A note at the outset: This blog post is fairly long, and it reacts to a presentation that itself was over an hour in total length if we add in the question and answer session. I urge readers to read the entire blog and to listen to the entire presentation. Some critics of Professor Robertson’s talk have looked at only small tidbits of it, and I think that does a disservice because it removes those tidbits from the context of the entire presentation. Dr. Robertson’s perspective is best understood if we consider the whole thing rather than small snippets.
On July 28, 2018 I attended a conference on confederate icons at James Madison University conducted by the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, a wonderful organization dedicated to preservation of historical ground in the Valley and to education about the Civil War as it affected the Shenandoah Valley.
The keynote address featured my former professor, James I. Robertson, Jr., who is the one you can blame for this blog, since he’s the one who ignited my interest in the Civil War. Professor Robertson, or “Dr. Bud,” as we former students of his like to call him, has long been an outstanding scholar and teacher. To say he’s beloved by his former students is an understatement.
Professor Robertson, the descendant of two confederate soldiers, is the foremost scholar of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and has also written on Lt. Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill, common soldiers of the Civil War, and the Civil War in Virginia. He was also the driving force behind the new Virginia State song, “Our Great Virginia.”
He’s a scholar who cares deeply about our history and about our heritage. He’s not akin to a Vulcan, devoid of emotion and driven by logic. He can get very emotional about historical topics.
You can see the latest example of this passion in his keynote address here:
I highly recommend you watch the entire video, either before or after reading this long blog post. Professor Robertson is speaking from the heart, reacting with emotion to his frustration over a number of people commenting on monuments from all sides who comment and agitate without understanding the historical facts. He makes a number of excellent points. Unfortunately, he also lets his emotions get away from him.
He tells us, “Slavery was the underlying issue behind the war, but it was not the only issue. State rights still hovered over the land. The limits of federalism were still far from resolution. And no one seemed to realize how easily emotions can conquer reasonable thinking.” Slavery was indeed the root cause of the war. The extreme state rights view that a state could legally secede from the United States without the consent of the nation was the vehicle used for states to claim they had seceded from the United States. The issue of federalism bears on secession and slavery both, and the caning of Charles Sumner as well as the fact that men entered both houses of Congress armed shows emotions had gotten out of hand.
Professor Robertson tells us, “The United States in which you and I live was born in 1865. Civil war marked the conception of the country we know. It was the greatest sacrifice we have ever made toward nationhood and unity. All over our land now can be found markers and monuments recognizing the terrible ordeal through which we passed before we could honestly call one another fellow countrymen. Forgetting the war, in other words, is impossible. We cannot have life without birth. Today, sadly, we seem to be stepping backward historically, politically, morally, culturally. This is a time that future history textbooks may well label ‘The Age of Idiocy!’ ” The last part of that quote shows Professor Robertson’s frustration. He blames not just one side but two sides.
“First I dismiss out of hand those who wander in the dream world under the name neo-Nazis, skinheads, neoconfederates, Southern Legion, and the like. They have no knowledge of and hence they have no respect for the principles embodied in Robert E. Lee. And further the pure and holy Confederate states they envision never existed. Those groups did not gather in Charlottesville or Richmond to honor Lee. If they had with genuine intent they would have done so unarmed, and all their efforts would have focused more on reconciliation and less on incitement to riot.” He says of the other side, “These so-called ‘anti-protesters’ played right into their hands. These troublemakers gave the extreme right publicity they could not themselves generate because of the senselessness of their movements.” He says of the proconfederate marchers, “Lee certainly would have no forbearance with this new wave of Confederate feeling, and neither do I.”
Professor Robertson’s frustration with the other side is palpable as well. “On the other side of the spectrum the Left Wing Perpetually Offended in our country are at it again. Their policy has always been to deny the past, exploit the present, ignore the future. And now their targets are Confederate monuments, and armed with historical ignorance as well as misguided protests and childish emotions, activists want to take away your history first by dismantling your memorials.” Here I think he let his frustration get the better of him. I very respectfully disagree that removing monuments is taking away history, and some of those who are pushing for monument removal are very well versed in history.
Professor Robertson’s identification of the root of the problem is this: “Probably 90% of our citizens cannot pass an American history exam. They have no idea what the Declaration of Independence is, who Abraham Lincoln was, in what war the atomic bomb was dropped. History is the greatest teacher you will ever have, and we are the worst pupils in the class. Until thousands more American citizens become aware of the blessings of God and the evolution of our country the buzzards will continue to squawk and the uninformed will listen intently. They’re too stupid to do otherwise. Common sense shows that one needs to learn more about our history to qualify to pass judgment on any part of our history.” Some have misinterpreted this statement to claim Professor Robertson is saying previous generations had a better grasp on history than we do today. I don’t agree with that. I think Professor Robertson is saying what American history educators have been saying for decades–Americans, generally speaking of the overall population, don’t do a good job in learning about our history. He’s not saying this is recent. His estimate of the number of American citizens who can’t pass an American history exam is probably hyperbole, but survey after survey shows Americans having trouble passing citizenship tests that focus on American history and the American political system. See here and here, for example.
Professor Robertson next defends monuments themselves. “Monuments to the past are vital guides on the journey to the future. Historical statues do matter for reasons that are historical and economic and cultural and in some cases even political. Marble and bronze reminders compel us to look back, sometimes with pride, sometimes with anger. We need always to know where we have been. Otherwise, how can we know where we are going? My colleague Harold Holzer put it this way: ‘When we demolish memory altogether and leave no trace of it for our children or theirs, we forget who we were, who we are, and how we can become something better.’ We are sporadically attacked by demagogic propaganda that purges fact and extols fantasy.” I think he makes a good point that monuments compel us to look backward, but I think also he engages in a straw man when talking about demolishing memory altogether.
He allows his frustration to get the better of him again when he says, “There are those who, unable to tell you when the Civil War was fought, who want to tear down the statues of men they refuse to understand. We rob one group of citizens of their heritage in order to please another group who cannot even tell you the meaning of the word heritage.” I think this is way overblown. Even where monuments have been removed, there are plans to eventually display the statues in a contextualized environment, thus no one is being “robbed of their heritage.” The monument controversy is about monuments on public ground only. Any monuments on private property are not included. Again, that is not “robbing” someone “of their heritage.”
