Huston: Gen. Lee Down the Memory Hole

June 29, 2015

For the use of the membership only.

by Tom Huston

In a recent column, David Brooks of the New York Times  called for the name of Robert E. Lee to be stripped from schools, highways, bridges and other monuments and memorials except for those, such as Washington and Lee University, which are clearly related to his post-war activity.

The idea is that by erasing historic memory and reimagining the past, you affirm your commitment to equality and your opposition to racial discrimination. The logic is impeccable if you are a self-righteous, pandering wuss, but there are simpler remedies for the problem Brooks has identified that don’t require us to change letterheads, redo maps and cram history down the memory hole.

Liberals are remarkably good at playing pretend. If you can believe a woman has a penis, then you can believe just about anything, so why shouldn’t they pretend that the only Lee that anyone ever had an intention to honor is the Lee who, old, tired and without property or means, served as headmaster of a down-on-its luck college in the Shenandoah Valley? In the meantime, normal people – those who are capable of a nuanced view of history – can go about life in the ordinary course and, as occasion may demand, accord the general such degree of respect or admiration (or contempt and disparagement) as they believe is justified by the principles they hold dear.

It is not clear to me why Brooks singles out General Lee for special treatment. He has historically been a more sympathetic figure than, say, Jefferson Davis or Nathan Bedford Forrest, both of whom have their names upon a number of buildings, roadways and monuments around the country. Lee was merely one of hundreds of regular army officers who resigned their commissions and took up service in the Confederate Army. Of the thousands of men who, according to Brooks, qualified for the gallows, only former president Jefferson Davis refused to seek a post-war pardon and take the required loyalty oath. Notwithstanding his stubborn pride, in 1978 his citizenship was restored by special act of Congress. The restoration measure was sponsored by Oregon’s Senator Mark Hatfield and signed into law by Georgia’s Jimmy Carter, neither of whom was known to be a Lost Cause romantic.

I have yet to see Brooks or any of his like-minded Jacobins explain why a triumphant Union enraged by the assassination of its president and with the South prostrate and at its mercy did not remand to trial, let alone convict, a single rebel for treason. Neither Lee nor any of the other ranking military officers of the Confederacy were detained or subjected to legal process. Only Davis was singled out for punishment. He was jailed at Fort Monroe until bailed in 1867 upon $100,000 bond furnished by Horace Greeley, Commodore Vanderbilt and other Yankee bondsmen. Indicted in March of 1868, the case against him was abandoned by the federal government and a general amnesty issued in December of that year. The Republicans did not wish to put the question of the constitutionality of secession to a jury and, following adoption of the 14th Amendment, the troublesome issue of double jeopardy was raised in Davis’ defense.

What we have witnessed in the past week is a second-guessing of the appropriate response to the triggering of a civil war. Those most intimately involved determined for reasons that seemed compelling to them that no useful public purpose would be served by criminalizing what was a political act. The issues most clearly in contention – the right of secession and the right to hold slaves – were settled by military action. Thus settled, the better course was thought to be reconciliation, not retribution.

Brooks and his ilk seek a judgment of Lee and of the South that a victorious Union, at the time when a decision mattered, was unwilling to render. The neo-Maoist Cultural Revolution the Left is churning up in the name of equality is not likely to produce any beneficent results. It not only distorts but rebukes history. It is better that the Left exercise its right to pretend and leave the rest of us alone.

Tom Charles Huston, A.B., J.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review who resides in Indianapolis, served as an officer in the United States Army assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency and as associate counsel to the president of the United States.

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