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"on the lands recently abandoned by rebel leaders"
May 27, 2014 12:10 PM   Subscribe

To enforce his orders—and to make Arlington uninhabitable for the Lees—Meigs evicted officers from the mansion, installed a military chaplain and a loyal lieutenant to oversee cemetery operations, and proceeded with new burials, encircling Mrs. Lee's garden with the tombstones of prominent Union officers. The first of these was Capt. Albert H. Packard of the 31st Maine Infantry. Shot in the head during the Battle of the Second Wilderness, Packard had miraculously survived his journey from the Virginia front to Washington's Columbian College Hospital, only to die there. On May 17, 1864, he was laid to rest where Mary Lee had enjoyed reading in warm weather, surrounded by the scent of honeysuckle and jasmine. By the end of 1864, some 40 officers' graves had joined his.
So what's more fitting after Memorial Weekend to read about than how the US government took over Robert E. Lee's very own mansion and turned it into the nation's foremost military cemetery to honour the Union's war death?
posted by MartinWisse (168 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
On May 17, 1864, he was laid to rest where Mary Lee had enjoyed reading in warm weather, surrounded by the scent of honeysuckle and jasmine.

And some distance away from the former slave quarters.
posted by Doktor Zed at 12:19 PM on May 27 [1 favorite]


Good. I live maybe half a mile from Arlington National Cemetery, and I regularly go by it by car and Metro. People die in war, war is a horrible thing, and we should never forget that fact above all else. And this was a war undertaken to protect and perpetuate the institution of slavery, to commit treason to do so.

Some of the bloggers at Lawyers, Guns, and Money like to call the Confederacy "treason in the defense of slavery" and that is not only accurate, it's necessary. To this day I still hear people talk about the bravery and nobility of the leaders of the Confederacy, to talk about their Southern gentlemanly ways. It's horseshit.
posted by X-Himy at 12:50 PM on May 27 [36 favorites]


That's so crazy. I had no idea. It's really awful when people use the processes of law deliberately to defraud people. They should have accepted the taxes from her cousin just as much as from Mary Lee herself. I'm glad that they eventually paid Curtis Lee, but it sucks that he had to go to the Supreme Court to get the money - and honestly, the fair market value if the Lees had held onto the land would have been astronomically more as time passed.

Honestly, this may make me reconsider my desire to be buried at Arlington.
posted by corb at 1:00 PM on May 27 [1 favorite]


Only thing I'm sorry about is that the traitors eventually got compensation for it.
posted by tavella at 1:01 PM on May 27 [19 favorites]


No way should he have gotten paid for it. Should we have paid Japan for half of the Pacific or Germany for France after WWII?
posted by Aizkolari at 1:04 PM on May 27 [5 favorites]


Only thing I'm sorry about is that the traitors eventually got compensation for it.

Exactly right. Never before has treasonous action been punished so lightly. Merely losing land is the least they should have been worried about.
posted by kmz at 1:06 PM on May 27 [14 favorites]


I hate when people are defrauded by forcing them under threat of beating and death to do a lifetime of labor without pay. Millions of times over centuries in a brutal ongoing regime of horror. But corb, you are wonderful, never change. Well, maybe change a little.
posted by Drinky Die at 1:07 PM on May 27 [50 favorites]


maybe all presidents, as part of their campaign, should pick out a prime parcel of land around Washington and say "This is where we will bury the soldiers who die in my wars"
posted by rebent at 1:10 PM on May 27 [15 favorites]


Along with the cemetery some of the lands of the Lee-Custis estate were used to create the Freedman's Village for former slaves.
posted by humanfont at 1:12 PM on May 27 [2 favorites]


I grew up in the DEEP south where Robert E. Lee is revered as a hero and a brilliant scholar. Later in life I moved to DC. Late one evening I was riding home in a cab after a few drinks and looked up to see the lights of Arlington mansion overlooking the National Mall and it was at that moment that it suddenly dawned on me what a despicable, traitorous, bigoted man Lee was. He threw everything his nation had given to him, all that his very forefathers had fought for, for slavery and likely made that decision sitting overlooking the young seat of power of the republic for which they fought, just below his front porch. I wish they'd planted some of the Union dead right in the parlor.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:13 PM on May 27 [28 favorites]


LOL, having grown up in Virginia where none of this sort of talk would ever have been allowed in public, and bringing it up in school would have failed you a history class (and maybe gotten you a beat down, if you repeated it) it always amuses me to no end to see people on the interwebs openly talking about the frank facts of the Civil War.