Professor Robertson states, “A walk down the path of history is in order here because while times change, history never does. Late on Sunday afternoon, April 9, 1865, after the Confederate army had surrendered at Appomattox, U.S. Grant rode back to his Union lines and he found the men cheering, and he angrily told them to stop that yelling. Grant did so on the common sense ground that those vanquished Southerners were fellow countrymen again. Thirty-five years later, in 1901, and I’m quoting you legislation that is conveniently overlooked, especially by the media, in 1901 President William McKinley set aside a section of Arlington National Cemetery as a burial site for several hundred Confederate soldiers. Until that time, Southern soldiers could not be buried in the National Cemetery. A larger forgotten step occurred in March 1906. It’s Public Law 38, Statute 56. And it states as Federal law that Confederate soldiers were to be entitled to be treated as American veterans in the same honorable way as all American veterans in all other wars had been. In other words, you cannot segregate Confederate soldiers from Union soldiers. They were all American veterans entitled to the same. That’s a 1906 statute. But in spite of these Federal laws, Robert Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and all other Confederate soldiers are now being declared traitors, symbols of racial hatred. Such allegations run counter to law and to common sense. But American politics thrives on a double standard, and the media continues to demonstrate daily that it has difficulty telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Again, I am forced to respectfully disagree. The Confederate Section at Arlington National Cemetery was established in 1901 as the result of legislation in June of 1900 that provided funding to rebury 136 Confederate soldiers who had already been buried in various places in Arlington National Cemetery. See here. Additionally, Public Law 38 does not say what Professor Robertson claimed. Here it is:
As you can see, it doesn’t say confederate soldiers were entitled to be treated as American veterans. As Professor Robertson is impeccably honest, I have to believe he trusted someone who told him an untruth.
Dr. Bud next tells us, “The spark for the current war on monuments came in a terrible 2015 incident in Charleston, South Carolina, when a deranged young youth murdered nine black churchgoers. In his belongings was a photograph of him holding a Confederate battle flag. Arguments over Confederate symbolism immediately began, and the flag–as it should have been–was removed from view on public grounds. Then the uneducated activists turned to Civil War monuments.” While I agree with him regarding the flag–it should have been removed from public property–I have to point out that there had been opposition to confederate monuments and confederate symbols well before the 2015 Charleston murders. For example, in 1993, Senator Carol Moseley-Braun successfully opposed the renewal of a design patent for the UDC’s insignia which had a confederate flag within a wreath. See here.
Dr. Robertson next talks about Virginia. “And here in my beloved state of Virginia, statues are units unto themselves. We Virginians look on them a little differently, I think, than residents of other states. Our statues do not depict fighting or resistance. They are memorials to soldiers who defended their beloved state. What you have been told repeatedly in the last year is that Virginia first gave attention to its monuments in 1950 with the passage of the Monuments Protection Act, Virginia Code 5.2-1812, later amended in 1988. That is not correct. The original Monuments Protection Act was enacted by the General Assembly in February 1904. That law has been expanded, amended, revised, and refined twelve times in the last 114 years. On a dozen separate occasions, the state government has given attention to Civil War memorials. That Monuments Protection Act is not some piece of legislation gathering moss and dust on the back shelves of the state library. It is an active law. Twelve times it has been brought up. And the original intent has always been the same. Quoting from the 1982 amendment: ‘It shall not be lawful for the authority of any country or any other persons whatever to disturb or interfere with any monument.’ In the 1998 amendment the General Assembly expanded the language ‘disturb’ with ‘to include removal of, damaging, or defacing monuments or memorials.’ The reverence for monuments first expressed in law in 1904 is still law in 2018. Put in simple words, monuments cannot be removed by the whims of a local agency or by some loudmouth seeking notoriety. A year or so ago the law was tested twice. First Leesburg, then Alexandria, sought to bypass the law and take down tributes to the past. Both proposals were promptly shot down.” I yield to Professor Robertson’s knowledge of Virginia law and legislative history here. He believes this is a good thing. Once again, I respectfully disagree. I think the fate of monuments should be up to localities. Richmond should not dictate to Alexandria whom Alexandria is to honor with a monument. Rather, it should be up to the citizens of Alexandria, speaking through their elected local government, to decide whom they deem is worthy of honor. In an address to Latin American diplomats at the White House on 13 March 1962, President John F. Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” That’s something we saw in Durham, North Carolina in August of 2017, when a group of citizens tore down a confederate monument. Forcing people to honor what they don’t want to honor will lead to actions like that.
Dr. Robertson next addresses Charlottesville. “The Charlottesville City Council had to know about these earlier failed attempts. nevertheless, Charlottesville officials in grandstanding fashion voted 3-2 to remove the Lee statue in a downtown park. And one of the three councilmen casting a Yes vote stated he felt the Lee monument ‘culturally offensive.’ Well, shielding citizens from things that offend them is not the primary role of government. Feelings by definition are subjective. Principles of free speech demand that public officials and institutions value the feelings of citizens equally. Therefore, whether something is offensive to some is not by itself a sufficient justification for eliminating it. In order to represent everyone, civil government should objectively consider the overall contributions of individuals in the context of their time rather than arbitrarily prioritizing the current feelings of certain people over others. But the Charlottesville disaster had a political base. Too many politicians are more than happy to cave in to the demands of a small but howling class, knowing that the courts, free from political jargon, will save them from the consequences of a bad decision. So in recent elections candidates for governor to city management followed one of the oldest and most hackneyed ploys. They demanded something that was already happening or was going to happen so as to take credit for it when it did occur. This is base. It is cynical. It is blatantly hypocritical. It is American politics at work, and all of that noise and all of those demonstrations by the displeased in Charlottesville fortunately came to naught. Judges have twice rejected appeals for statue removals there.” While I agree with Dr. Bud that public officials and institutions should value the feelings of citizens equally, we have a process in place for that, whereby candidates for office make their positions known and the citizenry vote for the candidate whose program they wish to see implemented. If an elected official proposes or does something with which the citizens disagree, that official can be recalled and replaced by someone who promises to do something different. Therefore, in the absence of such a recall a reasonable assumption is that the majority of the citizens of Charlottesville support the removal of the monuments, and thus in order to value the feelings of all citizens equally we have to go with the feelings of the majority of Charlottesville citizens.
Professor Robertson addresses polling on the issue. “Polls in the last year show that at least 70% of the electorate do not want monuments removed. They want them to remain where they are. Clearly a minority does not have the right to override the majority.” I agree the minority don’t have the right to override the majority, unless it be on an issue that where the Constitution, whether state or Federal, contradicts the majority view–or some similar situation. But that polling is statewide, not confined to locality. Someone in Roanoke should not have a say on whom Charlottesville deems worthy of being honored. Additionally, black citizens were never consulted when the monuments were put up. There doesn’t seem to have been any polling on whether or not the monuments should go up in the first place.
He then looks at the cost of removal. “In Charlottesville the more than $300,000 it would cost to remove the Lee statue plus the enormous legal fees associated with the action could be better used by a more enlightened city council in improving traffic congestion, especially on 29 North, creating scholarships for disadvantaged youth, perhaps putting up a statue of an African American, say Douglas Wilder. He was the Commonwealth’s first black governor. Governor Wilder does not have a spotless record, but who does? Wilder’s impact on Virginia history is worthy of statuary remembrance. Of course the Charlottesville City Council could really undertake self-improvement by sponsoring nighttime unbiased free courses in Virginia history and political science. And the council members themselves could take the courses.” Left unsaid, of course, is that if removal weren’t opposed by Richmond, there wouldn’t be enormous legal fees involved. He’s right the money could be used elsewhere, but it seems to me the Charlottesville City Council is the body with the authority to spend the money the way they see fit, and the citizens of Charlottesville can then pass judgment on the wisdom of their choices.
