Not far from a Brooklyn apartment where I used to live, there is a quaint house which once was the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. It is located on General Lee Avenue at Fort Hamilton, marked with a plaque. Down the street from the fort’s entrance, an Episcopal church recently removed a plaque noting that Lee had planted a tree there. Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was baptized in the same church, and a street is named for him on the fort’s grounds.
These markers had always seemed to be more a matter of historical information and local color than the stuff of a great national debate—but that’s no longer the case. Three members of Congress arrived nearby the fort recently to call for the Army to change the street names, and to advocate legislation requiring the Defense Department to re-name any military property named for a supporter of the Confederacy.
The Army objected. “The men in question were honored on Fort Hamilton as individuals, not as representatives of any particular cause or ideology,” a senior Army official wrote to one of the members of Congress in behalf of Acting Army Secretary Robert M. Speer. “After over a century, any effort to rename memorializations on Fort Hamilton would be controversial and divisive.” That’s in line with President Donald Trump’s tweet-announcement on the subject:
Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You.....
..can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also…
..the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!
But the truth is that many of the memorials to Lee and Jackson were the direct result of a very deliberate campaign to advance a “particular cause or ideology.” That’s clear from the historical record.
In fact, these monuments tell a specific historical story. They recall not only the individuals depicted, but also how Southern aristocrats used their legacy as part of a grand effort to transform the military defeat of the Civil War into a political and cultural victory.
Historians call that effort the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy, and it explains why the speaker who officially presented the Lee statue in Charlottesville in 1924 asserted that “the real victor” at Appomattox was not Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, but Lee, whose “defeat was but apparent.”
Historian Karen L. Cox writes in Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Southern Culture that the Lost Cause movement aimed to preserve “Confederate culture,” especially white supremacy and states’ rights. She documents how women led this cultural warfare, with the United Daughters of the Confederacy serving as the leading player.
The group’s ideological agenda was discussed forthrightly at its early national conventions and in its publications. It is especially clear in the writings and statements of Adelia A. Dunovant, chairwoman for the historical committee of the Daughters of the Confederacy.
In a speech before the Fifth Annual Convention at Hot Springs, Ark. in 1898, Dunovant said Southern history must be preserved to protect “constitutional liberty”—which to her meant that the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution were passed illegally. These amendments abolished slavery; extended “equal protection under the laws” to all (and allowed Congress to further that, which it did in the Civil Rights Act of 1964); and barred states from disenfranchising voters “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Her view of states’ rights led her to declare that United States of America was not to be called a “nation” because it was a collection of sovereign states. Following on this, she argued that Abraham Lincoln had violated the Constitution, while Jefferson Davis was its defender. The North had followed the war with a “conquest of opinion” by falsely labeling the Confederates as “rebels” and by calling the conflict a “civil war,” she contended. The way to reverse the conquest, she said, was to preserve Confederate principles and then apply them.