To this day, I can't imagine even having this conversation anywhere near my parents' house, in like a coffeeshop or pizzeria or something. It would be...uncomfortable.
posted by trackofalljades at 1:19 PM on May 27 [3 favorites]


Hey, not *all* parts of Virginia, says this Arlington-born Virginian. The Union side was always "we" to me and my family.
posted by tavella at 1:25 PM on May 27 [3 favorites]


When the government was unable to accommodate the former slaves in the capital, where thousands fell sick and died, one of Meigs' officers proposed that they be settled at Arlington, "on the lands recently abandoned by rebel leaders." A sprawling Freedmen's Village of 1,500 sprang to life on the estate, complete with new frame houses, schools, churches and farmlands on which former slaves grew food for the Union's war effort. "One sees more than poetic justice in the fact that its rich lands, so long the domain of the great general of the rebellion, now afford labor and support to hundreds of enfranchised slaves," a visiting journalist would report in the Washington Independent in January 1867.
But tell us again about the poor, poor Lees and the terrible wrong that was done to them after they went to war in defense of slavery.
posted by kewb at 1:32 PM on May 27 [7 favorites]


In the 1970s and 80s my friend's mom made us homemade pie (consisting mostly of eggs and sugar) every Christmas that she called Jefferson Davis Pie. We loved it because it was delicious. It wasn't until I was a teen that I realized what the name of it referred to. I was in college before I realized that the Confederate flags I was so used to were actively hurtful to black people, and why. It's hard to see that stuff when it's everywhere. I used to take pride in being a "Rebel" descendant, cause "rebel" sounds cool and you're the underdog and They Don't Understand You, and all that shit. And then you learn some history and realize that what they were rebelling against was "let's not own slaves anymore" and you realize you're a racist, your parents are racists, your friend's mom is amazingly racist, and what the fuck was the deal with Dukes of Hazard and that Confederate flag car, Jesus Christ.

I didn't know the story of Arlington cemetery though, that is hilarious in a dark way. Thanks for the link, MartinWisse.
posted by emjaybee at 1:35 PM on May 27 [20 favorites]


I was at Arlington this Memorial weekend and noted the statue in honor and memory of the Bronx Bomber--that is Joe Louis, the great black heavyweight champion who served his country in the segregated outfits that we had then. Black troops were segregated till 1950, under Truman, and the rest of the nation had segregation till 1957. That the military of all colors and religions can and are buried there is a tribute to our nation.
posted by Postroad at 1:42 PM on May 27 [3 favorites]


In the 1970s and 80s my friend's mom made us homemade pie (consisting mostly of eggs and sugar) every Christmas that she called Jefferson Davis Pie.

Virginia still has a Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway—for someone who called the South's so-called Peculiar Institution "the mildest and most humane of all institutions to which the name 'slavery' has ever been applied" in 1881.

Just imagine what kind of shrine to "the Lost Cause" that the Daughters of the Confederacy would have made of the Lee plantation.
posted by Doktor Zed at 2:03 PM on May 27 [4 favorites]


There is a broad misconception that the South, especially the Deep South, was pro-Confederate during the Civil War. That is a myth that has only recently been debunked, notably by such writers as James McPherson.
Louisiana, SC, Miss were majority Black; they were not pro-Confederate in any sense. More typical was Ga -- 45% Black, but with a divided white population. A majority of those whites never voted for secession, and good 15% declared for the Union, before, during, and after the war. Not a few gave their lives for it.

In other words, the majority of people in the South supported the Union.

Similarly today. Yes, Lee & Davis and the other white supremacists are honored in certain circles, which include some of the powers that be. KKK Grand Dragon JB Gordon is the main statue on the GA Capitol lawn. But they aren't widely revered as heroes. Any poll on a downtown ATL street would settle that quickly.
posted by LonnieK at 2:13 PM on May 27 [4 favorites]


Louisiana, SC, Miss were majority Black; they were not pro-Confederate in any sense. More typical was Ga -- 45% Black, but of its white population a good 15% declared for the Union, both before secession and afterwards.
In other words, the majority of people in the South supported the Union.


