All rough edges and reminders of a different past must be chipped and sanded away. The heterogenous culture of the South must be eliminated. Charleston should feel no different than New York. Gestures of reconciliation must be swept away, for there is no interest in reconciliation anymore. Magnanimity must be replaced with absolute permanent enmity. There is a danger in allowing any difference from that of a crowd. You should think no thought others do not think. You should do nothing that others do not do. And if you won’t do what is demanded, the whole machine will devote itself coldly to your destruction. They only do it to protect themselves. A thing so triumphantly illogical, so beautifully senseless as our status quo can't allow a question to weaken it.
But on his birthday this year, I’ll think back to when I was a little boy and mom would tuck me in and tell me a bedtime story, as the General watched over us from a picture-frame on the wall.