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markk

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Remembering Confederates by reading about them

A couple of days ago the New York Times ran a piece related to the ongoing controversy over Confederate memorials in which the author recommended three books "that address two Civil War generals and one president . . . and how they are remembered." The books recommended are good ones, though not the best that could have been chosen given the stated goal (Wallace Hettle's Inventing Stonewall Jackson, for example, is a much better work to read for understanding the general's posthumous image than James Robertson's massive tome).

 

What struck me as I read the article, though, was the futility of its purpose. Are we really to believe that the people who are loudly objecting to the dismantling of Confederate monuments are doing so because of a concern that history will be forgotten without then? As many people have pointed out, if anyone is truly interested in learning about them, all they have to do is go to one of the many libraries which are chock full of books about the Civil War, its origins, and its aftermath. Yet I strongly doubt that any of the people so loudly complaining about historical ignorance have bothered to read any of these works, not the least reason being that doing so would expose them to uncomfortable truths that contradict the stories posted on the plaques of those monuments they are now championing.

 

Still, if I am wrong here then I would encourage anyone who is sincere in learning about the leading figures of the Confederacy to read these books instead, all of which provide far more information on a single page than can be crammed onto a plinth.

 

The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His image in American Society by Thomas L. Connelly. The biography of Lee recommended in the Times article is a fine study for anyone wanting to understand the real person. What Connolly does by addressing Lee's lionization is more subversive, though, and the fact that he did it 40 years ago made it a braver effort than it would be today. Connolly's tendentiousness has been criticized both then and afterward, but his book remains important for understanding how Lee came to have such an over-inflated status in the popular imagination.

 

Jefferson Davis, American by William J. Cooper. This is not just the best biography ever written about the president of the Confederacy but one of the best biographies I have ever read. Cooper presents a complex portrait of a man of considerable gifts and convinced views about the virtues of slaveholding, views which drove him to renounce his citizenship and lead a rebellion. Anybody with more than a passing interest in the Civil War needs to read the book for Cooper's rehabilitation of his tenure as the Confederates' chief executive, which was often criticized as a means of rehabilitating the mistakes made by Lee and other Confederate generals.

General James Longstreet: The Confederacy's Most Controversial Soldier by Jeffery D. Wert. As Steven Holmes recently explained, there's a reason why monuments to Longstreet are few and far between. Though among the most successful Confederate commanders, after the war he committed the apostasy of urging his fellow Southerners to work with African Americans politically rather than subjugating them with a new regime of inequality. That he was excluded from the memorialization that took place during the Jim Crow era is among the best evidence for the true purpose of all of those statues.