We next look at the controversy surrounding General John Kelly’s comments. “Some months back, airheads in academia, in the media, and on the streets castigated General John Kelly, the President’s Chief of Staff. What unpardonable sin had the general committed? Kelly declared that failure of compromise was a primary factor in the coming of the Civil War. Activists thereupon exploded with indignation that something other than slavery might be behind the North-South struggle. In all my years as a professional historian, I have never witnessed a more pronounced, more pathetic ignorance of fact, especially when some of it originated with individuals who hold doctorates in history. That civil war came from an inability to compromise has been a staple of Civil War history ever since the Civil War ended. In the first half of the 20th Century, Professor James G. Randall of the University of Chicago wrote what became the standard college textbook on Civil War history. I used it in my classes for awhile. And in his books, speaking of American thinking in the ’50s, Randall asserted that ‘the 1850s was a sorry melange of party bile, crisis melodrama, inflated elegance, unreason, religious fury, self-righteousness, self-deception, and hate. Allen Nevins of Columbia University was dean of American historians in the latter half of the 20th Century. His five-volume Ordeal of the Union dominated the Civil War field for thirty years. In one of those chapters titled ‘The Failure of Compromise,’ Nevins described Northern and Southern thinking in the immediate antebellum years as ‘largely irrational, governed by subconscious memories, frustrated desires, and the distortions of politicians and editors.’ ” This is a resurrection of the “blundering generation” interpretation of Civil War causation historians have abandoned and haven’t supported for at least fifty years. His central point, that there was no compromise, though, is reasonable. Whether it was a failure or not is in question. If no compromise was possible, how could there be a failure to compromise? There had been compromises on slavery from the beginning of the Republic. The 3/5 Clause and the delay in ending the slave trade that were placed in the Constitution, along with the Fugitive Slave Clause, were all compromises on slavery. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850 were both compromises on slavery. None of those compromises was ultimately able to prevent the war. Why do we assume a compromise would be possible? Outside of the South giving up slavery voluntarily, what compromise would last and would be fair to all involved, including the enslaved people? I don’t think one was available. Dr. Bud, however, thinks compromise was indeed available.
“Slavery was the catalyst of the Civil War. No educated person can dispute that. Human bondage was so deeply rooted in the Western World that the feeling of white supremacy was too inherent to be challenged. Slavery was an integral part of American society. As such, it was subject to law, and the chief dispenser of law in the country was the United States Congress. And starting in 1846 and continuing for 14 consecutive years, Congress poked here and there for a solution to the slave question. And while representatives doodled, the national mood grew ugly. On one side were inflexible Northern abolitionists. On the other side were equally unbendable Southern fire eaters. And in between was the huge silent majority just waiting to see what would happen. The nation was simply too young and too weak to confront the magnitude of that crisis. Congress as it usually does talked too much, said little, did nothing. A series of weak presidents in the 1850s offered no leadership. Only one Supreme Court decision on the issue passed and half the nation promptly ignored it. Modern-day self-styled philosophers argue that nothing about slavery could be compromised. That in itself is an uncompromising position because compromise and democracy are the same thing. You cannot have one without the other. You always have to have compromise. … If imperfect men could get together and create from scratch a constitution for what became the world’s greatest democratic nation, they surely could have found some solution other than civil war.” Here he pulls back somewhat from the blundering generation theory by saying in no uncertain terms that slavery was the cause of the war. His blaming of “inflexible Northern abolitionists” is a bit puzzling, since it was in his class I learned that only 10% of the Northern population were Garrisonian abolitionists. We should also remember secession happened because of the legal election, in accordance with the Constitution, of a man who was not an abolitionist but who favored cutting off the extension of slavery into the territories. That was enough for many white Southerners to break up the country and go to war. What kind of compromise can exist there? Lincoln had won the election with a Republican platform that called for stopping the extension of slavery. That was his mandate in accordance with the Constitution. In actuality, he was for doing what Professor Robertson advocates–wait for slavery to end on its own. The majority of the white South was not willing to do that. So what compromise was available? None.
Unfortunately, next Dr. Robertson lets his emotions get the best of him. “For example, by 1860 slavery was dying of natural causes. Daniel Webster had said that back in 1850. It was dying of natural causes because cotton is like tobacco. It saps everything out of the soil. And Edmund Ruffin was running late with his theory of crop rotation. So in the deep South the planters would grow cotton in the field year after year after year until said field would not even grow weeds. Then they searched for other land. And they were desperate throughout the 1850s trying to find usable land for cotton, and certainly the new acquisitions–New Mexico, Arizona, California–offered no outlet for it. Slavery would have died naturally because its bumper crop, cotton, would have ceased to exist. In addition, the Industrial Revolution was swinging into gear in the late 1850s and industrialization could clearly surpass agriculture. The great land of farmers that Jefferson envisioned never had a chance, and we would become an industrial nation and the cotton kingdom would disappear. In spite of these factors, neither side could agree. Southerners were too proud to admit what little the future held, and Northerners were too impatient to wait for the inevitable.” Here, Professor Robertson is just wrong. Slavery was not dying in 1860. In 1860 slave prices were at an all-time high, showing demand for slaves being at its highest. Slavery was never more powerful and never more popular. The population of enslaved people was at an all-time high. Crop rotation was known at the time. Before 1860 crop rotation involving cotton was beginning to be used in South Carolina. It was only a matter of time before it became widespread. Additionally, the claim that New Mexico, Arizona, and California were not outlets for cotton are contradicted by the fact that New Mexico, Arizona, and California are successfully growing cotton. As to the Industrial Revolution, it would not lead to the end of slavery. Enslaved people can operate machinery just as well as free laborers. Mechanization of agriculture would not happen for almost a hundred years after the Civil War. In 1957, for example, only 17% of the cotton in Mississippi was harvested mechanically. All the rest was harvested manually. That was the first year it began to be cheaper for planters to pay owners of mechanical harvesters to harvest the cotton than it was to pay laborers to do so. Since slaves weren’t paid, it’s highly doubtful such an economical choice would have been made even by 1957 if slavery still existed. [Willis Peterson and Yoav Kislev, “The Cotton Harvester in Retrospect: Labor Displacement or Replacement?” Journal of Economic History, Vol. XLVI, No. 1, March, 1986, p. 201] While the first patent for a mechanical cotton harvester was issued in 1850, it took almost a full century before a commercially viable machine could be developed. [p. 202] The mechanization of cotton harvesting didn’t begin until the 1940s and it wasn’t until 1972 that all of the cotton grown in the US was harvested by machine. [p. 205]
