The Confederate mystique: White America's toxic romance with a criminal regime

Let Ulysses S. Grant explain: The Confederacy was "the worst cause ever," and "a stupendous crime of treason"

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 19, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)

Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable in "Gone with the Wind" (Loew's Inc.)
Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable in "Gone with the Wind" (Loew's Inc.)

It’s a venerable New York joke, a classic example of self-canceling urban humor: Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb? I would answer that the guy in that impressive crypt in upper Manhattan, in a neighborhood once genteel and then disreputable and now predictably being gentrified, was one of the greatest 19th-century Americans, and certainly one of the most unfairly maligned.

To a surprising degree, Ulysses S. Grant also saw all this coming. After the week we have had in America, you know what I mean by “all this.” When it comes to the legacy of the Confederacy — the bizarre, doomed pseudo-republic that continues to hold a mystical allure for way too many white Americans, 150-plus years after its destruction — Grant’s moral vision was clear enough. He saw the slaveholding aristocracy that drove the South into secession as an indefensible criminal regime, rooted in treason and an immoral economy where human beings were “bought and sold like cattle.”

Grant understood, earlier and more clearly than Abraham Lincoln did, that slavery was the fundamental cause of the Civil War, and also that the war had created a historic opportunity to extend American citizenship to people of all races for the first time. He told Otto von Bismarck later that he had perceived the slave-owning South as “an enemy with whom we could not make a peace. We had to destroy him. No convention, no treaty was possible. Only destruction.”

From the historical vantage point of 2017, when the virus of Confederate nostalgia has escaped containment below the Mason-Dixon line and can be found in every corner of the continent inhabited by white people with lawnmowers and inadequate educations, one can only wish Grant had done a more thorough job. He thought so too, in retrospect: He suggested in the late 1870s that the wisest course after the Confederate surrender would have been military occupation of the Southern states for at least 10 years while a new social order of racial equality could be established. A temporary suspension of white Southerners’ political rights, Grant said, would have been “a mild penalty for the stupendous crime of treason.”

Take another look at that phrase. That is how the great military hero of the Civil War and the 18th president of the United States — who waged and won a bloody war to save the Union and then tried to redeem it through Reconstruction — saw that flag that now adorns so many front porches, so many dorm rooms, so many rear windows of Silverado pickups. It was a symbol of “the stupendous crime of treason.”

Our 45th president, a person with exactly zero Southern ancestry (and roughly the same comprehension of history), has lamented the removal of monuments to that crime by saying, or at least tweeting, that it was “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart” and lamenting “the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks.”

Here is the reply from @GrantsTomb: “Delete your account.”

It’s difficult to imagine what Grant, who knew something about “our great country being ripped apart,” could possibly make of President Donald Trump, or of the baffling fact that they nominally represent the same political party. Or rather, it isn’t that difficult, but it results in the kinds of sentiments about a political leader you are not supposed to express in public.

Grant’s unrelenting moral clarity, I would argue, is the reason for his strange reversal of fortune in the afterlife. One of the most famous of all Americans during his lifetime and for decades after that, today he is largely an anachronistic figure confined to the history books, where he has often been depicted as a vulgar, corrupt boozehound. As we have recently been reminded, Robert E. Lee, the dashing Virginia gentleman Grant crushed and defeated, is still venerated as a hero in certain quarters of our society, and his likenesses can be found in literally hundreds of American cities and towns.

Grant is a buzzkill, drinking the acrid rye whiskey of reality out of a Mason jar and reminding us that even necessary wars are ugly and horrible. Lee is a fantasy, offering us a mint julep on the verandah of the imaginary past and assuring us, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. (I’m confident his Latin was a lot better.)

America, at least in the sense of something that will soon be made “great again,” is a collective fantasy constructed around Henry Ford’s principle that history is bunk and we can make our own reality however we like. So it’s no huge surprise that many of us want to close our eyes and guzzle that julep. If the fantasy starts to smell a little rancid around the edges or too many unpleasant questions come to mind, we can always drink another. It’s like “The Matrix,” played in reverse.

