Today marks the 155th anniversary of Ulysses S. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg. The surrender of Vicksburg split the Confederacy in two and restored the Mississippi River to Union control. The US Army Field Manual deems Grant’s Vicksburg campaign “the most brilliant campaign ever fought on American soil.” In the following years, the story goes, the embittered city refused to celebrate Independence Day until 1945.
U.S. Grant: American Hero
I just finished Grant by Ron Chernow, a detailed and weighty (literally) tome that makes his Hamilton book seem like light reading. Chernow makes abundantly clear that Grant is an American hero of the first order. Grant’s exceptional service to our nation rivals Lincoln’s. To military historians, he was the finest general of his age. He managed unprecedented logistical challenges in successfully leading multiple armies at once. Unlike his feckless predecessors, Grant won victory after victory, and once appointed general-in-chief, he defeated Robert E. Lee within a year. His clemency prevented guerrilla war and hastened the return of the Southern states to the Union. As president, Grant was a firm advocate for black rights and appointed racial, religious, and ethnic minorities to federal positions. After his presidency, his world tour helped announce America as a global power and set the precedent for post-presidency diplomacy.
Yet, today, Grant often feels as forgotten as his tomb on Riverside Drive in New York. What happened? Grant’s reputation has been eroded by decades of relentless assault. To some, he is drunken, corrupt boor who forced the South to endure the disastrous Reconstruction Period. To others, his military image has been reduced to a savage butcher who only wore down the gallant Robert E. Lee through an limitless supply of Northern troops.
The Losers Write History
Who has led this character assassination? Ironically, the first assassins were the Confederate officers he so generously pardoned at Appomattox. From these unrepentant rebels, Southern historians in the early 1900s took up the Confederate cause and spread the Lost Cause mythology. This Lost Cause portrays the South as fighters in a second American revolution, defending gentility and Christian society against the depredations of the Federal Government. In this glorious struggle, the Southern way of life was destroyed by Northern occupiers. The Lost Cause attempts to create nostalgia for the Gone with the Wind version of the antebellum South. Yet, the Lost Cause is a historical lie.
Believers in the Lost Cause try to whitewash the Civil War to be about issues other than slavery. This is intellectually dishonest and historically wrong. There was one single cause of the Civil War, and that was slavery. The Southern leadership decided that the right to hold their fellow man in bondage was worth more than loyalty to their nation. In a bizarre inversion, the Confederacy was founded on denying blacks the “inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
A Rotten Cornerstone
Confederate apologists try to excuse Southern secession by claiming that state loyalties were more important back then, the North was the aggressor, or the war was about states’ rights. These are poor excuses that crumble in the face of historical evidence.
Robert E. Lee refused Lincoln’s commission to lead the Union out of loyalty to Virginia. Yet, nearly half Virginia’s officers remained loyal to the Union cause. General-in-chief Winfield Scott Hancock and admiral David Farragut were two proud Virginians who served admirably for the Union. More damning, Lee was the son of founding father Henry Lee, who had championed the Constitution that bound the states together. Many men prized national interests over regional ones, the Constitution itself is the very product of those men.
Some have made the absurd claim that the North was the aggressor in the Civil War. Southern states began to secede in December 1860, before Lincoln was even sworn in as president. In office, Lincoln still sought reconciliation, refusing aggressive action. The Civil War began when the Confederates attacked Ft. Sumter, a US fort in Charleston Harbor. However, secession itself was an illegal and rebellious act that violated the commitments of the Constitution. James Madison, a Virginian, and “the Father of the Constitution” considered secession: “a violation, without cause, of a faith solemnly pledged.”
Finally, the most enduring excuse for secession has been: “states’ rights.” The central “state right” that concerned the Southern Confederacy was the right to own other human beings. The Confederate leaders made slavery the “cornerstone” of their ill-fated experiment. To boil down the Confederacy to its essence, you couldn’t do better than these words by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens:
“Our new government is founded…upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
One of the South’s best generals, the man Lee called “my old warhorse,” General James Longstreet admirably condemned the Lost Cause mythology. “Why not talk about witchcraft if slavery was not the cause of the war,” Longstreet said sarcastically. “I never heard of any other cause of the quarrel than slavery.” Its founding documents make clear: the Confederacy existed to perpetuate slavery and it cost nearly one-million American lives to end that evil institution and restore the union.
Given the seas of blood spilled over slavery, why do many still venerate Lee and celebrate the Confederacy? Until recently, seven Southern state flags still paid homage to the Confederacy. Over seven-hundred Confederate monuments remain standing. Most of these monuments were constructed in the Jim Crow South in the shadow of a resurgent KKK. We even have popular candidates that vocally support these Confederate tributes.
To grasp the insanity of continuing to celebrate the Confederacy, imagine South African statues to apartheid leaders or German monuments to the Third Reich. ‘Heritage not hate,’ is a common refrain from those who cling to their Confederate past. However, that heritage drips with hate.
While many individual soldiers fought bravely, Confederate leader deserve total condemnation. Men like Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Alexander Stephens committed treason against America. It was only through the magnanimity and spirit of reconciliation of leaders like Lincoln and Grant that such traitors were pardoned of their capital crimes and ultimately restored to citizenship. Grant summed up the Confederacy well: “the cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” The Confederacy is a national disgrace and it’s time to declare independence from the lies of the past.