Today’s generals need to study the Civil War better

As I write this, the Internet is still going wild over former Marine general John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, calling former Army general Robert E. Lee “a honorable man” on Monday.

Kelly added, “He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”

The blowback these comments are getting is heartening to me, because it shows that people do care about history when it’s something alive and real and not a boring recitation of acts and facts.

But it is disheartening to know that so many retired and active-duty generals — trust me, Kelly isn’t the only one — still buy into the old false notions that the South was fighting for “states’ rights.” (The rights to do what, issue their own speed limits?)

Before we get to the matter Kelly was addressing, let’s deal with his narrative, because that’s a lot of bad history packed into just one sound bite. 

First, it was not “always loyalty to state first back in those days,” because if it was, Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech would make no sense. “A House Divided,” which Carl Sandburg called the most carefully crafted address of Lincoln’s prairie years, was delivered as the kickoff to his campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1858. By declaring that the nation could not go on indefinitely “half slave and half free,” Lincoln was acknowledging that the pro-slavery bloc of 15 states operated as a single political entity, known as the “slave power,” that had effectively controlled Congress since the founding of the republic.

Lincoln’s speech, which was reprinted widely, rallied Republicans around the idea of uniting to finally defeat the pro-slavery bloc in the 1860 elections. 

‘That cause was … one of the worst’

Which brings us to the most contentious part of the general’s statement — “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.” This is absolutely correct, if left in its shrink wrap. Many of you have been to our talks or have read our Big Divide Travel Guide, so you’ve heard me say that the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act — cooked up by the man who beat Lincoln in 1858, Sen. Stephen A. Douglas — was the last meaningful compromise between North and South before the Civil War.  

But all you have to do is look at, say, South Carolina’s declaration of rebellion to see that the “lack of an ability to compromise” is entirely due to the pro-slavery bloc’s hardening stance on its economic system built on human cruelty. South Carolina’s declaration engages in some bad history of its own, which we can talk about some other time, but for now it’s worth noting that the document takes the “House Divided” speech to mean that “a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States” — a fairly belligerent way of reading Lincoln, but then again, South Carolina was spoiling for a fight.

To describe this conflict as Kelly does, as two groups of people of “good faith” standing on “conscience,” is to hijack the language of movements led by genuine people of conscience, then use it to pretty up one of the ugliest chapters in American history. 

If John Kelly wants to use history in future interviews (if he ever gives another interview), he’d be well advised to read the memoir of the man who defeated Robert E. Lee in the Civil War. In that book, Ulysses S. Grant wrote a lovely recollection of sitting and chatting amiably with Lee at Appomattox, as the terms of surrender were being drawn up. The Union general should have felt triumphant in this moment, yet Grant recalled that meeting Lee left him “sad and depressed,” adding, 

“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.”
Ulysses S. Grant

So let’s rewind to the reason Kelly stepped in this mess in the first place — he was helping one of the administration’s stalwarts launch her new TV show. First episodes are always a time to make some news, and what better way to do that than with a hot-button topic like Confederate monuments? 

Don’t tear them down — talk about them

We are going to get deep into the topic of memory and monuments in the coming months on History Is Power. For now, I’ll say something that might surprise you — when it comes to Civil War monuments erected by supporters of the rebellion, you can put me solidly in the “don’t tear it down” camp. I’m not opposed to relocating them. A symbol of Jim Crow probably should be someplace less provocative than in the town square. But making revisionist history a crime would get a lot of statues torn down, and not just the ones built by Confederate apologists. 

For instance, last week I commended everyone in Kansas City to visit our local Vietnam Veterans Memorial because it contains a powerful perspective on war that we can all learn from today. And as any Kansas Citian knows, we’ve got the country’s most stellar World War I monument, complete with a 148-foot-long frieze that urges men to beat their swords into plowshares.  

Rather than destroy wrong-headed memorials to a rotten rebellion, we should be talking about them. A lot! History is the most powerful narrative of all, which is why people try so hard to shape it. Whether it’s who started a war or who lost an election or what did a woman discover that a man took credit for, the way we talk about the past affects how we look at the present and the future. 

Also, history is about practical stuff. My eyes roll into my skull whenever some politician or pundit talks about having a “national conversation” about guns or race or opioids or whatever. I propose that it’s a lot easier to have a bunch of smaller conversations about big things. The facts of the Holocaust alone were not sufficient to keep some privileged teenagers at our local Catholic girls’ high school from turning it into a party game. They’d have been better off meeting just one survivor of a Nazi death camp.

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