Why I Don’t Celebrate Lee-Jackson Day

A number of readers took issue with last week’s post in which I reduced the celebration of Lee-Jackson Day, here in Virginia, to free parking.  I guess I could have provided some thoughtful analysis about the almost complete lack of interest in this particular day as a result of changing demographics as well as other factors.

So, since I didn’t make my own personal view sufficiently clear, let me do so now.  The reason I don’t celebrate Lee-Jackson Day is because I don’t celebrate the cause for which Lee and Jackson are remembered.  They are remembered for their service in an army that functioned as the military extension of a government that was committed to perpetuating slavery and white supremacy.  I find it simply impossible to distinguish between the individuals in question, including their many virtues, and the cause for which they attached themselves to.  Because I abhor slavery I am glad that the Confederate government, along with Lee and Jackson, failed and that our national sin of slavery was abolished.

I don’t think I’ve stated anything controversial here.  I do hope, however, that it clarifies things.

53 responses... add one

I heartily agree with your sentiment, but you do know that it is an amazingly controversial issue in Virginia even in 2010.

Nice to hear from you, Ted. I agree, but keep in mind that ground zero is your home town of Lexington. Seems to me that most Virginians are just not that interested in Lee-Jackson Day. I am encouraged by the ongoing series of conversations in Richmond about how the city ought to remember its past and specifically the Civil War. It's a much healthier environment.

I would add that any celebration of the Confederacy is a celebration of failure. The Confederacy was a failure on a number of levels – military, economic, social, moral, etc.
For those reasons and the ones you gave, I join you in not celebrating Lee-Jackson Day.

It's amazing to me that being a history teacher or former teacher, that you really believe that the cause of the Civil War can be reduced to one issue. It takes many things coming together to cause men to meet on battle fields and kill one another. To judge Lee and Jackson the way you have ignores the facts that history has taught us about these men. Their choice to fight for the Confederacy cannot be reduced to a simple answer like preserving slavery. You cannot judge the men of the 19th cen. with a 21st cen. mindset. To understand a time period other than ours we must put ourselves in that time. But I guess it's much easier to summarize a war's cause to one word (Slavery) than take the time and research all the things that cause war. As teachers its our jobs to make students think rather than take a war and reduce it to a fuzzy feel good soundbite of how all southerns were fighting for slavery and the north for freedom. I feel for the students you have cheated out of a complete view of history. (At least on this subject.) I chose to celebrate these men for making hard choices and willing to die not for slavery or “white supremacy” but for the right of states to govern themselves. To this day the Federal government uses moral issues as a smoke screen to cover up their real agendas to gain more power over the people. I also strive to teach my students history in depth rather than reducing historical events to Mickey Mouse explanations filled with emotional platitudes.

First, let me say that I completely agree with you that we must resist the urge to judge historical figures by our own standards. It's a point that I do my best to remain aware of when I am researching and when I am in the classroom.

However, we need to maintain a distinction between our roles as historians and the way we choose to identify with the past on a moral level as both individuals and as communities. When we celebrate we are applying our values to the past and picking out those things that we believe are worth praise.

In addition, I never said that the Civil War can be reduced to one another. Slavery was clearly a key factor behind secession and the course of the war itself. Lee and Jackson operated in an army that, if successful, would have led to the continuation of slavery. I know that because that is what the leaders of the Confederate government expressed through their speeches and in their own Constitution. Again, we would not remember these two men, but for their role as military leaders who worked to bring the independence of the Confederacy about. I simply choose not to celebrate that.

Finally, let me reiterate that I am not suggesting that we judge Lee and Jackson by our 21st century standards other than when we engage in identifying with the past in a celebratory manner. Thanks for the comment.

I've found that one can find more than enough critical material bysticking to their contemporaries.

The Southern States were not allowed to govern themselves after the Northern victory. Under reconstruction, the southern states were subjugated under the federal government. After the Civil War, the federal government had power over the states. This is the saddest legacy of that war. Government always finds ways to gain more power over the people. Lincoln used the moral issue of slavery to cover the real purpose of the Federal government's invasion of the South. To turn the constitution upside down. The power now flows from the Federal down to the states. Today similiar tactics are used to give the federal government more power over the people. This is not p.c. or popular to point out but it's the facts that matter. I tell my students that it was good that slavery was abolished but there was a price for that. The doors were opened for the federal government to become too big and out of control. We are dealing with that today.