Mechanization did begin a little bit in the antebellum years. “The antebellum era is often viewed by agricultural historians as one that set the stage for an agricultural revolution marked by the widespread application of horse-powered machinery in the two or three decades after 1850. There is validity in this view, but it has had the unfortunate effect of leading many to disregard or play down the significant technological progress made in earlier decades. In a few cases this progress was dramatic. The cotton gin revolutionized southern agriculture as early as the 1790s. Steam power was introduced on the plantation sugar mills of Louisiana in the 1820s, and in short order most of the cane crop was processed with the aid of steam engines. The horse-drawn reaper for harvesting wheat and other small grain crops was applied on a large scale during the 1850s. In each of these cases an existing or rapidly emerging market played a crucial role in the widespread adoption of an impressive new technique. The more gradual widening of markets for other agricultural products was marked by less dramatic but nonetheless effective technical advances. For much of the antebellum period hand tools–hoes, forks, rakes, scythes, and axes are examples–were major implements, and they were continually improved through better design and the use of new materials. The nation’s abundance of land, however, exerted a powerful influence on the development of animal-powered implements and machines which would allow relatively less abundant labor to till more acres per person. In preharvest operations–soil preparation, seeding, and cultivating–significant inventive and innovative progress was made. Plows were transformed from crude, mulitpurpose tools to specialized implements for different types of plowing and varied soil conditions. Wooden plows with a few iron parts gave way to cast-iron plows and then to steel plows by the late 1830s; they allowed more land to be plowed with less effort. Horse-drawn cultivators and seeding machines were developed, although not widely applied, before 1840. In harvesting operations, similar sequences emerged. Grain cradles supplanted sickles and scythes, and in turn gave way to the horse-powered rakes in hay making. In the earlier decades, limited markets and the availability to farmers of free time during the winter months made threshing with simple flails and corn shelling by hand feasible postharvest activities, but from the 1830s onward machines of varying complexity began to take over these tasks. While the greatest development of organized science and education in the service of agriculture came later, the antebellum years witnessed a growth of technical and economic informational channels commensurate with the importance of agriculture in the economy. The ubiquitous general newspaper often devoted space to agricultural topics and market conditions. From the 1820s on this role was more and more fulfilled by specialized agricultural periodicals. Their combined circulation is estimated to have reached three hundred fifty thousand by 1860. Agricultural societies and fairs also spread information and encouraged improved farming practices. Starting in the 1830s the federal Patent Office began to collect and distribute both seeds and general agricultural information. By the 1850s its annual reports on agriculture received wide distribution. … A study of labor productivity in the major crops–wheat, corn, and cotton–indicates steady gains between 1800 and 1840, even under the assumption that crop yields per acre did not improve during these four decades. … Man-hours per bale of cotton declined from 601 to 439; most of this 27 percent productivity gain was the result of a drop from 135 to 90 man-hours per acre in preharvest labor, that is, plowing, planting, and cultivating.” [Sidney Ratner, James H. Soltow, and Richard Sylla, The Evolution of the American Economy: Growth, Welfare, and Decision Making, pp. 151-153]
But these advances were primarily in Northern farms, not Southern. Slaveowners didn’t want mechanization. The large planters especially amassed huge amounts of wealth in the form of slaves. They had a huge incentive not to change in any way that would reduce the number of slaves they held. They kept using highly labor intensive methods, whereas the free states increasingly mechanized their farm operations. “According to the most recent study of antebellum Southern industry, the Southern lag in this category of development resulted not only from any inherent economic disadvantages–not shortage of capital nor low rates of return, nor nonadaptability of slave labor–but from the choices of Southerners who had money to invest it in agriculture and slaves rather than in manufacturing.” [James M. McPherson, “The Distinctiveness of the Old South,” in Michael Perman, ed., The Coming of the American Civil War, 3rd Edition, pp. 185-186] As Professor McPherson writes, “Southern agriculture remained traditionally labor-intensive while Northern agriculture became increasingly capital-intensive and mechanized. By 1860 the free states had nearly twice the value of farm machinery per acre and per farm worker as the slave states. And the pace of industrialization in the North far outstripped that in the South. In 1810 the slave states had an estimated 31 percent of the capital invested in manufacturing in the United States; by 1840 this had declined to 20 percent and by 1860 to 16 percent. In 1810 the North had two and a half times the amount per capita invested in manufacturing as the South; by 1860 this had increased to three and a half times as much.” [Ibid., pp. 194-195]
The mechanical harvester was brought into general production due to the loss of labor on the farms as laborers moved to higher wage urban jobs. “The evidence presented is consistent with the hypothesis that cotton harvesting labor was in large part pulled out of agriculture by higher wages in nonfarm occupations rather than displaced by the mechanical cotton picker. … Farm machinery companies along with state agricultural experiment stations respond to the increased demand by farmers for new mechanical technology by developing such technology.” [Willis Peterson and Yoav Kislev, “The Cotton Harvester in Retrospect: Labor Displacement or Replacement?”, Journal of Economic History, Vol XLVI, No. 1, March, 1986, p. 215]. Since slaves don’t earn wages, higher wage jobs in urban areas wouldn’t pull labor off the farms if that labor were slave labor.
The historians who believe that mechanization pushed labor out of agriculture were mostly influenced by Richard Day’s “The Economics of Technological Change and the Demise of the Sharecropper.” “It appears, however, that Day grossly overestimated the contribution of the mechanization of cotton harvesting to the reduction in employment. According to his model 100 percent of the cotton in the Delta was harvested by machine in 1957, while in fact only 17 percent of the cotton was harvested mechanically in Mississippi during that year. The 100 percent level was not attained until 1975.” [Ibid., p. 201] So that view is based on bad information. But the facts: “A careful reading of the record suggests, however, that at least in the case of cotton harvesting, farmers were not so eager to reduce their dependence on labor. As Pederson and Rapier report in 1954: ‘There is still considerable hesitancy in the matter of using machines. The mechanical picker can operate well only when the ground is dry, when weeds and grass are under control, when cotton is defoliated, and when fields are long and regular enough. The planter is torn between conflicting objectives and irreconcilable operating alternatives. Time and again planters have remarked, ‘If the kind of labor we had twenty years ago were available today they could keep all their machinery.’ The increasing scarcity of labor in the area has raised the labor cost from a dollar a day less than fifteen years ago to four dollars and more. True the latter is an inflated dollar amount compared to the former but the rate of inflation is not 400 percent. Even at this higher rate the planter frequently finds himself unable to obtain labor enough to perform the essential operations during the peak work period.’ During World War II and the years immediately following, one of the major problems faced by farmers was the increasing scarcity of labor and the large increase in wage rates relative to prewar years. Cotton farmers were particularly affected because traditionally cotton had been a labor-intensive crop. As an illustration of the concern of farmers with obtaining adequate labor at harvest and of their reluctance to use machines, it is reported that during the 1950 harvest season in the coastal plain of South Carolina between 75 and 100 plantation operators purchased new mechanical harvesters at about $8,000 per machine but let them stand idle in their sheds while they harvested their cotton using hired labor. The plantation operators considered the interest and depreciation expense on the machines as an insurance premium against not being able to obtain labor. … In addition to the higher cost of machines over labor in the South during the early 1950s, cotton producers preferred labor over machine harvest because the cotton was cleaner and therefore fetched a higher price in the market. Also, if the producers did not hire labor to harvest they were less likely to obtain labor for weeding and thinning earlier in the season because their employees would seek jobs that allowed them to work more weeks per year.” [Ibid., pp. 206-208] As the labor grew more scarce, the supply vis-a-vis demand shrunk, causing the price of labor, i.e., wages, to increase. It was that increase in labor that made the mechanical harvester become economically feasible. “Before 1957 custom rates for machine picking in Mississippi exceeded piece rates for hand picking. … Only after that did custom rates fall below piece rates, with the latter starting to increase slightly. Before that time it would have been irrational for farmers to use machines extensively to harvest cotton because labor was cheaper.” [Ibid., p. 201] Labor continued to shrink on the plantations, bringing more need to replace that labor with machinery. Note that in 1949 only 6% of the cotton in the US was harvested mechanically. In 1954 it had grown to 22% and in 1959 it was 43%. It didn’t reach 78% until 1964. [Ibid., p. 206]
Slavery was not dying in 1860. Dr. Bud says Northerners were “impatient.” I suppose enslaved African Americans were even more impatient. How much longer should they have waited? Professor Robertson is leaning on earlier interpretations. While Dr. Robertson is nowhere near being a racist, unfortunately the interpretation he was taught and is using is one that at the time was influenced by a racist outlook. I don’t blame him for this because it is what he was taught and internalized.
