The Committee Speaks

This is the first interview that I’ve seen featuring members of Washington & Lee’s “Committee,” which last year successfully petitioned their school’s administration to take down Confederate flags in Lee Chapel and to think carefully about the school’s connection to Confederate history and slavery.

I applaud these students for their commitment to making their campus a more hospitable place for African Americans and for other students who are concerned with questions about the place of the past in the present. One of the two students interviewed closed with the following: “I know that someone is going to feel more comfortable by what we did and that is enough.”

This video is part of a larger project on how we remember and commemorate the Civil War.

Ed Ayers Cuts to the Chase at Appomattox

Today I had a chance to watch the National Park Service’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. It was a fitting conclusion to our Civil War sesquicentennial even if we still have a few more key events to get through. Of all the speakers I thought Ed Ayers stole the show. He cut through a lot of the sentimentalism that still colors our memory of this event. [Begin at the 1hr, 1 minute mark]

First, I want to second Ayers’s congratulations and thanks to the National Park Service for all their hard work over the past four years. Ayers’s brief speech builds on a brief passage in Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir, where he assesses his feelings for the vanquished foe alongside a clear articulation of the cause for which it fought.

What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. 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. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.

Ayers correctly notes that Grant’s assessment could be and was interpreted in a way that allowed ex-Confederates to frame their bid for independence as a noble cause. It certainly did not capture Grant’s understanding of the event and Ayers forcefully encourages his audience to acknowledge that it should not color our own. Grant’s ‘worst cause’ was a clear reference to a commitment to the destruction of the Union and the establishment of a nation, whose foundation would be built on the right to own slaves.

I suspect that the theme of Ayers’s talk troubled a select few. It shouldn’t. As Americans we ought to be able 150 years later to acknowledge that the right side won the war.

Ultimately, according to Ayers, what was at stake at Appomattox was the ‘future of the United States and everyone in it.’

Why Confederate Defeat Does Not Need to Be a National Holiday

Update: Brian Beutler doubles down with a follow-up post offering some thoughts as to why even Southern white liberals are hard pressed to agree to the author’s proposal. This is what happens when you report from inside a bubble. Again, as I suggest below, the author would have done well to spend just a little time researching how the Civil War has been commemorated throughout the South over the past few years.

On the eve of the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, an essay in The New Republic by Brian Beutler is getting some traction by calling for the event to be celebrated as a national holiday. Actually, Beutler is not so much calling for a holiday as he is suggesting that “in a better America” and one that was more honest about its past, April 9 would already be acknowledged as such. The essay is worth reading, but like so many other commentaries on how the Civil War is remembered in the South it fails to consider the reality on the ground.

The author proceeds as if memory of the war is both static and uniform throughout the South. What is needed is action by the federal government.

This week provides an occasion for the U.S. government to get real about history, as April 9 is the 150th anniversary of the Union’s victory in the Civil War. The generous terms of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House foreshadowed a multitude of real and symbolic compromises that the winners of the war would make with secessionists, slavery supporters, and each other to piece the country back together. It’s as appropriate an occasion as the Selma anniversary to reflect on the country’s struggle to improve itself. And to mark the occasion, the federal government should make two modest changes: It should make April 9 a federal holiday; and it should commit to disavowing or renaming monuments to the Confederacy, and its leaders, that receive direct federal support.

As Beutler acknowledges, this call follows a proposal by Jamie Malanowski in 2013 to rename military bases that honor Confederate generals. Continue reading “Why Confederate Defeat Does Not Need to Be a National Holiday”

Charlottesville, Virginia No Longer Celebrates Lee-Jackson Day

As of this evening my old home of Charlottesville, Virginia no longer celebrates Lee-Jackson Day. The city joins other communities throughout the Commonwealth that no longer publicly acknowledge this holiday.

The vote is not so much a declaration that Lee and Jackson no longer deserve the kind of reverence they once received, but a confirmation that the community crossed this line at some point in the past. Representatives of the city’s chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans had every opportunity to voice their displeasure and chose not to do so. This paid city holiday will likely be rolled into one honoring all veterans. That leaves room for those who wish to single out Lee and Jackson or anyone else for that matter.

Looks like Susan Hathaway of the Virginia Flaggers attended tonight’s meeting to make a last-minute plea.

We should celebrate a city that allows people from outside the community to voice their opinion. It is unlikely that city councilors gave much thought to Hathaway and the other members of the group who attended the previous meeting. The group plans to find private property to raise one of their flags as a snub to the community. That is their right. It’s nothing more than an indication that their message has once again failed.

The only question that remains unanswered is whether cities like Charlottesville can find productive ways for members of the community to engage one another around such sensitive questions of how their collective past ought to be remembered.

The Fate of Lee-Jackson Day in Charlottesville

UPDATE: City Council has pushed their final decision to March 2. Stay tuned.

I think it is safe to say that later this evening the Charlottesville (Va) city council will vote to end the practice of recognizing Lee-Jackson Day. The vote will place Charlottesville in the same camp as Richmond, Fairfax, Alexandria, Fredericksburg, Hampton, Lynchburg and Norfolk, which no longer observe the holiday.

It would be more accurate to say that the city council will make official what is already the case in practice. As a resident of Charlottesville for eleven years before moving to Boston in 2011 I can say with confidence that very few people formally acknowledged the holiday. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find any formal recognition of the holiday throughout the state beyond the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other heritage groups. They will and should continue to honor Lee and Jackson in a way that they deem fitting.

The story will make the local newspaper tomorrow, but that will be it. Apart from a few people in and around town no one will take notice. The Virginia Flaggers may make good on their threat to raise a Confederate flag in town, but to the discerning viewer that will only highlight the inevitable retreat of Confederate symbols in public places around the Commonwealth and beyond. Continue reading “The Fate of Lee-Jackson Day in Charlottesville”