Why is the Confederacy not worthy of contempt?

Inspired by this thread: http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=538996

The Civil War has traditionally been one of the most heavily romanticized wars in American history. Even the defeated Confederates are referred to with respect, and there’s a Robert E. Lee memorial right in Arlington National Cemetery.

Why is this so? I mean, sure, not everyone who fought for the Confederacy was a slave owner, or necessarily keen on slavery. Nor were all German soldiers in WWII members of the Nazi party - but one would be hard pressed to find a German veteran of that war who feels any particular pride in his service, even if he never personally committed any war crimes. This is appropriate, to my way of thinking - the German cause in WWII was loathesome, the world is better off for Germany’s defeat, and for someone to view German military service in that war as a source of pride would be … odd. Distasteful.

By a similar token, the Confederate cause was so tightly entwined with slavery that - though the preservation of slavery was not the sole war aim of the rebels - it seems inappropriate to romanticize it, or somehow regard the Confederate soldiers as “good” guys. These were American citizens who took up arms against their countrymen in defense of one of the vilest institutions any human being ever imposed upon another - and they dragged the entire country through the meat-grinder for years.

Why don’t we view the Confederates with deep, profound disgust? Why do we honor the memories of men like Robert E. Lee, who did such grave injury to the Republic in a profoundly wicked cause?

  1. Both sides were Americans.
  2. Lots of people died. It was a massively fatal war because of rifled guns and dated strategies.
  3. The generals on the Northern side were pretty ineffectual until Grant. The South should have lost by all measures, but Lee was impressive and the North was terrible. It’s hard to root for the guy who sucked.

But this fact has been largely papered over by relentless historical revisionism. Lots of people are in denial about how much the Confederacy was about the preservation of slavery.

In my mind, this paragraph is where the real debate lies. Was the Confederate cause truly entwined with slavery for the majority of the Confederate soldiers? Consider Lee, who (I think it’s fair to say) was fighting on behalf of Virginia, not on behalf of slavery. Consider the non-slaveholding Confederate soldier who, when asked by a Northerner why he was fighting, answered, “Because you’re here.”

On preview, I think it would be historical revisionism to discount the other reasons for the Civil War. To hand wave away the complicated issue of states rights (as an example) would be a disservice. To say, “It was all about slavery and the North were the good guys and the South were the bad guys,” would be completely historically inaccurate.

I think Denise Richards said it best: “It’s complicated!”

Also, might I recommend Shelby Foote’s Civil War series to you (or anyone else)? It has an excellent summation of the precursors to war, and all three books are terrific!

There are a lot of people who’s ancestors fought for the Confederacy in this country. There aren’t very many descendants of German WWII soldiers in this country.

Also, after World War II, Germany went out of its way to condemn the Nazi period. The southern US, after the Civil War, on the other hand, went out of its way to praise and glorify the Civil War and Confederate cause.

Worse than being romanticized is the way some organizations -cough-Sons of Confederate Veterans-cough- interpret the war.

For some reason I doubt that. There are still veteran’s organizations in Germany were they get together, drink beer, bullshit, and talk about the good old days. I doubt they’d do that if they didn’t have some amount of pride in how they served Germany.

Most of them, Robert E. Lee included, didn’t take up arms to defend the institution of slavery any more than residents of the north took up arms to put an end to slavery. Southerners took up arms because they were more loyal to Virginia, Arkansas, or Texas than they were to the United States though some of them fought for Union. Have no fear gentle reader, I will not make the claim that slavery was not the reason for the Civil War. The concept of what it meant to be an American was different in the 1850s and 60s than it is now.

We don’t view Confederates with a deep profound disgust because they were still Americans and many of us are related to them. Robert E. Lee was widely admired by his contemporaries on both sides of the war and his reputation has remained untarnished over the last century and a half. If it makes you feel any better Lee really had a hard time siding with Virginia and wasn’t keen on the idea of secession to begin with. A better question would be why Grant’s reputation hasn’t held up nearly as well. (Seriously, I’m a pro-Union guy.)


Except that “States Rights” was always and only about a State’s right to preserve slavery.

I think the Confederacy was absolutely a contemptible organization, fundamentally built upon racism and slavery, but the South in general was and is not. I tend not to hold people responsible for their institutions.

I don’t know a single person who supports the drug war. When it comes to forwarding the despicable cause of prohibition, the current US government is also contemptible. But the American people in general are not. I think that’s worth remembering.

The Confederacy was horrible, but lots of decent Southerners’ lives were destroyed by the Civil War. I’m sure there were plenty of good and decent Nazis too.