I am going to exercise my editorial control here. Let's keep the discussion focused on the subject at hand.

That said, it sounds to me like you are the one who is imposing an agenda on his students: “I tell my students that it was good that slavery was abolished but there was a price for that. The doors were opened for the federal government to become too big and out of control. We are dealing with that today.” And you have the nerve of accusing me of judging the past through a modern lens. Now that's funny.

I'm not judging through a modern lens but pointing our what is obvious and true. Actually my point is balanced showing a good outcome of the war and a negative. It also shows relevance to what is happening today. We are often told to show relevance and that's what I do in the classroom. As for Reconstruction, any educated person knows how carpetbaggers and scalawags to advantage of blacks to help them grab more power in the South.

Perhaps you should read Eric Foner's book, Reconstruction instead of relying on a view that was popular at the height of Jim Crow. I would love to know what textbook you are using in your classroom. I don't know of any scholarly study of the period that reduces the period to carpetbaggers and scalawags.

Please do not send any more comments about Reconstruction. This has nothing to do with my post.

For some strange reason I couldn't comment on your last reply you made about reconstruction. Threatening to delete a comment on a relevant subject dealing with the Civil War is obsurd. It has nothing to do with your post? Often discussions lead to topics of related interest. If you can't handle open discussion maybe you shouldn't post anything or even have this site discussing Civil War topics. Are could it be you only want people who agree with your view of that war?

I think if you browse other posts you will see that I do not approve or delete comments simply because they agree or disagree. However, I run this site and choose to work to keep the discussion focused. You are welcome to contribute to that topic or go elsewhere.

Reconstruction has nothing to do with this particular post. I hope I've made myself clear.

It stands to reason, Marc, if they lost their right to govern themselves then that was the threat they were fighting against in the first place. So I suppose you agree the Federal government should rule the states. Maybe you need to read the Constitution. I

RE: “I chose to celebrate these men for making hard choices and willing to die not for slavery or “white supremacy” but for the right of states to govern themselves.”

I've always been… disturbed by this kind of comment. I've seen a lot of them in regard to the CW. On this blog, I think, the blogger made note of a discussion of the CW where a printed document noted “it doesn't matter what the two sides believed, what mainly matters is that they fought for what they believed in.”

Such comments give the impression that all fights for a cause (such as the states' rights to governance) are morally equivalent, that is, the willingness to die for a cause is universally good.

I would say, the willingness to die for a cause is as pure and noble as the cause itself. So, for example, if the cause of the right to governance includes giving the government the right to sanction subhuman bondage, then the cause is necessarily corrupt. And the willingness to die for the cause must be seen exactly as the willingness to die for a corrupt cause.

Now… I understand that when people are caught up in certain events, they sometimes can't appreciate the evil in the things they do. But as people of the present, we have the ability to use hindsight, and plus, we have our own contemporary morals and values. IF WE WANT OUR CITIZENS TO LEARN FROM PAST MISTAKES, we MUST make it clear that some things are just wrong, even if the people who did those things were noble, even if some portions of the causes that those people stood for were noble, even if the people of the era didn't realize that they were doing ignoble and evil things.

Now, surely… there were a lot of “bad things” that were done by both sides, and they should be held accountable. But the scope, influence, and impact of slavery is so huge, it rightly becomes a primary focus of attention.

A good discussion of this point is in Chapter 5 of James Loewen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me.”
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RE: “You cannot judge the men of the 19th cen. with a 21st cen. mindset.” Is this meant to say that we can’t really “judge” the Confederacy for their support of slavery?

As a matter of fact, at the time of the CW, slavery was outlawed throughout practically all of the West, and of course, in the American North. The Southerners of the era new full well of the arguments that slavery was wrong, and that they were an outlier in terms of its use in the “civilized” world.

We don’t have to hold them accountable by today’s standards, we can do so based on the the standards of their own times as well.

You have made yourself quite clear, Kevin. I would add a couple of more reasons not to celebrate Lee-Jackson Day: the rather cynical manipulation of the day's celebration in contradistinction to the celebration of Dr. King's birthday; and the potential to continue to perpetuate for young African American men and women coming of age in the South, the “morally monstrous destruction of human possibility”, to borrow a phrase from Maulana Karenga.