Professor Robertson next brings in Robert E. Lee. “Of particular disgust to me are the attacks being made on Robert Lee, who personifies the word ‘noble’ more than any figure I have ever encountered. In that montage of mistakes in Charlottesville last autumn, Lee has been branded as a symbol of all that is repugnant in America. He raised his hand against his own flag, the voices shout. He joined the call to keep three-and-a-half million blacks enslaved. He fought a war to destroy everything that was good and decent in our spotless land. Lee, his accusers charge, is the predecessor of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. How outrageous these accusations are in the face of truth. Lee opposed slavery. As early as 1856 he called it an evil institution. He had no inkling for slavery, saw no reason for it. His fear was what might happen if three million ill-educated, unprepared slaves were suddenly dumped onto society without warning, without assistance, without direction. Would not freedom in that situation be an even worse curse than the bondage they knew? He didn’t know this. He didn’t have an answer. But of this he was certain. God’s hand was needed, and with God’s help emancipation would come to pass. That’s how he felt about slavery. He never owned slaves. His wife did. He didn’t.” Unfortunately, this is almost completely wrong. Lee didn’t oppose slavery. See here, here, here, here, and here. Lee owned slaves of his own, dating back to when he inherited slaves from his mother. See here, here, and here. Lee did wage war against the United States, therefore he did commit treason against the United States. Lee did fight for the confederacy, and the confederacy was dedicated to the perpetuation of slavery. I don’t think he was a precursor of Hitler or Stalin, but the other charges are reasonable. Lee did express his belief that enslaved people suddenly freed would not be able to fend for themselves. The enslaved people begged to differ.
Professor Robertson continues, “As for secession, Lee considered that to be nothing short of revolution. He had been a United States soldier for 30 years. He’d been a Virginian all his life. And this brings me to a fact that people overlook–it’s a basic fact yet very few people ever get to it. It’s essential that you understand. When the secession crisis came in 1860, the ‘United States’ was seventy years old. But the Lee family had been living in Virginia for 225 years. The young country was still struggling over where state rights ended and federalism began. And for Lee, the fateful decision he had to make in April 1861 was at the heart of that struggle. This man to whom devotion to duty was a faith found that he simply could not forsake his birthright, namely, Virginia. Lee did not resign from the United States Army to fight for the Confederate cause. He left the army to defend his state. Lee hoped that Virginia would be neutral in the contest. When he resigned from the army Virginia had just seceded–it was independent. It belonged to no group. He hoped Virginia would remain neutral, which of course it could not. It was by geography alone the centerpiece for the war. However, had Virginia remained with the Union, Robert E. Lee would have fought for the Union. It’s as simple as that. Seventy years of a nation, 225 years for a birthright. And you have to think about that because it’s totally opposite today. We now live under a Federal government that does everything for us but breathe. In 1860 the Federal government directly touched your life in one way–it delivered the mail to your local post office. That’s the only time you ever heard of Washington. You paid taxes to state and local authorities. You tried your cases in state and local courts. Rarely did you go beyond that. Ten percent of Americans in 1860 had never been out of their county, much less out of their state. It was all localism. There was no flag of which anyone was aware. We had no national anthem, no national motto. All of that comes later, thanks to the Civil War. But state was important at that time and it still is to most of us. We Virginians talk so much about our history we bore people, but we’ve got more history than anybody else. So there’s a lot we have to talk about.” Here I think Professor Robertson is on much firmer ground. Lee did see his loyalty to Virginia coming first, and he did call secession “nothing but revolution” in a letter to his son. Some of Professor Robertson’s critics have misinterpreted what he’s saying here. They say this makes it impossible for a Virginian like George H. Thomas or Winfield Scott to fight for the Union. That’s not what he’s saying. He’s talking about Lee’s perspective, not the perspective of all Virginians. It seems to me Dr. Bud’s critics here didn’t read what he was saying very carefully. What he had to say about the Federal government is right. An average American didn’t come into contact with the Federal government except for the mail.