Lots of black people in those states, eh? Goodness, I wonder how those states ever declared for the Confederacy.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:15 PM on May 27 [10 favorites]


What is this crazy idea that the Confederacy was like 'fuck your country we're gonna be our own country where we can still own human beings and rape and torture them for fun' and then they lose the war and don't get to leave the country and then they supposedly get to be like 'Oh whoops, do over! Can we please have back everything that was in place before, otherwise it's stealing'
posted by shakespeherian at 2:16 PM on May 27 [21 favorites]


In other words, the majority of people in the South supported the Union.

Yeah, they totally should've voted against secession. That would've avoided all the unpleasantness.
posted by rtha at 2:17 PM on May 27 [14 favorites]


The Ninth Circle of (Dante's) Hell is reserved for treachery, with an entire round (the second) devoted to traitors to their city, state, or nation.

Louisiana, SC, Miss were majority Black; they were not pro-Confederate in any sense.

This is really a perverse reading; by the same token, South Africa never stood for apartheid.
posted by dhartung at 2:17 PM on May 27 [11 favorites]


An interesting aspect of this is that not a single Confederate soldier is buried in Arlington (at least to my knowledge). All of the national cemeteries set up by the Union/US government both during and after the war (e.g. Gettysburg) were for Union troops only. (If any Confederates slipped in, it would have been because of service in the US army after the war.) I personally think that Reconstruction ended about 100 years too early, but I can understand the frustration of the relatives of these men (some of whom were drafted) at having to gather their dead themselves and create their own cemeteries. I doubt that burying Confederate troops in US cemeteries would have done anything to stop the Lost Cause assholes or the Klan, but part of me wonders if it wouldn't have taken a little bit out of the sails of the Daughters of the Confederacy if they had to walk by seas of Union graves to get to the Confederate ones.

Or maybe I'm just too sympathetic to the common soldiers but think that Grant was far too generous to the Officers and Confederate government officials after the war. I don't know what the effect of Davis being tried for treason would have been in the long run, but I do believe that he committed it.
posted by Hactar at 2:19 PM on May 27


Louisiana, SC, Miss were majority Black; they were not pro-Confederate in any sense.
This is really a perverse reading; by the same token, South Africa never stood for apartheid.

Not perverse at all, but factual: The big majority of people in those 3 states hated the confederacy. Just as most people in S. Africa hated apartheid, as Mandela repeatedly explained, and eventually that majority came to rule.

Yeah, they totally should've voted against secession.
In GA, the majority of the electorate did. Same with a number of Southern states: even an all white electorate couldn't be convinced to secede. But the majority didn't rule, and GA seceded.
Of course, Blacks couldn't vote at all.
posted by LonnieK at 2:20 PM on May 27


It's a question of the wishes of the electorate vs. the wishes of the population. These aren't the same things in a country where giving the vote to women was laughable/unheard of and black people were 3/5ths of a person. I don't know if, "What would they have voted for if they weren't treated as subhuman?" is really relevant though, because it's asked of a situation where it is already obvious anything close to actual democracy is not happening.
posted by Drinky Die at 2:25 PM on May 27 [1 favorite]


Hactar:

By the end of 1901 all the Confederate soldiers buried in the national cemeteries at Alexandria, Virginia, and at the Soldiers' Home in Washington were brought together with the soldiers buried at Arlington and reinterred in the Confederate section. Among the 482 persons buried there are 46 officers, 351 enlisted men, 58 wives, 15 southern civilians, and 12 unknowns. They are buried in concentric circles around the Confederate Monument, and their graves are marked with headstones that are distinct for their pointed tops. Legend attributes these pointed-top tombstones to a Confederate belief that the points would "keep Yankees from sitting on them."

LonnieK, I guess it's just not clear what sort of point you're trying to make. I don't think anyone outside of a few fringe theorists has ever argued that blacks would vote themselves into slavery, for example, and yet slavery was the law of the land. If you're arguing that there were anti-secessionist sentiments in the South, well, that's hopefully not a surprise to anyone beyond elementary-school history. Many merchants saw the war as ruining their business, for example. It is a matter of folklore that families were many times split (perhaps more often so in the border states) with "brother against brother". So why are you even framing the discussion this way?
posted by dhartung at 2:26 PM on May 27 [3 favorites]


Virginia still has a Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway

I give you Confederate Park Road. I often have to drive on it to visit relatives.

There doesn't appear to be a Confederate Park anymore (possibly one of the two parks it passes used to be named that). You'd think if we got rid of the park, we'd rename the effing road too.
posted by emjaybee at 2:35 PM on May 27


It's wrong to steal someone's land no matter what. To the gleeful opportunists: I guess it doesn't seem wrong when you or the people you imagine yourself to be like are used to doing the majority of the winning, stealing and killing. You shouldn't feel good about that.

