Benedict Arnold was one of our best generals in the American Revolution. George Washington placed great trust in Arnold. But Arnold switched sides, betrayed the American cause and tried to hand West Point over to the British. His name has gone down in infamy.
Like Arnold, Robert E. Lee was an exceptional military officer. He fought for our country in the Mexican-American War, and when the American Civil War began Lee was offered a senior command in the U.S. Army. But, like Arnold, Lee was a turncoat.
Lee took an oath to defend our country and our Constitution, and betrayed his oath. He took up arms against the United States and killed thousands upon thousands of our soldiers.
We do not erect statues of Arnold, yet we have more than 700 monuments to Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and other Confederate soldiers and politicians who betrayed our country. Why do we have monuments to people who fought against our flag and Constitution?
Why do we honor Gens. Nathan Bedford Forest and Edmund Pettus, who became Grand Dragons of the Ku Klux Klan? Why do we name 10 U.S. Army forts after men like John Bell Hood and Braxton Bragg, enemies of our country who killed our soldiers?
The answer lies in the myth of the “ Lost Cause,” a pseudo-historical ideology that claims the Confederate cause was a just and noble one. Central to the Lost Cause myth is the idea that the South was fighting to preserve states’ rights and Southern culture against Northern aggression, not to defend slavery.
But consider what the Southerners themselves said when they were trying to secede from the United States. In an official statement, South Carolina said they were seceding because the North and President-elect Abraham Lincoln were “hostile to slavery,” and that Northern states refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. In fact, all of the Southern states that issued formal explanations named the threat to slaveholders’ rights as the major cause of secession.
Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States, said that the cornerstone of the Confederacy “rests 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.” And the Confederacy enshrined slavery permanently into its constitution.
Did Southerners also want states’ rights? Yes, when it meant their right to enslave other human beings. But they opposed states rights when Northern states didn’t want to return black people to enslavement in the South.
The monuments to Confederate generals and soldiers were designed to promote Lost Cause mythology, and to sugarcoat white supremacist ideology. Confederate monument-building has been part of widespread campaigns to promote and justify Jim Crow segregation laws. Many were constructed between 1880 and 1920, after white supremacists regained control of Southern state governments, and more were erected during the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. They were designed to send a militant message that white people are in charge and black people should stay in their place.
Taking down the monuments to traitors who fought against our country, our flag and our Constitution is not an attempt to erase history. It is the opposite. The monuments themselves were an attempt to distort and sanitize history. Removing them will help correct the record.
Like Benedict Arnold, we should remember that Robert E. Lee was no patriot. Yes, he was a talented general, but he betrayed his oath to our country, and fought on the side of an immoral and despicable cause. If the South wants monuments, let them have monuments to real heroes like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton.
The Rev. J. Mark Worth is minister emeritus of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ellsworth. He was a history teacher before becoming a pastor.