Professor Robertson tells us, “The hate mongers who swarm around Lee forget another more important facet of his life. Although he is remembered as one of the greatest military commanders of all time, I personally think Lee’s most enduring achievement came in the five years after civil war. No American devoted himself more completely or toiled more constantly to bring reconciliation to a shattered nation than did Robert Lee. After Appomattox Lee could have shown anger, bitter disappointment, deep-seated resentment, and the fires of civil war would have smoldered for years. Instead, in the face of failing health, Lee called for dedication to a new Union and a careful, positive, national healing. He set the course himself. Lee refused to discuss the war. He would not write his memoirs. He would not grant newspaper interviews. He would not attend veterans reunions or monument dedications.” This is not exactly right. In a May 12, 1866 interview published in the Lewiston Journal, Ulysses S. Grant said, ” ‘Some of the rebel generals are behaving nobly and doing all they can to induce the people to throw aside their old prejudices and to conform their course to the changed condition of things. Johnston and Dick Taylor particularly are exercising a good influence; but, he added, ‘Lee is behaving badly. He is conducting himself very differently from what I had reason, from what he said at the time of the surrender, to suppose he would. No man at the South is capable of exercising a tenth part of the influence for good that he is, but instead of using it, he is setting an example of forced acquiescence so grudging and pernicious in its effects as to be hardly realized.’ ” [PUSG Volume 16, page 258]
Chapters 24 and 25 of Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s book, Reading the Man, looks at Lee in the postwar/Reconstruction years. Soon after the war, Thomas Cook, a reporter with the New York Herald, secured an interview with Lee. “Lee took care to present himself as confident, robust, and anxious for reconciliation. He was quick to point out, however, that ‘should arbitrary, or vindictive, or revengeful policies be adopted, the end was not yet.’ He stated that the issue of states’ rights had been decided by military power, not philosophical justice, then trivialized the entire conflict as a difference of political opinion–hardly grounds for accusations of treason. He excused Jefferson Davis’s actions and proposed that Davis should be shown leniency because he had been a late and reluctant convert to secession. He explained his own actions in the same way. Lee further stated that the ‘best men of the South’ were pleased to see the end of slavery, and they had only continued the institution because of their Christian concern for black people. According to the reporter, Lee then showed his hand a bit more and said: ‘The negroes must be disposed of, and if their disposition can be marked out, the matter of freeing them is at once settled,’ suggesting that without such a ‘disposal’ the former Confederate states would work to undermine emancipation. Lee’s main message, however, was that the South had waged a ‘half earnest’ rebellion, that every Southerner had overcome his moment of passion, and that no one should ‘be judged harshly for contending for that which he honestly believed to be right.’ Above all, Lee argued that the former Confederate states be treated with moderation so that the sons who were the country’s ‘bone and sinew, its intelligence and enterprise’ might stay and work for its future.” [p. 431] As we can see, Lee was not above prevarication and outright fabrication if it served his purposes. Lee also was not afraid to issue demands to the victors. Lee’s words were met with scathing criticism in the loyal states. Lee would eventually accept an offer to be president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, where he took a hands-on approach, making a number of changes, such as using Sylvanus Thayer’s running of West Point as a model for his own direction of Washington College. While he made a number of improvements, it wasn’t easy on those at the college. “Lee was known for his ‘fierce and violent temper, prone to intense expression,’ and his administrative staff, as well as the students and faculty, learned to be wary, especially as the explosion often carried over to those not responsible for annoying the president. Some were concerned that nothing seemed to impress him; that he never apologized when clearly in error; that he had a way of testing the youths and their teachers to prove his superiority.” [p. 439]
“Lee’s progressive stance toward education, and his belief that Southerners should stay with their homes as they faced uncertain prospects, was an exceptional moment of foresight–justly admired and still resonant after fifteen decades. This long-range outlook, however, seems to have been relegated to one compartment of his mind. Lee’s political precepts, as well as his efforts to accept the tragic events of the war (and his part in them), would be far more myopic. … [H]e planted himself in his favorite aggressively defensive position, denying any positive outcome to the conflict and balking at social change. [In the letter that opened the chapter] His struggle is quickly visible in this draft, for Lee stumbles over nearly every word, trying to reformulate his thoughts in a gently defiant fashion. He is anxious to state his opinion on the war’s outcome, and do a little revisionist history on the reasons for his participation in it.” [p. 445] Although he denied in public that he read the newspapers, he assiduously followed the press in both the North and the South. “Most of his opinions sought to justify the preeminence of states’ rights, and he expressed an overt dislike–even fear–of majority politics and strong federal government.” [p. 450] Lee portrayed himself outwardly as accepting the results of the war, yet inside he seethed with anger. “In private he penned political treatises that throb with controlled rage, containing harsh words about ‘a national civilization which rots the life of a people to the core’; ‘the gaol [sic] to which our progress in civilization is guiding us’; or ‘unprincipled men who look for nothing but the retention of place & power in their hands.’ This and several other draft essays he wrote were never published, but their cross-hatched and unfinished pages are like the smoke from a roiling volcano.” [p. 450] The biggest political issue of Reconstruction was the status of African-Americans. “Lee had never been comfortable with the idea of intermingling with blacks, and the issue of race and power was one that seemed to jar his most fundamental assumptions. … Like others of his region, he persisted in truly believing that blacks were incapable of functioning on their own, that they had no inclination to work, and aspired to nothing beyond daily comfort and amusement. Such attitudes not only justified the adherence to slavery in the first place, they calmed the unspeakable worry that the freed blacks might succeed, thereby becoming a threat to status, economy, and pride. Lee’s worldview was still strongly hierarchical–even within his enlightened vision of widespread education, he could not see beyond offering only as much ‘knowledge & high mental culture as the limited means of the humble can command.’ From the end of the war he took care to distance himself from the ex-slaves as much as possible, maintaining his control by aloofness. He tried to employ white rather than black servants in his household, though in the end the family acquiesced to hiring three or four ‘tolerable … respectable, but not energetic’ freedmen. As before the war, his expectations fulfilled long-honed stereotypes. He told Congress he thought the ex-slaves less able than whites to acquire knowledge and inclined only to work sporadically on ‘very short jobs … they like their ease and comfort, and I think, look more to their present than to their future condition.’ He advised his planter friends to shun black labor, for he felt the freedmen would work against their former owners and destroy property values. ‘I have always observed that wherever you find the negro, everything is going down around him,’ he told one cousin, ‘and wherever you find the white man, you see everything around him improving.’ Although he did not always state it so starkly, he continued to think, as he had told the Herald, that the blacks had best be ‘disposed of’ and endorsed the idea of importing European workers to replace them. Lee particularly hoped that English immigration could be increased so that the South would benefit from ‘good citizens whose interests & feelings would be in unison with our own.’ … Lee’s vision did not include granting African-Americans the same option of productive citizenship that he wished to offer to immigrants. He explained to the Joint Committee on Reconstruction that ‘at this time,t hey cannot vote intelligently’ and that he opposed black enfranchisement on the grounds that it would ‘excite unfriendly feelings between the two races.’ He was also concerned about the educational opportunities being provided to the blacks by the Freedmen’s Bureau and private northern charities, preferring they be taught by white Southerners, who were ‘acquainted with their characters and wants.’ Most of all he feared that blacks might procure enough political leverage to offset white control.” [pp. 452-453]
In her book, Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War, Professor Elizabeth Varon wrote, “Lee did not wish for the restoration of slavery, but he did hope to turn back the clock to an imagined era of racial order and deference, in which those whites in power recognized the incapacity of blacks for citizenship — a time before, as he saw it, abolitionism had brought the pall of racial malaise to the South and had imbued blacks with false hopes.” [p. 202] Later, she wrote, “Lee, who, along with two dozen former Confederate generals and politicians, had recently endorsed a treatise, the ‘White Sulphur Manifesto,’ which condemned the military bill and called anew for ‘restoration,’ considered Grant’s election a tragedy.” [p. 246] Professor Varon wrote, “For Lee the peace was an opportunity for the country to restore the equilibrium between the North and South, and between the federal government and the states; to restore the best men of the South to positions of political leadership; and to restore the virtues of the founding era. ‘As long as virtue was dominant in the Republic, so long was the happiness of the people secure,’ he wrote nostalgically to a fellow Confederate veteran in the fall of 1865. As Lee encountered Northern hostility and resistance to this interpretation of the war’s meaning, he dug in his heels and became more entrenched ideologically. No longer was he willing, after the war as he had been on the eve of secession, to decry Southern extremism as well as Northern. Lee had come to firmly believe that ‘THE ONLY DIFFICULTY IN THE WAY OF AN AMICABLE ADJUSTMENT WAS WITH THE REPUBLICAN PARTY,’ as he stridently put it to Sir John Dahlberg Acton, a pro-Confederate British politician and historian, in December 1866. Lee symbolized a South committed to peace, but unbowed and unrepentant, and determined to protect itself against Northern interference.” [p. 256] In his book, Robert E. Lee: A Biography, Emory Thomas wrote of the White Sulphur Paper, “The White Sulphur paper affirmed: ‘It is true that the people of the South in common with a large majority of the people of the North and West, are, for obvious reasons, inflexibly opposed to any system of laws which would place the political power of the country in the hands of the negro race.’ Those ‘obvious reasons’ included the conviction that ‘at present, the negroes have neither the intelligence nor the other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power.’ Having consigned African Americans to some subcitizen class, the paper said little else.” [p. 390] So Professor Robertson is going a bit overboard regarding Lee’s reconciliation feelings; however, that doesn’t mean he’s completely off base. Lee was indeed interested in reconciliation, but the claim that no one worked harder is clearly not true. Grant worked harder, for one.
