The Myth of the Lost Cause: Robert E Lee Day and Confederate Monuments, Memorials, and Schools

Glorifying war is not a good look for anybody.

Recently, one of my readers pointed out to me that ten American states still celebrate Robert E. Lee Day. According to this article and this one, two of them, Alabama and Mississippi, celebrate it on the same day as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and have made it a paid holiday for state employees. Reading this made me physically ill. I had never heard of this abominable “holiday” until now.

For those who are unfamiliar with Lee, by all means, allow me to get you up to speed on this appalling individual. Robert E. Lee was a Confederate general during the civil war and, prior to that, had hundreds of slaves that had originally been the property of his late father-in-law. Lee was supposed to emancipate all of them according to the will, but he held onto them for five more years. He treated them much more harshly than his father-in-law ever had, and many of them tried, unsuccessfully, to escape, and were then sold off and/or jailed. By the time Lee was finished with that plantation, not a single slave family was left intact.

Further, to hear the South tell it, Robert E. Lee was the greatest general of all time, but if you delve deeper into what he actually accomplished, and also what he intentionally did not accomplish, you quickly discover that he was actually the worst general the Confederates could have chosen, and he is one of several reasons that they lost the war. First of all, his primary concern was Virginia. He concentrated on that one theater, and when other theaters begged him for help, he refused to send them reinforcements. At one point he was forced to do so, but he then delayed complying to such an extent that it caused a great deal of harm to the Confederacy. His campaigns were responsible for the death of 209,000 Confederate soldiers in his one area, which is 55,000 more deaths than General Grant was responsible for, even though he was in charge of 5 different Union armies simultaneously. Lee was also responsible for the disaster at Gettysburg, even though he attempted to blame someone else.

I could go on and on about Lee, but the bottom line is that he was no one to celebrate, then or now. And in truth, these holidays have nothing to do with Lee. They’re about racism and white supremacy. Southern supporters would have you believe that these days are to honor a part of our nation’s history, but it’s interesting to note that all but one of these state holidays cropped up, like the pustulant sores that they are, after Martin Luther King Junior Day was declared a federal holiday in 1983.

The state of Georgia has some sneaky writing in its state law which requires the governor to pronounce at least one day a year to be dedicated to honoring the Confederacy. But the average person might not even know this because it says, “the Governor shall include at least one of the following dates: January 19, April 26, or June 3, or a suitable date in lieu thereof to commemorate the event or events now observed by such dates.”

Those dates coincide with Robert E. Lee Day, Confederate Memorial Day, and Jefferson Davis Day, respectively. If they weren’t well aware that what they’re doing was wrong, they wouldn’t have to sneak these “holidays” into the legislation so as to make them practically anonymous, would they? Shame on them.

As a white woman from Connecticut, some might think that I wouldn’t have any skin in this game, so to speak, regarding all things Confederate. In that they’d be wrong. Aside from finding it incomprehensible that any human being could choose racism over civil rights for all humans, I also experienced a jarring culture shock that left a lasting impression on me when we moved from Connecticut to rural Florida when I was 10 years old.

Back then at least, most children learned about the Civil War between 3rd and 5th grades. I discovered firsthand that Connecticut and Florida put an entirely different spin on the subject. I was appalled.

Fifth grade in Florida was one of the worst years of my life by far. I suddenly found myself in a school system that didn’t “officially” desegregate until 1970, despite the fact that segregation had become illegal in 1954. And in fact, they didn’t get around to complying with a court order that required them to replace several aging schools that were attended mainly by black children until 2018. I wrote about my Florida school experiences in great detail here.

I walked into that racist cesspool after already having been taught about the Civil War for two years in Connecticut. But one thing that had been studiously avoided in Connecticut is the Myth of the Lost Cause. Even at age 10 I was able to poke multiple holes in this myth, so having a teacher, someone whom I always assumed would have educational integrity, cram this myth down my throat in Florida brought about the end of my innocence.

The myth goes something like this: The Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. It was all about states rights, and the Union was the aggressor. Most slaves were treated very well and were content. Poor whites were content, too. Plantations weren’t forced labor camps, they were genteel farms full of happy field hands. (Cough.)

The interesting thing about the Myth of the Lost Cause is that it really wasn’t perpetuated in earnest until the early 1900’s, some 50 years after the war was over, and it was championed by a group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Their primary goal is to prepare future generations of white Southerners to respect and defend the “principles” of the Confederacy.

The UDC perpetuated their myth in the same way myths are being perpetuated to this very day. They rejected every schoolbook that didn’t prop up the myth. They also sponsored Confederate monuments right at the time when Southern states were legislating an effort to segregate society and disenfranchise Black Americans. As this article explains, These Statues Were Never Really About Preserving History.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy also gave speeches in support of the Ku Klux Klan. In addition, they downplayed how violent the system of slavery was. I’m sure they were thrilled when Gone with the Wind came out, glamorizing the antebellum South to a degree that sickens any modern and educated viewer.

I really need to stop referring to the UDC in the past tense. They’re still alive and well. Here’s their website to prove it. They defend their monuments to this day. That’s why the past tense seems so appropriate for this backward group.

The UDC was responsible for another wave of memorials and monuments when the fight for civil rights heated up. These statues were intended to intimidate people who were already being terrorized by way of an increase in lynchings. In particular, the UDC enjoyed installing these monuments to ignorance on courthouse grounds. So much for equal protection under the law.

Another “coincidence” was that there was an increase in the number of schools and colleges that were named after Confederates right after the federal ruling in 1954 which outlawed segregation. In other words, “Yes, we’ll integrate if we must, but we won’t ever let you forget.”

Fortunately, there’s a growing trend to change the names of such schools. I once wrote a blog post about a high school in Jacksonville Florida that was finally, finally changed from Nathan Bedford Forrest High with its Rebel mascot to Westside High. Go Wolverines! Since then, Jacksonville has changed the name of 6 other schools. This is definitely a step in the right direction.

Since the death of George Floyd, an increasing number of confederate monuments have been torn down or relocated throughout the country. Another good step. But we still have a long way to go. After consulting this list of confederate monuments and memorials, I was proud to see that my current state of Washington “only” has two reminders of our nation’s Civil War shame. But nationwide, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 2,000 memorials still valorize the Confederacy. Eight of those still stand in the United States Capitol, which was also the location of the January 6th insurrection. Those insurrectionists and the people who support them would like a repeat of the Civil War. That’s why it’s so important that we stop glorifying it, and start teaching the truth about the horrors of this war and the greedy, evil reasons behind it.

It’s time to grow up and take ownership of the fact that there are numerous dark periods in this nation’s history. Otherwise, we’ll never be motivated to improve.

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Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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