GAR: Against the “Lost Cause” and in Favor of Holding Traitors Responsible

This is a a fascinating article mostly focusing on the GAR (The Grand Army of the Republic), a Civil War veterans’ organization that focused a great deal of energy on arguing and lobbying against the post-Civil War attempt by the South to change the narrative of the Civil War so as to include themselves in the memorials to it. About this attempt, the Department Commander for the Indiana GAR wrote in 1914: “While I have long since forgiven my ex-Confederate brother for the terrible mistake he made in trying to destroy this Union of ours…you should remember and never forget it, that there was a right and there was a wrong…a government that fails to recognize the difference between a patriot and a traitor, a defender and a destroyer, would and should pass from the earth.”

That is, we should never forget the fact that the Southerners were traitors who rebelled against the nation and who should be remembered for having done so. Such memory should never include any monuments or memorials to their treacherous rebellion which killed so many. They were fighting to defend an evil institution that did fundamental violence to the human condition. As Frederick Douglass argues persuasively, they did violence to the souls of both themselves as masters and of the slaves. Committing treason in order to defend this institution should never be memorialized. For this reason GAR was right in the late nineteenth century and after to contest all memorials to these traitors.

As we try to make sense of the “monument debate,” this seems to me the most sensible distinction. The entire nation, both in its present and in its past, is implicated in the injustice of slavery and its continuation with the second class citizenship of blacks. But all nations have injustices. This ought not preclude us from celebrating what was great about our history, even as we criticize what was not so great. Memorials to Jefferson and others celebrate them partially for establishing the nation that made possible the extirpation of slavery. They also celebrate them for their dedication to our nation itself. Neither of those standards can be used to justify Confederate memorials. They fought to preserve an institution that Jefferson, while he didn’t do enough to get rid of it, at least knew wasn’t worth fighting for. And they fought against their nation. Neither make them worthy of memorials, except to their destruction by the valiant armies of the North. As the article argues, the North won the Civil War. The peace that it makes with the South after its victory shouldn’t include a submission to the nobility of the cause that it destroyed. To overcome the sin of slavery, we should memorialize that which led to its destruction, not those who fought for its preservation.

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