Professor Robertson states, “Today, Lee would be appalled to see the Confederate flag flying in the public.” I agree completely. I think this is 100% accurate. He says, “Lee would protest strongly against any monument to his memory, which in my thinking is a major reason he deserves them.” While I agree Lee would protest against a monument to his memory, I disagree with Professor Robertson’s thinking here. How do we honor someone by going directly against what he would want and by doing something he would protest against?
After a discussion of various Lee statues, Professor Robertson said, “The most famous equestrian monument was dedicated in 1890 in Richmond. Never was that memorial intended as a Jim Crow symbol of defiance, as myopic modern-day critics charge. One does not rush home from a war and start building memorials to yourself. Wars are traumatic events. It takes time to get over them and put life back into perspective. Wounds need to be healed. Money for the Lee memorial came from Ladies’ Associations and donations from veterans who had little money in the Reconstruction period. Controversy over the Lee monument existed even from the beginning. Some said the statue was too far from downtown Richmond. Others resented the fact that a French sculptor, not an American sculptor, was selected to do the Lee image. And good old ex-Confederate general Jubal Early complained bitterly because the stone for the monument came from the Yankee state of Maine, which he did not like. But of that bronze and stone memorial the Richmond Times-Dispatch declared in July 2015, ‘The Lee statue depicts one of America’s greatest generals. The piece captures his military genius and personal character. The sculpture does not glorify an unworthy cause. It represents tragedy in the classical sense. And the base of the statue says simply ‘Lee’ and nothing more needs to be added.’ Unfortunately, something else does need to be added.” I agree with most of this, but Dr. Bud here ignores the protests against the monument from the African American community at the time it was being erected and dedicated. “The Richmond Planet was disturbed by the large and open embrace of the Confederacy, 25 years after the guns of Appomattox had fallen silent. The paper worried about the passing down of a Confederate legacy of ‘treason and blood.’ The Planet was shocked at the lack of United States flags at the event and saw the erection of the Lee monument as a means (despite what General Lee himself had warned against) of reopening the wounds of war.” Here’s another example: “Richmond’s city council had several black members and they refused to vote funds for either the 1887 cornerstone ceremony or to support a city appropriation for the 1890 dedication of the monument. One of the black council members, John Mitchell, the editor of the Richmond Planet, observed: ‘The men who talk most about the valor of Lee and the blood the brave Confederate dead are those who never smelt powder or engaged in battle. Most of them were at a table, either on top or under it when then war was going on.’ ‘The capital of the late Confederacy has been decorated with emblems of the ‘Lost Cause,’ he editorialized, and the placement of the Lee statue handed down a ‘legacy of treason and blood’ to future generations. In another editorial Mitchell noted, ‘He [the African American] put up the Lee Monument, and should the time come, will be there to take it down.’ ” Here’s more information on the African American reaction: “Reading the coverage from the Richmond Planet, Richmond’s prominent black newspaper, gives a very different perspective of the events surrounding the reveal of the Lee Monument. On May 7, 1890, when the pieces of the statue arrived in Richmond, a procession followed the crates to the site of the monument. The Planet noted ‘The boxes were decorated with bunting and Confederate Flags. On every hand could be seen the ‘Stars and Bars.’ Nowhere in all this procession was there a United States flag. The emblem of the union had been left behind…a glorification of the lost cause was everywhere manifest.’ [Source: Richmond Planet May 10 1890, ed. John Mitchell Jr, p. 1] Editor John Mitchell, Jr. allotted just under half of a column of the front page of May 31, 1890’s issue to the statue. The article described the impressive size of the crowds and the grandeur of the parade while adding that the Confederate flags they displayed and carried were ’emblems of the lost cause’ and ‘were carried with an enthusiasm that astounded many.’ It was clear to Mitchell, from the number of veterans who came back to Richmond, once more joining together in the rebel yell, that ‘they still clung to theories which were presumed to be buried for all eternity.’ The brief article ends with the admonishment: ‘The south may revere the memory of its chieftains. It takes the wrong Steps in so doing, and proceeds to go too far in every similar celebration. It serves to retard its progress in the country and forges heavier chains with which to be bound.’ On the second page of the same issue, a piece titled ‘What it Means,’ discussed the display of Confederate symbols in Richmond. It warned that the result of revering Confederate generals like Lee, and considering them equal to Washington or other Founding Fathers would have far reaching effects on the future of America. ‘This glorification of States Rights Doctrine- the right of secession, and the honoring of men who represented that cause…will ultimately result in handing down to generations unborn a legacy of treason and blood…it serves to reopen the wound of war.’
This coverage continues, “In contrast to the white newspaper’s fawning reporting on the Confederacy, the Richmond Planet reprinted in full Kansas Senator John J. Ingalls’ speech delivered at Gettysburg on May 30, 1890, in honor of Union forces on Memorial Day. Ingalls’ speech was critical of the Confederacy, and of Lee specifically, calling him a traitor against his country and leader ‘of the most causeless rebellion that ever occurred since the devil rebelled against heaven.’ In the same June 7, 1890 issue that printed Ingalls’ speech, the Planet reprinted clips from other black newspapers in a column titled ‘Voice of the Colored Press.’ These editorials read like messages of solidarity from around the United States.
