General Kelly’s Civil War

Yesterday everyone was talking about White House chief of staff John Kelly’s interview with Laura Ingraham of Fox News in which he laid out his understanding of the Civil War. We heard nothing that should be surprising to our ears.

Here is what he said in its entirety:

Well, history’s history. And there are certain things in history that were not so good and other things that were very, very good.

I think we make a mistake, though, and as a society, and certainly as individuals, when we take what is today accepted as right and wrong and go back 100, 200, 300 years or more and say, ‘What Christopher Columbus did was wrong.’

You know, 500 years later, it’s inconceivable to me that you would take what we think now and apply it back then. I think it’s just very, very dangerous. I think it shows you just how much of a lack of appreciation of history and what history is.

I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.

First, by Kelly’s own logic if it is wrong to apply our own standards 150 years later in judging Americans in the 1860s than it was also wrong for Americans at the turn of the twentieth century to do so with the dedication of the very monuments currently under scrutiny.

The comments that have received the most attention, however, are in the final paragraph. I am not going to quibble with his assessment of Robert E. Lee. Needless to say I disagree that a man who attempted to destroy this nation should be characterized as “honorable.” It is the other two points that are much more problematic.

Americans were not necessarily more connected to their state than the nation as a whole. One of the most basic concepts we teach in the classroom is the idea of “Manifest Destiny” which suggested that the nation had a right to expand westward and civilize areas occupied by Native Americans in the name of capitalism and Christianity. White southerners committed to slavery believed that the federal government could be leveraged to create a slave empire that expanded both westward and southward into the Caribbean and beyond. It was only after they realized that slavery could no longer be protected and strengthened through the federal government that they chose to begin the process of breaking up the Union.

But it is Kelly’s final claim about the failure to compromise that is the most perplexing. It reflects no understanding of the history of the United States from its very founding through the middle of the Civil War. It was compromising that brought the nation to the brink of war from the Three-Fifths Compromise to the Compromise of 1850. At the beginning of the war Lincoln supported an amendment that would have given federal protection to slavery. In 1862 he was still willing to compromise with slaveowners in the Border States to compensate them for voluntarily freeing their slaves. Compromise is everywhere you look.

You don’t get closer to understanding secession and war by suggesting that there wasn’t a sufficient attempt at compromise. You get there by focusing on just how committed some people were to protecting the institution of slavery.

Kelly’s understanding of the war should not be surprising if we step back and think about when he likely learned about the war for the first time. He may have picked up the compromise shtick from listening to Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’s documentary, but that doesn’t get us very far. Kelly learned the war in the 1960s during the centennial, which offered a sanitized version of the war. In his comments he failed to say anything about slavery, but keep in mind that he would have learned very little, if anything, about it growing up. The war would have been framed as a brother’s war that pitted white American against one another fighting for their respective causes.

In Kelly’s world, they were all “honorable.” Kelly’s understanding of the war is a time capsule that brings us back to the 1960s, but we forget just how long this Lost Cause/Reunion narrative had its hold on our popular memory of the war. It’s not until the late 1970s and early 80s that you even begin to see noticeable change in history textbooks, museum exhibits, and National Park Service sites.

A number of people have concluded that Kelly’s narrative reveals a racist agenda. I think that is an unwarranted conclusion. Certainly, his comments are unfortunate, but I suspect that if you sat the general in a room with an updated text or placed him in conversation with a reputable historian he would come around. This is a guy who hasn’t read a book about the Civil War, beyond the narrowly-defined field of military history, in decades.

Ultimately, Kelly’s understanding of the war and even Robert E. Lee is a product of an outdated and discredited view held by his generation.

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34 comments… add one
  • James Simcoe Nov 1, 2017 @ 16:35

    Yes,there was no lack of trying as far as compromise efforts went. Lincoln’s final words to the Kentucky 1st citizens who were sounding him out on protecting their ‘rights’ were, “Can’t you gentlemen read the signs of the times?” This program of compensated emancipation was intended to drive a wedge between the slave states; hopefully to woo Confederate states back into the Union. Did this reveal a lack of commitment to an end to slavery? In the early part of ’62, Seward was working out the details with British PM Palmerston to grant Her Majesty’s Navy the Right of Boarding. For the first time, commerce vessels flying the American flag, many of them manned and financed in Europe, could be stopped by warships flying the Union Jack.This was intended to shut down the still brisk black market importation of enslaved Afro-Caribbean men and women to the Gulf Coast.