To Reed Walters: yes, “it takes many things coming together to cause men to meet on battle fields and kill one another.” And, yes, historians recognize that soldiers fought in the Civil War for a variety of reasons that had nothing to do with slavery. Many politicians also discounted slavery as the reason for the war. But when historians analyze actual CAUSES of that war, rather than the reasons stated for fighting, I've never read one who argued that the nation would have gone to war for ANY of those reasons were it not for the presence of slavery and its continued expansion into the western territories. We need to separate why people are willing to fight (i.e. their perceptions and fears) from what actually causes a particular war.

I think it might clarify the causes of the war to look at the reason the north said they were fighting. Very early Lincoln himself said that the war was about keeping the union together. When asked why not let the southern states go in peace he replied “What would become of my revenues?” I say if slavery didn't exist there would have still been a war, eventually. The two sections were different in many ways (culture, religious, economics) and the northern politicans were jealous of the south's power and influence around the world. To believe that white males in the north were really concerned about slaves, is to be a little naive. Most if not all wars are fought for power and wealth. The south wanted to maintain their power and influence in the world as well and were tired of paying taxes to a federal government that spent most of the money in the north on their infrastructure. The North knew what would happen to those taxes and its power if it let the south go in peace. The Confederacy would continue trade with England and other European countries and grow stronger. This is the simple truth.

Why don't you read Charles Dew's book, Apostles of Disunion http://www.amazon.com/Apostles-Disunion-Souther

Southerners were quite vocal about why they seceded (especially those in the Deep South). All you have to do is read their speeches and read their Constitution which defines their goals/purpose as a nation. I am certainly not going to rehash decades of recent scholarship on this subject with you.

Again, I ask of all of us that we stay on topic. Comments that veer from the post topic will be deleted. Thanks

To the extent that most northern politicians and soldiers were not fighting to abolish slavery, I agree with your statement that “To believe that white males in the north were really concerned about slaves, is to be a little naive. Most if not all wars are fought for power and wealth.” One did not have to care about the slaves, however, or be an abolitionist, to oppose the expansion of slavery, which was certainly about power and wealth. It was the centerpiece of diverging systems of power and wealth, and can't be removed from the equation that led to war.

It seems to me that the problem becomes this issue of who was more “moral,” the North or the South. When we lay the cause for war on the heads of the soldiers, we get nowhere. As for the leaders, North and South, there was plenty of greed and lust for power to go around. But, I think we can agree, slavery was indeed a moral issue, and it was recognized as such by many people–even among more white Southerners than might be imagined.

Southern leaders, however, were most assuredly protecting their wealth and power by defending slavery. The North a land of abolitionists? Hardly; and no one has suggested any differently. But this was one battle over power and wealth that resulted in a moral victory that was long sought by an active minority.

I think part of the problem here is the assumption that I am drawing a sharp moral distinction between North and South in my decision not to celebrate Lee – Jackson Day. I am simply drawing our attention to the fact that military success for Lee and Jackson would have meant continued bondage for millions. That's a cause that I simply cannot acknowledge in a celebratory mode as opposed to my responsibilities as a historian. The suggestion that slavery was not the central issue driving disunion is just another attempt to drive a wedge between the Confederacy and slavery. Thanks for chiming in, Vikki.

“Success for Lee and Jackson would have meant continued bondage for millions.” We will never know that for sure. There is some doubt however to this assumption. Many southerns agreed that slavery would have to end one day and were for gradual freedom of slaves. Lee eventually freed his slaves before the war ended. (It's amazing to me that Grant keep the slaves he had.) Gradual freedom would probably have been better when we analyze the problems of freeing people with no education and no way to make a living. They were cared for in every way by their masters (food, clothing, shelter) and then just turned out. It's ironic to me that many of their masters gave land for them to live on while the federal government offered little help.

You need to get your facts straight. Lee carried out the terms of Custis's will on December 29, 1862. On August 28, 1848, Grant married Julia Dent from St. Louis, whose family held slaves. Grant himself owned a slave named William Jones, acquired from his father-in-law. At a time when he could have desperately used the money from the sale of Jones, Grant signed a document that gave him his freedom. If you expect readers on this forum to take you seriously than you need to demonstrate some basic competence with the historical record. I thought you said you were a teacher. I have little patience for these mistakes.

If they continue you will be banned from commenting on this site.

Your comment makes sense and I agree in part. When discussing the morality of the war I think we need to ask about the morality of a government sending troops against its own people. Lincoln sent Americans to kill Americans. The South never wanted a war. Also it takes years for the repercussions of any war to be realized. We now see that this war allowed the Federal government to have more power over the states. Since then the states have lost many of its rights to govern itself therefore taking away many rights from the people. This is certainly not moral.