From the Indianapolis World: ‘The rebel flag floats proudly in the breeze at Richmond, Va…It is an insult to every union soldier…a severe penalty should be insisted upon any one who dared to unfurl that rag, emblematic of rebellion and crime.’ People’s Advocate from Washington, D.C. wrote, The senate [h]as passed a bill for the protection of fish in the Potomac River. No steps have yet been taken by congress for the protection of the lives of Colored men at the south.’ Springfield, Illinois’s State Capital praised Mitchell’s ‘habit of driving home many a stern truth…As it is, the Planet, itself, is an opposing force which is proving quite a thorn in the Virginia Democratic carcass.’ On the bottom of the second page of that issue, John Mitchell, Jr. wrote of black men: ‘He put up the Lee Monument, and should the time come, he’ll be there to take it down.’ “
More information on the monument’s erection and dedication here. More on the African American reaction here and here. It’s very obvious Professor Robertson doesn’t consider Lee monuments to be celebrating white supremacy, the defeat of Reconstruction, or the confederacy and its cause. As can be seen from the above, there was quite a celebration of the confederacy at the unveiling of the Richmond monument, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was the reason for the monument. Nevertheless, that’s the message many are receiving.
Professor Robertson spends time discussing the Episcopal Church. “In the years before the Civil War the Episcopal Church in the South was the least enthusiastic about the abolition of slavery. Why? The large slaveholders and the businessmen of wealth belonged to the Episcopal faith. One does not bite the hand that feeds you. Yet Episcopalians were not mere bystanders in that antebellum period. The 1860 Census for Virginia shows 112 Episcopal ministers living in the Old Dominion. Of those 112 clergy, 86 owned slaves. Three-fourths of the clergy were participants in a system frowned upon then and soundly condemned now. The Episcopal denomination was among the first to establish a Confederate church. Over 100 Episcopal clergy served as chaplains in the Confederate armies. And this is now the denomination that lashes out at Confederate generals and at Lee in particular.” He uses this to claim the Episcopal Church is being hypocritical; however, I don’t see it that way. I see it as the Episcopal Church recognizing they had been wrong in the past and trying to change the message it sends.
Dr. Robertson next talks about forgetting and “amnesia.” “The ignorant want to banish forever the symbols of past oppression and injustice. Amnesia is not a remedy for anything. Eliminating the past has never been a successful means of healing. The first thing eliminating the past does is create myopia and guarantee that you’ll make the same mistake twice. Winston Churchill put it succinctly but well when he said, ‘the farther backward you can look, the farther forward you will see.’ The snowflakes want to revise or remove everything that does not come up to what they call ‘our moral superiority.’ ” I see this as another straw man argument. Removing a monument doesn’t result in amnesia or eliminating the past. If a community wishes to no longer honor a person or a cause, they should be free to stop doing so. Other communities will honor those people or causes at some point, and the artifacts don’t need to be destroyed to be removed. They can be moved to a less prominent location or to private property.
Professor Robertson asks, “Are we supposed to forget the Civil War because it was the climax of the fight over slavery? If so, do we tear down all World War II memorials because the struggle witnessed the birth of the atomic bomb? In like vein, Americans used napalm in Vietnam. Do we send the bulldozers in Washington to destroy that sacred black wall containing the names of 57,000 American heroes? When we remove statues erected by previous generations we are destroying more than bronze and marble. We are tearing down our nation itself–all the things good and bad and inadequate that made it. Why should we want to hide from an imperfect past when we can learn from it and move toward a more perfect future?” This is a continuation of the same straw man argument. No one is talking about forgetting the Civil War. The argument is over confederate monuments and what they represent.
Professor Robertson next says, “A colleague of mine who lives here in the Valley commented not long ago, ‘Every monument to a Confederate Virginian is a war memorial to an American veteran. It has been the mark of manhood and civility and long-standing American tradition to leave politics out of the way when we honor our veterans. They fought the battles, we did not. They shared the blood. We did not. They reconciled with their enemies. We did not. They were tried on the battlefield and tried by a jury of their peers in the only court of opinion that mattered–their own generation, the generation that knew the issues, heard the speeches, offered their lives in defense of their country, and pulled the triggers. The battlefield determined the outcome and the veterans pardoned their enemies. End of subject.’ ” Again, I have to respectfully disagree. Confederate veterans are not American veterans. They were the enemies of America during those four years of war. They fought against and tried their best to kill American soldiers.
In his conclusion, Professor Robertson tells us, “Obliterating monuments will not change yesterday. Learning from them can change tomorrow.” I think that’s very profound, though again no one is talking about changing what happened in the past.
I think we should remember what Professor Robertson proposed should be done with monuments during his presentation. “Add plaques at monument sites to explain why individuals did what they did in the context of their time. With the approval of the state and a majority of the electorate, take down the belligerent statues, preserve the hallowed memorials, and energetically work together to produce more memorials. Such will increase more accurate and widespread knowledge of the past and better prepare us for the unknowns of the future.” I agree with this. We should add context to the monuments and if a monument celebrates white supremacy I would hope the local government would have it removed. I agree with adding whatever monuments the local folks want to add. In my view, the localities should have control over what happens to monuments. Adding the context would help correct the message received from the Lee monument, if indeed the message is not intended to be a celebration of the confederacy and its cause or the re-establishment of white supremacy.
After his talk and before the Q&A session, Professor Robertson expressed his approval of and agreement with what Christy Coleman and the Monument Avenue Commission did. He agreed completely with the recommendation to remove the Jefferson Davis monument because Davis was not a Virginian. He would like to see it replaced with a monument that celebrates the diversity of our society. I like that proposal. During the Q&A he mentioned he would like to see the Lee monument on Monument Avenue changed to put Lee in civilian clothes instead of a military uniform, because he regards Lee’s contributions after the war eclipsed what he did during the war.
Professor Robertson always delivers an outstanding presentation. I wish he hadn’t let his emotions get the better of him here, because I know he has a better grasp on some of the things he said that were just not correct. He said at the outset that for the first time in his 60-year career he was taking no pleasure in what he was going to say. That was readily apparent. His frustrations and sadness over the monument argument was clear. During the conference I had lunch with John Coski, the chief historian at the American Civil War Museum. Dr. Coski aptly summed up Professor Robertson’s presentation in two words: “traditional interpretation.” I think that’s absolutely right. His interpretation was a very traditional one, and modern scholarship has abandoned some parts of that interpretation. But there are some good gems in his presentation, especially in his prescription for what should be done with monuments. We have to keep in mind that all confederate monuments were not created equal. Many simply acknowledge the sacrifice of soldiers from the town in which the monument was erected. Others glorify a bad cause and should be considered for removal by the local community. Many others should be contextualized as they honor individual people without mentioning the cause for which they fought. I think Professor Robertson’s position is in agreement with that. I hope people consider his entire presentation in its context instead of taking one or two tidbits out of context and commenting on them, as a few of his critics have done.