Yes, we should keep the South’s Confederate monuments, including even the statue of General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., — the one that caused a fatal clash between the Ku Klux Klan and counter demonstrators.
We should leave General Lee sitting high on his horse looking like the gentleman some say he was. But let’s do make his memorial tell the truth. Simply depict him afresh with his right hand raised taking his 1829 oath of allegiance on graduating West Point and entering the U. S. Army. I took an oath somewhat like it in 1956 when I joined the U. S. Army.
“I, Robert E. Lee…do solemnly swear, or affirm, that I will bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies…and obey the orders of the President of the United States…”
Then swing the statue’s bronze left hand around behind him with his fingers crossed. Describing such behavior, marching Union soldiers in 1864 sang new lyrics to the South’s old anthem, “Dixie.”
Away down South in the land of traitors,
Rattlesnakes and alligators…and so forth.
We might add to the monument’s plaque what a triumphant General Lee said during the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg while he watched 13,000 U.S. soldiers being shot down as they struggled up a hill toward Confederate fortifications they never reached.
“It is well that war is so terrible,” he philosophized, “or we would grow too fond of it.”
Terrible indeed. That war killed 720,000 Americans, more than all our soldier deaths in all our other wars put together through Vietnam. A war fought — as most Confederate states’ own declarations of independence proudly asserted — because the North opposed slavery. A war that even today fuels passion for repeat rebellions, suggesting that disgruntled folks must again arm themselves against the United States of America.
In addition to the recent violence, this urge inspired a young white supremacist to murder nine black members of a South Carolina church. It brought out mobs of gun-toting ranchers refusing to pay grazing fees on federal lands, plus an armed “militia” takeover of a federal wildlife refuge. It helped inspire the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people. Veneration of the Confederacy’s Civil War leaders like Robert E. Lee and John Bell Hood is a gift that just keeps on giving to gun dealers, the NRA and makers of Confederate flags.
I mention Hood because he’s the one Confederate general whose monuments I would erase. During National Guard training long ago at Fort Hood, Texas, I stupidly knelt on poison ivy and came home with a knee swollen big as my head. So I asked myself, who was this guy we so honored? Turns out General Hood was a soldier so gallant he lost the use of his arm in one battle and a leg in another. Brave, but dumb. His is one of 10 U.S. forts named after heroes from the enemy side.
Taking command of a Southern army retreating toward Atlanta, Hood began throwing his soldiers against Union breastworks bristling with cannons used like giant shotguns.
Some 8,500 Confederates were shot down. He repeated those tactics at Franklin, Tenn., suffering 6,200 more casualties, including 14 of his own generals. He advanced to to Nashville, where U.S. troops — including many black soldiers — wiped his army off the field. But by allowing General Sherman to capture vital Atlanta in September 1864, he did guarantee re-election of Abraham Lincoln two months later and thus Union victory in the Civil War. Did we honor Hood because his lousy tactics assured that the North would win? No, it was just our old urge to let bygones be bygones, to forget the past — as too many of us still do in this age of resurgent white supremacy.
If we drop Hood’s name on that Texas fort, what soldier should we honor instead? How about Heinz Guderian, the Nazi general who in 1940 invented the Blitzkrieg. Or Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the military genius who led the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
Like Hood himself, they were fighting for the enemy side. But at least they were good at it.