Quote function is not working for me Lemur, but I do agree with you that many people used “States’ Rights” as a code word for slavery. On the other hand, there were certainly people that used “States’ Rights” to stand for a state’s right to secede. The idea being that since states had willingly chosen to join into a Union, they surely had the right to choose to leave that Union.

Don’t get me wrong - I am not suggesting that slavery was not a reason for the Civil War, just that there were other motivations for many of the Confederate soldiers. Understanding this allows most Americans to take the grown-up view that the Confederacy was not some horrible cartoon EEEVIL that must be scorned.

There is just so much regarding the Civil War, the Confederacy, and American slavery which is not cut-and-dry, no matter how much we want it to be. For example, are the Founding Fathers worthy of contempt for punting on the issue of slavery? They had to or else the South never would have joined the Union in the first place.

I just think it’s easy to say “Confederacy = Slavery. Confederacy is bad.” when there is so much more to it.

I view it akin as to all Nazi’s were bad, but I do respect the tactics and leadership of Rommel. I don’t agree with his policies, but the man was a good general, and respected on both sides of the war.

Same thing here- the South managed to fend off incompetent Union General after General, and again- this was a highly romanticized war. “Brother vs. Brother, Father vs. Son” sorta business. You can’t hate your enemy that much when you’re only spitting distance aways, and have pretty much shared through the experience of developing a nation together. The North and the South were not really separated by huge value systems nor was there really any xenophobic rationalizing of “Us vs. Them”. The North even asked Lee to lead them first vs. the South, but Lee could not take up arms against his Home State. States right first, then Nationalized Country 2nd. I can respect that attitude, and see the honor in that, however wrong and misguided the rest of their behavior may have been. The South did what they thought was honorable, and they tried to defend thier way of life and their own value system.

But in the end, you just can’t hate your own kin. I am certainly guilty of looking at the Civil war as a giant greek tragedy basically. You can see the honor and dignity in the smaller things, and you can’t just paint the war in broad black and white strokes.
For a nice fictionalized account, I loved the Killer Angels series- very romanticized, but also very enjoyable to read, and it makes both sides sympathetic.

Worked with a fellow whose dad fought with Skorzeny. He knew the bad things, but there was no denying the ballsy shit his dad was involved in, like the “rescue” of Mussolini. This informed my thread on Hanna Reitsch.

ETA: This also does not reduce my contempt for the Confederacy.

Well, yes. Besides the fundamental evil of tolerating it at all, and the hypocrisy of talking about freedom while owning slaves, they condemned later generations to dealing with the problem.

Slavery is a great enough evil that it overwhelms ***everything ***else. And without slavery it would never have existed, anyway.

I agree. Its no different than Vietnam vets reflecting on Vietnam. There’s no shame in fighting for your country.

If your nation is an evil one, then yes there is.

Again, why did they believe in a State’s right to secede? Because Abraham Lincoln was elected president, and given his anti-slavery views, that was intolerable. Better to secede than be part of a union where the abolitionists were in charge. Not that Abraham Lincoln was a radical abolitionist, but he was well known for his opposition to slavery.

Every “States Rights” issue came down to the preservation of slavery in the end, because every other issue could be compromised on. The only irreconcilable difference the South faced with the North was slavery, and the consequences of slavery, and policies to support or weaken slavery.

Thank you. Not to mention 100 years of counter-Reconstruction and Jim Crow bears out what the Confederacy was all about, and why the flag is so offensive. And let’s not forget the South fired the first shot. IMO, the United States government showed a lot of compassion in not prosecuting Civil War soldiers and their leaders more for treason, though I guess in the long run it was much better for the country.

It’s called “Healing”

I believe this is the sort of fancying up that the OP is talking about. We all acknowledge that Lee decided his loyalties lay with Virginia. One could either say that a slave-owning general decided to fight for a state that had just illegally seceded from the Union by abrogating his oath, citizenship and position to the United States in order to preserve a political order built around the immoral cause of state’s rights; or one could say that he was so patriotic he put state above country. For whatever reason, the latter interpretation seems to go largely unquestioned.

I can understand that people respect Lee for his military acumen. But it still boggles my mind that Route 1 in virtually all of Virginia is known as Jefferson Davis Highway. WTF?

I don’t honor Lee at all. Respect for his talent at waging war? Sure. Sympathy for having to make a tough decision. Absolutely. But he made the wrong one and was basically fighting to continue the institution of slavery. No honor from me. And I feel plenty of disgust and contempt for the Confederacy. And even more disgust and contempt for the romanticization of it.

But it pretty much was all about slavery.