Still, it is a lovely cemetery that has come to mean a lot more to the United States as a whole in the last 150 years. There are a lot of southerners buried there now.
posted by michaelh at 2:36 PM on May 27 [1 favorite]


It's wrong to steal someone's land no matter what.

Was it wrong for Haitians to "steal" Haiti from France? Hell, by that logic it was wrong for the Union to free slaves without economic compensation to southerners for their "property".
posted by kmz at 2:42 PM on May 27 [14 favorites]


It's wrong to steal someone's land no matter what. To the gleeful opportunists: I guess it doesn't seem wrong when you or the people you imagine yourself to be like are used to doing the majority of the winning, stealing and killing. You shouldn't feel good about that.

So what is it that makes holding title to a parcel of land so sacrosanct that it's more important than literally everything else in the world?
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:43 PM on May 27 [5 favorites]


It's wrong to steal someone's land no matter what.

Do you happen to be a person of European descent living on the North American continent?
posted by Drinky Die at 2:46 PM on May 27 [37 favorites]


It's wrong to steal someone's land no matter what.

Do note there was an eventual settlement over the matter, ending any juridical cloud.
posted by dhartung at 2:54 PM on May 27 [1 favorite]


There are all kinds of asset forfeiture laws on the books, particularly with regards to drug offenses. It is not at all a stretch for me to consider seizing Lee's land as mild in the context of what Robert E. Lee did to the country.
posted by ambrosia at 2:56 PM on May 27 [14 favorites]


Virginia still has a Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway

And now that one of his blood relatives is President of the United States, I find that particularly awesome.
posted by ocschwar at 2:58 PM on May 27



Was it wrong for Haitians to "steal" Haiti from France?


Haiti agreed to pay reparations both for the land and the people. They took out bonds, and thanks to compound interest, they only finished paying in 1947.
posted by ocschwar at 2:59 PM on May 27


If the stealing consists of expropriating the property of traitors who are fighting for the continuance and expansion of slavery, damn right I'm gleeful. If the winning involves beating said traitors and turning their slave-built home and lands to a home for freed slaves and the graves of soldiers, black and white, who freed them, fuck yeah I'm gleeful. If the slaver lady is so, so sad because her pretty lands and slaves are all gone, I am just a pile of gleeful.
posted by tavella at 3:01 PM on May 27 [15 favorites]


emjaybee: Historical marker for Confederate Park. A onetime recreational facility between 1889 and 1926 owned by a Confederate veterans association. (So you can stop wondering.)

Some data points about the seizure worth considering are that the Civil War was probably the first to cost more than $1 billion:
In the 1850s, federal expenditures had averaged roughly $1 million a week. By the middle of 1861, the government was spending at the rate of $1.5 million a day. By the end of the war, it was spending $3.5 million a day, and the government of the U.S. became the first to spend more than $1 billion in a single year. (The word billion wasn't even coined until 1834.)

On the other hand, it's worth noting that asset forfeiture, historically, is rooted in the power of the crown to punish dissenters, and so-called bills of attainder were severely limited under Article III of the Constitution. This still leaves a loophole through which, if anyone would fit, I don't know who better than Lee, the only commander of a true insurrectionary army on US soil. If we had thought it politically prudent, perhaps we should have tried him for treason -- but I can't imagine that the penalty enacted would have been other than hanging. By that measure, this was a kid's glove punishment.
posted by dhartung at 3:13 PM on May 27 [1 favorite]


There are a lot of southerners buried there now.

From the beginning of the Civil War, there were a lot of Southerners who fought and died for the Union. Laying them to rest at Arlington is the least honor the country could do for them.
posted by Doktor Zed at 3:16 PM on May 27 [1 favorite]


There are all kinds of asset forfeiture laws on the books, particularly with regards to drug offenses.

These are...not exactly uncontroversial, to say the least, particularly in the way they incentivize police departments to prioritize wealth seizure over punishment of the actual guilty.
posted by corb at 3:16 PM on May 27


It's wrong to steal someone's land no matter what. To the gleeful opportunists: I guess it doesn't seem wrong when you or the people you imagine yourself to be like are used to doing the majority of the winning, stealing and killing.
I guess I shouldn't, but I find it a bit surprising to be told that the side that did the majority of the things like "stealing" and "killing" wasn't the side that systematically enslaved millions of people.
posted by Flunkie at 3:39 PM on May 27 [17 favorites]


There's a long list of things that upset me about the Civil War and its aftermath. The fact that a prominent traitor to his country and his wealthy family lost their big, impressive plantation house doesn't come close to making that list.