  • Dorian S. (@saintdorian) Nov 1, 2017 @ 12:37

    Considering how diverse and integrated the Armed Forces are, I don’t know what, as a civilian, would concern me more: that these views have persisted in the military culture despite the pushback from soldiers and officials of color who certainly would have strong feelings about this whitewashing, or that the military culture means soldiers and officials of color have never really dared challenge this consensus.
    I realize not everyone regularly reads Civil War books but I find it hard to believe a man of John Kelly’s intelligence would never have been aware that Robert Lee’s role in the civil war can be seen through a different blacker lense. At the very least, this is a concerning blind spot.

  • Pat Young Nov 1, 2017 @ 9:21

    I disagree with your conclusion. Many Americans consider the Muslim Ban an instance of bigotry almost unprecedented in modern American history. The ban and its implementing administrative documents had Kelly’s fingerprints all over them.

    Kelly appeared on Fox. He didn’t need to talk about Confederate monuments and heroes. He chose to. He is fully aware of the politics involved. He was not relying on some dimly remembered high school class or Ken Burns in formulating his answer. He was more likely catering to the White Supremacist viewers of the president’s favorite network.

    Kelly knew what he was saying and who his audience is. It ain’t you.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 1, 2017 @ 9:35

      Hi Pat,

      I appreciate the comment, but I think this is a bit of stretch in trying to connect his comments about Lee and the Civil War with the Muslim Ban.

      • Pat Young Nov 1, 2017 @ 9:47

        You think it a stretch to think that Kelly will do and say what the president wants to arouse his base?

        • Kevin Levin Nov 1, 2017 @ 10:53

          I think what Kelly shared in that interview is an honest reflection of what he believes. There was nothing surprising about it given some of the reasons I shared in the post. I can’t speak to motivation.

          • Patrick Young Nov 1, 2017 @ 15:34

            He is a political operative on national TV. Believe me, people in his position don’t give “honest reflections” of what they believe under those circumstances. He know how highly charged Confederate memory is for his leader’s base.

            • Kevin Levin Nov 1, 2017 @ 15:37

              You may be right, but I still see no reason not to assume that he believes what he stated about Lee and the Civil War.

    • Kristoffer Nov 1, 2017 @ 17:42

      If it was really an instance of bigotry, would the Supreme Court have allowed any part of it to stand? Because they allowed part of the travel ban to stand pending appeal:

      • Msb Nov 1, 2017 @ 23:15

        You seriously can’t tell the difference between a softball Fox interview and a court case?

  • Stephen H. Nov 1, 2017 @ 7:36

    How have high school and college curricula in the past 75 years treated the compromises and peace conferences attempted during the final winter (late 1860 through early 1861)? There were serious proposals by Crittenden and Douglas, a conference chaired by Tyler, a mission to southern states undertaken by New York Democrats (Richard Lathers et al). I suppose you could include diplomatic intrigue by Seward or even the attitude and actions of McClellan & his circle as impulses of compromise.

    These futile attempts at reaching agreement were never covered in the classrooms and texts of the sixties and seventies. Are they covered today? I suspect Kelly’s (mis)understanding is more recent than you credit.

  • msb Nov 1, 2017 @ 7:15

    A fine post, Kevin. Thanks.
    If I were Kelly, I would (a) apologize to Rep. Wilson for slandering her and (b) not feel much flattered by experts pointing out that I had used dated presentism to attack presentism.
    I think Ta-Nehisi Coates ( made the best response to Kelly, including the important point that Kelly’s viewpoint is whites-only: the millions of slaves knew that slavery was evil. As others have pointed out, Shelby Foote made the same error, incorrectly using “the South” and “Southerners” to mean only whites.

    “And [Marse Robert] is an honorable man. So are they all, all honorable men” – with a tip of the hat to W Shakespeare.

  • Rob in CT Nov 1, 2017 @ 6:15

    I mostly agree.

    There is something else about this that sticks in my craw, though. It’s this: for Right-wingers like Kelly, compromise is often a dirty word. Every attempt at negotiation and compromise is cast as Munich 1938. But when they look at 1860, oh no, that’s different. Suddenly compromise to preserve peace is great.

    I do agree that what Kelly is spouting is widespread belief and was once dominant. It’s wrong, but it’s commonly wrong, which means he’s not necessarily a hardcore racist (though one can look at his track record re: immigration and his willing service in this Administration as clues as well). If I recall correctly, there was a moment during the 2016 campaign when Hillary Clinton said something about the Civil War that was pretty far off as well. And if you’d asked me about it, say, 20 years ago I might’ve given a similar answer. I’ve since learned some things.

    Same for his comments on Columbus. In my opinion, Columbus did many things that were thoroughly condemnable using the moral standards of his time (just as American slavery was condemned in real time), let alone by 21st-century standards. The actual Columbus, rather than the sanitized version, that is. He really was a vile man.

    Further, the idea that one should not apply modern moral standards to people in the past is overdone. It’s not that it’s totally wrong – you do have to kind of grade on a curve. Context is important. But people use it to completely white-wash historical figures they want to lionize. It’s an easy out.

