Wednesday, June 20 , 2018, 10:42 pm | Fair 63º


Jamie Stiehm: Robert E. Lee and His Confederate Ilk Need to Be Gone with the Wind

It’s time to declare the Confederacy dead and gone with the wind.

The Virginia tragedy is the knell. It shook America with street scenes of violent white male supremacists. Young hooligans claimed the life of a young woman and injured other brave resisters. It was a terrible thing, made worse by President Donald Trump’s defiant defense of new Confederates.

But it’s over now: the noble, glorious “Lost Cause” and all that, starring Robert E. Lee as the honorable Southern gentleman general.

When a Southern city like Charlottesville, Va., considers taking down a statue of Lee, that’s a catalyst for trouble. His myth is always burnished by legions of defenders. The statue stands for racial hatred, pure and simple.

The Confederate battle flag is a racial taunt. The rebirth of Confederate symbols arose at the same time as Jim Crow and lynchings in the South, and then again during the civil rights movement.

Leadership on this front is flowing from mayors and mobilized citizens. Social change can’t be far behind. New Orleans and Baltimore are in the forefront.

Rivers of tears, talk and ink on Trump and the deadly race riot in Charlottesville, still spill over. The crisis is a defining moment for each of us.

For the longest time people like me thought the Civil War was history. We knew President Abraham Lincoln waged it to end slavery, and thought the right side won. We didn’t talk of it in Philadelphia, where I majored in history, as a living thing.

The defeated Confederate general had amazing history publicists. Let’s give no more ground to the owner of Virginia’s plum slave plantation, right by the river. Arlington, it’s called.

Lincoln seized Lee’s rolling thousand acres for the Union Army in 1861, when the Civil War broke out. Soldiers’ bodies were buried there, in the gardens. So the Union’s blood would be on Lee’s hands. Now it’s the national military cemetery.

Don’t let anyone tell you Lee opposed slavery in his heart. He loved his antebellum privilege, his perch atop the pyramid. An Army officer educated at West Point, he deserted his country and became a traitor or a war criminal. Take your pick.

Charlottesville is a perfect place to have a street revolution on race, because it’s unlikely that neo-Nazis would come to town. Old Thomas Jefferson designed the University of Virginia, watching it rise from his spyglass at home — his mountaintop mansion. The town is scenic and pleasant. They call him “Mr. Jefferson” on the university grounds.

Yet Southern charm can turn dark. Virginia is the leader of the South, so it befits that an army of hate stormed into that state.

It’s been 152 years since “The Surrender” in Virginia. Lee, gleaming in his dress uniform on horseback, rode in on the wrong side of history to meet scruffy Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

By all accounts, Grant gave Lee and the Southern states generous terms. Lee never served time as a prisoner, nor did Jefferson Davis, president of the vanquished Confederacy.

If you read Gone with the Wind, shockingly, Ashley Wilkes was in the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK terrorized blacks for decades after the Civil War. Jim Crow segregation also took hold.

Shamefully, Washington’s government workforce had Jim Crow, thanks to President Woodrow Wilson — a Virginian.

A New York editor, a son of the South, says we should not rest until we lay the Confederacy to rest.

Then let’s tell the truth about the Civil War. The storytelling South kept its monumental loss alive: what a shame about Gettysburg’s last act. Southern historians artfully equated the two sides. The Ken Burns documentary didn’t do much better.

Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg was Lee’s reckless, vainglorious stand. Then the Fourth of July, another story to tell on our side.

So the “Cause” never surrendered, culturally. White generations handed it down. As Melanie Wilkes says, she’d teach her son, Beau, to hate Yankees, and his children, and so on.

Lee has torn the nation apart again and done too much damage — dead or alive — up to the present moment. It’s high time to make the Confederacy and its marble statues surrender.

The contested weight of history haunts and hangs over us.

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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