Millions of Americans believed in 1861 that Lincoln was morally justified in sending soldiers to “put down the rebellion.”

You said: “The South never wanted a war.” It would be more accurate to say that few Americans, regardless of where they lived, wanted to engage in bloody war for four years.

You said: “We now see that this war allowed the Federal government to have more power over the states.” The war clearly expanded the role of the Federal government, but it is important to keep in mind that the Confederate government was much more intrusive compared with the United States: conscription, taxes, suspension of habeus corpus, and the confiscation of property to name just a few. Again, that is not to make a moral point, but to point out the inaccuracy of your comment.

I think one of the most fascinating reads on the issue of slavery is in “Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison.” It's like watching the first act of a Greek or Shakespearian tragedy with its foreshadowing of what is to come. However, on the role of slavery in bringing about the war, I don't think one can top Lincoln's in his 2nd Inaugural, “On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it– all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war– seeking to dissolve the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. “

Speculating on whether or not there'd have been a war without slavery is the ultimate straw man or like the ultimate sick joke, “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” What were the major cultural & religious differences? The big split between the northern and southern branches of most Protestant denominations occurred in the decades immediately before the war and occurred for one reason and one reason only: slavery. Even the Southern Baptists admitted that a few years ago. I haven't seen any indication that the northerners were jealous of the south. As for internal improvements, many of the them went to midwestern and western states, not the northern/eastern states which were already well-developed. As for the trade balance, don't kid yourself. The cotton states had managed to maneuver themselves into the status of a virtual colony, producing a cash crop. Northern industry was developing and making inroads. Furthermore, one of the reasons that England did not kneel to King Cotton was that it was becoming more and more depending on importing midwestern grain.

The two regions were different but the primary difference was slavery and the basis of Southern wealth was slavery. Whether or not white northern males cared about slaves is irrelevant. There would have been no war without secession and the reason for secession was to protect slavery.

“The Confederacy would continue trade with England and other European countries and grow stronger. This is the simple truth.”

Actually, the Confederacy would have soon found itself in a semi-colonial status with Great Britain. It would have shipped raw materials abroad in exchange for finished goods … just like before 1776.

Just a quick note that I made the decision to prevent “Reed” from participating on this thread. It's not a decision I make lightly, but I had no choice after the Lee-Grant-slavery comment. I simply do not have the patience for such irresponsible comments, especially from someone who claims to be a teacher. We've heard all of this before. Enough is enough.

I think that open discussion on this topic is good. The points made here were all good. Lee and Jackson were complicated men for a complicated time. There descions will be debated for years to come. With this in mind I think it's important to keep all channels open for various opinions on these men and their actions. Open discussion will only shine more light into this fasinating topic.

I can and do respect that Kevin. I can personally over look their faults and uphold their commendable virtues to my family as role models for duty, honor, trustworthy and devotion to what you believe.

I flew my 1st national and shared with my daughter the good things these 2 men represent just as I did on Dr Kings day cocerning he work and legacy.

All great men of history have enough flaws that if we wanted to take an Holier than thou attidude we could excuse honoring them.

I am not asking that historical figures be morally perfect. I just have trouble celebrating those who are remembered for fighting for causes/outcomes that I find morally repugnant.

See you have stated your moral judgement of these men ” I find morally repugnant” I have found Abe and Sherman to be Morally repugnant for their use of total war and I was taken to task on this blog for it.
But it is your blog so I guess you can have it both ways.

I agree with you about Lincoln and Sherman their use of total warfare on citizens was a crime against humanity. It this happened today they would be put on trial. Thanks for the comment.

Please stay on focus. I am referring to Lincoln allowing Sherman to burn, rape and pillage citizens in the south (His infamous march to the sea.) I do realize that the Confederates were not angels because war brings out the worst in people. But I do see a difference in the way the North raged the war in the south compared to the way Lee brought war to the North. I believe he issued an order that no soldier should harm civilians in PA. Is this true or not?

I never said that I found Lee and Jackson to be morally repugnant. I said that I find slavery to be morally repugnant, which is the reason why I do not celebrate Lee – Jackson Day.

Thanks Kevin for clearing that up. So when you post your reviews of Lincoln and Sherman books you’re just praising the quality of the academic work and not the men themselves.

Oh Kevin, your missing out on half the fun when you don't celebrate the ones you admire.