    • Sandi Saunders Nov 1, 2017 @ 15:16

      Spot on Rob!

      • Jacksonian Nov 2, 2017 @ 18:17

        de las Casas on one end and Cortez on the other seems a reasonable yardstick of contemporary Europeans to measure Colon/Colombo/Columbus by…

    • woodrowfan Nov 1, 2017 @ 17:21

      Ms. Clinton’s comment was the popular view about the failure of Reconstruction, basically a rehashed and watered down Dunning School that was the popular view taught when she was in school.

  • Jacksonian Nov 1, 2017 @ 5:22

    Speaking of generational perspectives, it is worth looking at the Commandant’s reading recommendations (for all ranks, but especially senior officers):


    I’ve read five of these, myself; there are some arguable choices here, but at what one wishes about Goodwin’s scholarship, Team of Rivals certainly makes clear the economic realities of slavery for the south, the political efforts to compromise over slavery for most of the first century of American independence, and how the challenge the 1860 election posed to further expansion of slavery in the US led to the southern political elites’ decision for secession.

    Perhaps Mr. Kelly should think a little deeper about these issues, do some reading, and ask for a make-up exam; from my position, he’s failed US History 1 pretty dramatically.

    • woodrowfan Nov 1, 2017 @ 17:19

      “The Guns of August” also represents very dated scholarship that remains popular with the public, but does not reflect the scholarship of the past 50 years…..

      • Jacksonian Nov 2, 2017 @ 18:14

        Interestingly enough, Tuchman is the only author with two works on the list, and the basic message of her work on Stilwell remains crystal even today.

        Who would you recommend in place of Tuchman on 1914?

        Simply as an observation, given the choice of Tuchman or a right wing nutjob like Ferguson, I’d recommend Tuchman.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Nov 1, 2017 @ 5:01

    “Focusing on compromise completely misses the point of why secession and war occurred.”

    Absolutely correct.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Nov 1, 2017 @ 5:00

    John Kelly is a good man. This interview was dreadful.

    • Rob Baker Nov 1, 2017 @ 5:40

      Was. Was a good man. His legacy will be a honorable man who served his country with distinction – then chose to arrange furniture as the Titanic sank.

      • Sandi Saunders Nov 1, 2017 @ 15:13

        I agree Rob, I think he has made it clear that he is not being made to say these things, he means them and he knows the audience he is speaking to, as does Trump. The rest of us have no significance at all for them.

  • Paultourguide Nov 1, 2017 @ 4:43

    When a friend first posted Kelly’s comments on facebook, my response was Kelly was not wrong. It was the inability of the slave owning states to compromise over slavery expansion that led to the civil war. Of course our history is full of compromises. Of course one can make the same comment about compromise and Congress today.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 1, 2017 @ 4:50

      Part of the problem is that Kelly completely failed to acknowledge what these compromises were all about and how they are perceived today by a large section of the country, especially African Americans. He seems to have no understanding that compromise was the order of the day from the very founding of the nation through to the eve of the Civil War. Southerners did compromise over the issue of slavery’s expansion. I don’t understand how one can make that point. The problem is that the “fire eaters” believed that Lincoln and the Republicans constituted an immediate threat to slavery. Focusing on compromise completely misses the point of why secession and war occurred.

      • BPS Nov 1, 2017 @ 7:42

        “Southerners did compromise over the issue of slavery’s expansion.”
        I’m not sure what you mean here. My reading of the history of the south after Dred Scott is southern politicians wanted to spread slavery to new territories and the republican party wanted to keep it out. Southern politicians were afraid their power in the senate would be swamped if more free states were added without balancing them with new slave states.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 1, 2017 @ 8:13

          I am simply pointing out southern involvement in compromises over Missouri, the Mexican cession, etc.

  • Steven Whitcomb Nov 1, 2017 @ 4:33

    There you go judging 60’s people by today’s standards.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 1, 2017 @ 4:51

      Every generation filters the past through the present. This line of argument is uninteresting.

  • David Kent Nov 1, 2017 @ 3:22

    Great post Kevin.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 1, 2017 @ 3:23

      Thank you. Glad to hear it was helpful.

  • Rblee22468 Nov 1, 2017 @ 3:19

    Press Secretary Sanders cited Shelby Foote at yesterday’s press briefing as evidence for the “compromise” argument. When pressed for a more in depth answer, she did a song and dance before saying she’s not going to re-litigate the Civil War.

    Unrelated, but how is your book on Black Confederate’s coming along?

    • Kevin Levin Nov 1, 2017 @ 3:22

      Her response, as usual, was a muddled mess.

      I have about two weeks more of writing and revisions before I send it off to UNC Press. Thanks for asking.

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