Rewriting History—Street by Street
The teaser on the Internet said only one in 50 people could pass this Civil War test. Thus challenged, we passed easily with 50 of 61 answers right. That was only fair, for we began studying the Civil War before we started grade school, looking at fat history books our late grandfather had owned that featured beautiful lithographs of battle scenes, with neat columns of Confederates all dressed in smart gray uniforms, and only a few fellows lying around wounded, none dressed like ragged scarecrows, which many Confederates were, or with their heads blown off, as actually happened in the real fight.
Some of the test questions were easy; others, such as “How much did a Union army private make a month?” were very difficult. A number were just tricky and took some guessing. They were multiple choice, and one question was to name the cause of the war. “Slavery” was the only answer that made sense. That, however, was only a partially correct answer. More on that to follow.
Anyway, our score qualifies us to an opinion on the ongoing fight in Hollywood to rename three streets bearing the names of Confederate generals—Robert E. Lee, John Bell Hood and Nathan Bedford Forrest (shown above in his riding outfit). Members of the black community tend to resent all three and don’t think they deserve the petty honor of a street name. It shows that 152 years next month after the Civil War ended, many people don’t understand it. It’s why the Confederate battle flag is regarded in some quarters as the equivalent of the Nazi swastika.
For starters, the Civil War had two causes. Slavery was obviously the economic cause. But the political cause, which applied to the great majority of southern soldiers, was states’ rights. So people on both sides of that old argument are right.
We forget over the years that until the Civil War there had been an ongoing debate over state government versus federal control. The states were not a true union. From the birth of the country, they were more a confederation of states with a common interest (independence from foreign powers and economic interdependence), but there were also many divisions. For instance, there were minor wars fought over boundaries.
Because so many religious groups settled in early communities, states took on sectarian complexions. Many, if not most people, considered their first loyalty to their home state, not to Washington, D.C. Laws were not uniform. At the time of the Revolutionary War, slavery was legal in the north, if not very common. Over the next three decades, the northern states one by one banned the practice. New Jersey did not abolish slavery until 1804. Slavery was much more part of the southern agrarian economy, and there was constant tension between the sections. The South simply did not think the North had a right to tell it what to do. The war settled that question. Historian Shelby Foote put it succinctly: He said before the Civil War it was “the United States are” but after, the expression became “the United States is.”
That the South believed that the states were independent was demonstrated throughout the war, as governors fought with Confederate president Jefferson Davis. They felt Davis was repeating what they had rebelled against. The governor of Georgia refused to let some of its militia fight, until Georgia itself was threatened. North Carolina hoarded uniforms and supplies for its own troops. Davis felt the lack of union and support caused the Southern defeat.
Ironically, we can appreciate that attitude right now, on a local scale. North and Central Florida interests dominate Florida, despite the fact that South Florida has the largest population and pays most of the taxes. Tallahassee is interfering with our lives on several fronts. Right now there is legislation proposed, which takes control of decisions affecting our cities away from county and city governments, giving it instead to the state. Local media and governments are uniformly upset over this possibility, which includes the potential to take vital zoning decisions away from local government. We face potential water problems because Tallahassee is interfering with efforts to acquire land for water storage south of Lake Okeechobee. There is even a threat to local rail transportation, including the fast train from Miami to Orlando, and Tri-Rail’s promising future, because the state can spike funding efforts, and some legislators are trying to do just that. Efforts to deal with the epidemic of gun violence face similar obstacles from Florida’s redneck wing.
It won’t come to civil war, but you get the point. Why should people hundreds of miles removed from our problems have a say about efforts to cure them? On an infinitely larger scale, that was the attitude of the southern states in 1861. When war came, it was a neighborhood battle, and with few exceptions, men fought for their neighborhoods.
Which brings us to the generals. Robert E. Lee is considered by any serious historian to be an admirable American. He, and many in Virginia were reluctant rebels. Many opposed secession. Lee, in particular, had much to lose and did. His home, now part of Arlington National Cemetery, had a spectacular view looking down across the Potomac River toward the Capitol. He had plans to free his slaves. But he felt his first loyalty was to Virginia, which he served with honor and brilliance. His willingness to sign the oath of loyalty to the Union after his defeat helped heal the wounds of that epic conflict. Many other southern leaders followed his lead. He not only deserves a street in his name, but a college—and he has a distinguished one—Washington and Lee.
Lee was typical of almost all-important military figures. They stayed with their native states. A notable exception was Lee’s fellow Virginian, Gen. George Thomas, “the rock of Chickamauga.” He despised slavery and fought with the North and was considered a traitor by his own family. Gen. John Pemberton, the southern commander at the Siege of Vicksburg, was a Philadelphian who joined the southern cause because his wife was from Virginia, and he had served mostly in the south. He was never really trusted by many Confederates because of his Yankee background, and after the war when he moved back to Philadelphia, he was understandably unpopular, so much so that prominent citizens objected to his burial in a cemetery there.
John Bell Hood was a brave, bold but unfortunate general. He lost the battle of Atlanta. He made some foolishly aggressive moves with an outnumbered army, but he also had bad luck. On two occasions he almost became a hero but had near misses. He lost the use of an arm at Gettysburg, and had a leg amputated almost to the hip after being wounded at Chickamauga a year later. After the war, he lost his insurance business in New Orleans when a yellow fever epidemic hit. He and his wife also lost their lives in the process. Does the poor bloke really deserve another loss in a place that did not exist during his lifetime?
Nathan Bedford Forrest is the only one of the three generals who is truly controversial. A superb cavalry leader, he rose from private to general during the war, and only afterward was his military contribution fully appreciated. Shelby Foote wrote that the war produced two geniuses—Forrest and Abraham Lincoln.
The knock on him is that before the war he had been a slave trader (among other businesses), and his men were associated with one of the worst massacres of the war. Moreover, after the war, he was a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. What is often forgotten, however, is that he also helped shut down the Klan just a few years later when what was started as a political organization to combat excesses of the Reconstruction era became a violent movement. The KKK was to be reborn several times after his death, but that was not his fault. Indeed, some southerners criticized him after he made an 1875 speech to a black audience in which he spoke with affection toward blacks and urged harmony between the races. In short, he wasn’t as bad as he looks, especially to modern black leaders.
It all goes back to a misunderstanding of history. Our advice to Hollywood is to require all citizens who voice an opinion on street changes to take the Internet Civil War test. Anybody who scores 60 percent or better is entitled to an opinion. Wait, make that 50 percent. It's not an easy test, and everybody doesn't have the advantage of our grandfather's books.