So let me get this straight. You abhor the institution of slavery and have nothing to say about the Union slave states, the sweat shops and factories in the north and how the northern industrialists who bankrolled Abraham Lincoln’s candidacy made those workers suffer far worse circumstances than the slaves in the south.
Gen. Lee freed his slaves
Gen. Jackson taught his to read and write.
Generals Grant and Sherman, both were vicious anti-semites and slave owners throughout the war until passage of the 13th Amendment in December 1865.

Basically, your argument is illogical.

Without getting into an analysis of these overly simplistic points let me just point out once again that I do not celebrate Grant, Sherman, or Lincoln. I also do not see a moral equivalent between the institution of slavery and the factory system, though I obviously recognize that plenty of people who worked in such conditions had legitimate concerns.

These guys all seem to get their talking points from the same place. It never fails that one hears the same falsehoods, such as Grant and Sherman owning slaves until the 13th amendment as opposed to the enlightened practices of Lee and Jackson, appear over and over. One gets tired of playing wack-a-mole with them, no?

I neither have the time nor the patience to deal with such misinformation. My blog is not going to be a billboard for this kind of nonsense. There are way too many other blogs, listservs, etc., where this kind of thing is welcome.

Attacking the characters of Grant and Sherman does nothing to elevate the characters of Lee or Jackson.

You might reflect on this article suggesting that not only was Grant one of the USA's greatest generals, he may have been one of its greatest Presidents also.

http://www.nathannewman.org/log/archives/003697

Regarding conditions in northern factories, they were deplorable in many cases. However, a free labourer could always leave his employer and seek work elsewhere. Also, working conditions improved into the 20th century and did not need a Civil War to being them about, though there was violence and intimidation.

Grant deserves all the credit possible for not only bringing the War to a close, but also for crushing the first Klan with the Enforcement Act prosecutions of 1870-71 under Atty Gen. Akerman (from Georgia!) and Secret Service Chief Hiram Whitley(from Louisiana!). Reconstruction ended and Jim Crow began only after Grant left office.
As far as arguing that slaves were better off than the factory workers of Lowell and Manchester, that was effectively addressed by the volumes of WPA ex-slave testimonies where even when some former slaves admitted they may have been materially worse off after emancipation, none would ever consider for a second exchanging the poverty of their freedom (ensured, btw, by Jim Crow) for the “security” of bondage.

“Generals Grant and Sherman, both were … slave owners throughout the war until passage of the 13th Amendment in December 1865.”

Proof, please.

I don't think anyone argues that the north (in general) necessarily was morally superior to the south in regards to race, but you cannot legitimize Lee and Jackson's slaveholding by simply remarking that they treated their slaves “well,” and certainly to just make up the notion that Grant or Sherman had slaves does not do you any favors. Lee and Jackson, regardless of their wartime valor and strong faith, still owned slaves and fought a war to perpetuate the institution, Why should a black american today take solace in knowing that Jackson tought his slaves to read? The fact that simply teaching them to read makes Jackson a “nice” slave owner shows you the standards to which these men are held in regards to african-americans, and that standard is clearly low. Lee-Jackson Day is a Virginian holiday that celebrates the two men in their war performance, but it cannot go without saying why in fact they fought so hard and well, and slavery is that 'why.' Celebrate it if you must, but do not ask black americans to toast Lee or Jackson's name alongside you

Hi Matt,

Thanks for the comment. I pretty much agree with your points here. My point in asking for an argument as to why black Americans ought to celebrate Lee and Jackson was to demonstrate why I do not honor these men. I think the example throws into sharper light the fact that Lee's experience in education and Jackson's work in the church is incidental to the question at hand.

My own admiration for Lee took a severe hit when I read in McPherson's “Battle Cry of Freedom” that Lee's ANV had sent captured black civilians south to be re-enslaved during the Gettysburg campaign.

There is a more extensive account in an article entitled “A Regular Slave Hunt”: The Army of Northern Virginia and Black Civilians in the Gettysburg Campaign, published in North&South, Volume 4, #7, September 2001. The article does not make it clear how much Lee knew about the treatment of blacks, but Longstreet was aware of “contrabands” that had been captured by Pickett's division.

Quote from a letter from Confederate Colonel W. Christian (55th Virginia, 28th June 1863) to his wife: “We took a lot of negroes yesterday. I was offered my choice but as I could not get them back home I would not take them. In fact, my humanity revolted at taking the poor devils away from their homes ….”

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