White America’s strange romance with the supposedly tragic and supposedly noble “lost cause” of the Confederacy is so tangled and so contradictory that it can likely never be unsnarled. Sometimes the Rebel battle flag and the bronze generals on horseback stand for badass rebellion and hell-raisin’. Sometimes they stand for a genteel and deliberately vague conception of “heritage and history,” all too perfectly captured in the noxious and seductive “Gone With the Wind,” a film that overwrote actual history for several generations of white Americans. Sometimes they stand for overt and vicious racism.

Sometimes no one can be sure which it is. A couple of years ago, after the church shootings in Charleston, an older white woman in my extended family who was born and raised in the rural South during the Jim Crow era told me she had never realized that black people found the Confederate flag hurtful and offensive. I can assure you she was telling the truth as she understood it. A summer or two before that, I had encountered a beach towel for sale in a Delaware resort town: The Rebel flag, emblazoned with a giant marijuana leaf at its center. I’m not even sure that’s a mixed signal so much as an eloquent statement of American bewilderment: We’re white, we’re stoned and we ain’t apologizing for shit. We’re pissed off about something, but we’re not quite sure what it is and have no idea who to blame.

There is pathos and tragedy in white America’s obsession with the Confederacy, no doubt, but not because the wannabe slave republic was defeated. Indeed, one can argue that it was not defeated, but only crawled underground until it was ready to emerge from its pupal stage, stronger than ever. What’s tragic is that white American society has been so poisoned by its addiction to a perverse and suicidal myth. As if by dark magic, a disgraceful episode that very nearly doomed the entire American project to failure — and was driven by the greed and cruelty of a tiny elite caste — is now widely understood as a profound and mystical expression of the American spirit. Or, more bluntly, as a sacred covenant of whiteness.

By refusing to face the true legacy of slavery and its aftermath, and embracing an entire universe of “alternative facts” about the Civil War, the Confederacy and race relations, a large portion of white America has in effect enslaved itself to a false sense of history and a false racial consciousness. We can see the resulting confusion and dysfunction all around us: In the “diseases of despair” and self-defeating politics of the now-infamous white working class. In the appalling street theater of Charlottesville, a new low in our nation’s 21st-century decline. In the White House, whose current occupant, a person not much given to aesthetic contemplation, felt it necessary to wax rhapsodic on the subject of mediocre martial statuary.

Grant’s famous meeting with Lee in April 1865 at Appomattox Court House (today about an hour’s drive southeast of Charlottesville) is often recounted by propagandists of the Confederate “lost cause” in ways that none too subtly demean the Northern general at Lee’s expense. Grant was the son of an Ohio frontiersman; Lee was a Virginia aristocrat and master equestrian. Lee showed up in an immaculate dress uniform while Grant, by his own account, wore a rough field coat and forgot to bring his ceremonial sword. (Then again, he wasn’t the one who had to surrender it.)

It has often been observed that Grant looked up to Lee as a senior officer and had served under him in the Mexican-American War. (A conflict, by the way, that Grant viewed as an unjust imperial aggression. As far as I know, Lee held no such views.) In old-school historical accounts, the implication often seemed to be that Grant had won the war through superior numbers, better supplies and ruthless tactics, but really hadn’t deserved to; the honor was more on the losing side. It’s fair to say Grant did not see it that way. It’s true that he praised Lee for his “dignity” and his “manly” stoicism, and wrote that he himself could take no joy in the moment of Lee’s defeat. But those sentiments should not be taken out of context:

I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.

There’s a great truth there, and a great mystery. History is written by the victors, or so the truism holds. In this case, for reasons our society must confront if it is to survive, American history was rewritten later by the so-called losers. Lee the traitor was rebranded as the ultimate patriot, while the actual patriotic hero of that age — a man whose moral clarity and vision of racial justice were a full century ahead of his time — was shunted to the historical margins. One of the worst causes for which a people ever fought became sanctified as the embodiment of American virtues.

I said earlier that Grant saw all this coming, and of course that’s not literally true. He did foresee, however, that the failure of Reconstruction — in granting full citizenship to the former slaves but then allowing the Southern states to disenfranchise them — would give the resentful former slave-owners disproportionate power in the Electoral College. This was a grave mistake whose consequences would be dire for our democracy, he wrote: “It looks like a political triumph for the south, but it is not. The southern people have nothing to dread more than the political triumph of the men who led them into secession. That triumph was fatal to them in 1860. It would be no less now.” Historical ironies can play out far more slowly than anyone expects, but the culmination of that process is upon us now.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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