A good friend of mine was laid to rest in Arlington a week and a half ago. I can't think of a better use for this ground than burial of veterans of "the army of the free" (as the song goes).
posted by Zonker at 3:43 PM on May 27 [4 favorites]


Did we compensate the British for the territory we won in our War of Independence?
posted by rtha at 3:46 PM on May 27


Did we compensate the British for the territory we won in our War of Independence?

I think what you meant to ask was whether supporters of the British Crown in the colonies were compensated after the war when their lands were stolen by those colonies. They generally were not, but they were supposed to be according to the treaty. That wasn't right either.
posted by michaelh at 3:58 PM on May 27 [4 favorites]


Lee's lan and its value were built on a foundation of slavery; how much of the value of the land should be forfeited to the people who were forced to work on it without compensation?

Also do go on implicitly supporting the Haitian reparations to France which included making good to slaveholders for their lost "property." It's always good to see propertarians show their true colors, not to mention revealing the tremendous ethical problems with making property the foundational concept in rights discourse.
posted by kewb at 4:05 PM on May 27 [6 favorites]


I guess I just never thought it was a given that a traitor who lost a war he declared on his country would be compensated for property he lost in that war.
posted by rtha at 4:07 PM on May 27 [9 favorites]


It's an interesting question, rtha, in all seriousness. I think a lot of the ideology leading towards "yes, compensate, every time" comes as a result of having been a former colony of England, which did tend to seize the estates of people who were adjudged to have committed treason, often on somewhat flimsy or victor-takes-all grounds. For example, nobles supporting different claimants to the throne would be hailed by the other side as treasonous, even if they might have been acting on perfectly valid succession law.

So when the US of A formed, a lot of laws and standards took place in response to some of those high-handed Crown actions. You'll note that Lee's property wasn't directly seized as a war prize, but rather through a roundabout and painfully circuitous legal trick. The question is whether you want such legal tricks to be employable at the behest of a government, which may use it again in a cause that is approved of less. The government is not known for voluntarily ceding power, once acquired.
posted by corb at 4:25 PM on May 27 [1 favorite]


Against a man who has proudly declared himself as the leading general waging war against the nation that offers him those property rights...

I mean at what point would Lee have lost his rights here...did he have to literally eat Lincoln's corpse or something?
posted by Drinky Die at 4:36 PM on May 27 [2 favorites]


LonnieK, I guess it's just not clear what sort of point you're trying to make.

Simply that the majority of people in the South despised the Confederacy and favored the Union. Seems like a pretty important point to me, but possibly it's common knowledge to others. Oddly, though, I've never seen it acknowledged by any historian, north or south, except here and there in the last few years.

The assertion turns on the word 'people.' Were Blacks people? The war settled that, and it was well understood in 1867, when it underlay the entire Republican strategy in the first Reconstruction elections.

I raise it only because there's a tendency to lump together any region or country -- e.g., the South reveres Robert E. Lee, the South is conservative, etc. And yet the South produced the CRM, the biggest social movement in American history outside the 2 revolutions. Not so conservative, I think.

I also think the great majority of people in the US, black and white, could have been easily won to a program of confiscating the land of leading Confederates and dividing it among former slaves and landless whites. But the powers that were decided otherwise.
posted by LonnieK at 4:37 PM on May 27 [2 favorites]


Hell, by that logic it was wrong for the Union to free slaves without economic compensation to southerners for their "property".

There is at least one person in this thread right now who openly and unashamedly espouses this precise idea right here on metafilter frequently and at great length.
posted by elizardbits at 4:43 PM on May 27 [20 favorites]


W.E.B. DuBois was the first to acknowledge, and it has never fully caught on, that the Civil War was what it was because the Black slaves emancipated themselves, physically, and attached themselves to the Union Army. They were literally called "contraband" before the Emancipation Proclamation, as a question of logistics, freed them and then allowed them to enter combat. 190,000 did, and 40,000 gave their lives in the fight against slavery.

