There’s been a lot of talk recently about heritage, about why it’s wrong to tear down the statues of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, about how doing so is whitewashing history, destroying the heritage so many of us in the South hold dear.
Of course, this has come to a head in recent weeks after the violent and deadly clashes between white supremacists and anti-supremacist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, a couple of weeks ago.
The same thing happened in 2015 when Dylan Roof marched into a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and gunned down several people. Government and corporate America’s response was to vilify the Confederate battle flag he had been pictured with (known erroneously as the national Confederate Flag), prompting an outcry from others that this flag was part of their heritage; the flag itself wasn’t evil.
For most of my adult life, I’ve been right there with the folks claiming these statues and the flags were part of my heritage. They are part of history and should not be hidden nor destroyed.
Let me tell you a bit about my heritage. My great-great-great-great-grandfather, Jordan Peters, fought in the war of 1812. When the fledgling United States needed fighting men, he answered that call. He was wounded in battle, sent home, then rejoined the fighting when healed.
His son, my great-great-great-grandfather Zachariah Peters, fought in the Civil War. He was a Confederate soldier who lost his left leg, from the knee down, as a result of injuries sustained when a cannon ball ripped through his line.
Through a unique set of circumstances, I actually knew his daughter, talked with her on a number of occasions during my younger years. She could recall his funeral, and had a few other fleeting memories of her father (he was 73 when she was born, and she lived to be nearly 90).
So when I say the Confederate history is part of my heritage, I mean it’s part of my personal, family story, I’m not just using some cliche.
I’ve come to a point in my life where I have to admit I’ve been wrong to defend the Confederate battle flag, and equally wrong to have defended the numerous statues of Gen. Robert E. Lee and similar Civil War veterans.
It’s not emotions nor political correctness that’s changed my mind. I detest political correctness and the whitewashing of history, I consider it to be a danger to a free and open society.
What’s changed my mind are cold, hard facts.
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, there were movements throughout the South to resist peaceful unification with the North. There were whispers of rebellions and guerrilla warfare, ideas of erecting statues and other memorials to the Civil War leaders, of defiantly flying the various flags of the Confederate states.
Gen. Robert E. Lee, in one of the true strokes of statesmanship in U.S. history, adamantly opposed such ideas. On a number of occasions he wrote against the erecting of statues commemorating himself, Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and other memorials to the war. He also opposed the flying of the various Confederate flags.
Lee said to build such monuments, to fly those flags, would inflame passions, would continue to divide the nation, would, in his words, “keep open the sores of war.”
The former general also wrote that the South lost the war and that it was time to get over the conflict and forge ahead to create a stronger, more unified nation.
His wishes were largely accepted, and it wasn’t until the earlier years of the 20th century — two generations after the Civil War — and the rise of the KKK and the white supremacist movement that many of the statues went up around the South.
Putting statues up then had nothing to do with honoring Civil War vets, instead serving as a less-than-subtle reminder to those of African-American heritage to remember their place in Southern society, and that there was no law enforcement or any other help coming to their aid if the white supremacists came after them.
The widespread use of the Confederate battle flag — particularly being raised over various state houses across the South — took place over a couple of decades, from the 1940s through the 1960s. Those were visible nose-thumbings to the federal government and the federal court systems which were ordering Southern states to desegregate their schools.
Again, the white supremacists and the mostly white Southern governments resisted, jailing (and sometimes killing) blacks and those protesting for civil rights.
I think the facts are clear: the heritage the modern use of the Confederate battle flag bears standard for, the heritage most of the monuments and statues of Gen. Lee and other Civil War era leaders represent, is that of the racially fueled hatred spawned by the white supremacist movement. It has nothing to do with honoring leaders of the past, or commemorating history.
That’s not a heritage I want to claim.
If that’s not enough of a reason to fold up and put away the flags, not enough of an impetus to take down the statues, then I would suggest we listen to the words of the man so many claim we should honor: Gen. Robert E. Lee. To truly honor him would be to listen to his words, this many decades later, and take down the monuments.