Four million people were alive to be freed. Unknown numbers died in the Middle Passage or the fields as slaves. Reparations remain due.
posted by graymouser at 4:48 PM on May 27 [12 favorites]


The question is whether you want such legal tricks to be employable at the behest of a government, which may use it again in a cause that is approved of less. The government is not known for voluntarily ceding power, once acquired.

Absolutely; for instance, the power the US government had to submit traitors to capital punishment was not voluntarily ceded after the Confederacy was defeated, which is why Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and a large number of other surviving rebel leaders were hanged by their necks until they were dead in a military prison in Pennsylvania on the morning of December 25, 1868. /hamburger
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 4:51 PM on May 27


Lee's property, huh? How'd he earn that? Hard work?
posted by shakespeherian at 4:52 PM on May 27 [8 favorites]


The old-fashioned way: married into it.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 4:59 PM on May 27 [2 favorites]


You'll note that Lee's property wasn't directly seized as a war prize, but rather through a roundabout and painfully circuitous legal trick.

Your problem with this seems to be the alleged trickery by which his lands and house were taken (after he, you know, abandoned them and ordered his wife to flee as well), and not simply that it was taken. I'm not sure why.

The government is not known for voluntarily ceding power, once acquired.

As to this, well, yes. As much of the property - the people held in slavery - of the Southern states could attest.
posted by rtha at 5:03 PM on May 27 [3 favorites]


Absolutely; for instance, the power the US government had to submit traitors to capital punishment was not voluntarily ceded after the Confederacy was defeated, which is why Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and a large number of other surviving rebel leaders were hanged by their necks until they were dead in a military prison in Pennsylvania on the morning of December 25, 1868. /hamburger

Is this sarcasm or something? I can't tell, and I know that didn't happen, so I'm not sure if you're being facetious or what.
posted by Slinga at 5:10 PM on May 27


Believe it or not, the /hamburger denotes sarcasm.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:30 PM on May 27


Yeah, on this site, /hamburger or {/} means sarcastic statement. There's probably something in the wiki about it.
posted by rtha at 5:34 PM on May 27


I think many here are being unkind to the memory of Robert E. Lee. Lincoln, after all, wanted the man to be his commander of the Union forces. Lee declined, as he thought himself more a Virginian than an American. (This is one of the things the Civil War changed; afterwards, we would no longer be a gallimaufry of states, but one nation.)

There are plenty on the Confederate side worthy of rebuke. And many on the Union side as well. But when I read about Lee's campaign, I see a man trying to do his duty, as he saw it, as best he could.
posted by SPrintF at 5:36 PM on May 27


His duty to...?
posted by shakespeherian at 5:37 PM on May 27 [6 favorites]


Lee was a leading U.S. general. It was no coincidence that he was compared to Benedict Arnold by the North when he resigned his commission and took up arms for the South, and Meigs, who had served under him, was enraged at what he had done and at the deaths of so many men. It should not be forgotten that Meigs's desire to send a message to the Lee family by making their Arlington property a cemetery was undertaken while the war was still going on, and victory for the North not yet assured. He was sending Lee a message he hoped would endure whatever the outcome. I can't begin to understand what it meant to be in a Civil War, and I don't begin to know what I would have done in Meigs's shoes, but I think reducing the creation of what has become our iconic National Cemetery to talking about the Lee family property rights is kind of missing the point.

Mr. gudrun and I spent a recent Sunday walking in Arlington Cemetery, adding a stone to those already atop Medgar Evers's modest headstone, visiting one of the men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima, walking by John F. Kennedy's eternal flame, and taking in the spectacular view from the Lee house. You only have to be there to see why the Lee family mourned its loss. We walked the graves that flank Mrs. Lee's garden, and smelled the lilacs in bloom. We also stopped by Meigs's own tomb, with his son close by. Here is a detail photo of the bronze cover of his son's tomb. "Meigs designed a marker for his son's burial site. A 2 foot high base of green marble supports a bronze bas-relief image of the younger Meigs in full Union Army uniform and gear, lying dead in a muddy road. Discarded Confederate military gear lies alongside him. The prints of horses' hooves can be seen in the mud, implying that John Rodgers Meigs was trampled by fleeing Confederate troops."

For those feeling sorry for Lee, please note that unlike Meigs he lost no sons in that war. After the war he became the President of Washington and Lee University. Quoting Wikipedia: After the war, as President of what is now Washington and Lee University, Lee supported President Andrew Johnson's program of Reconstruction and intersectional friendship, while opposing the Radical Republican proposals to give freed slaves the vote and take the vote away from ex-Confederates. He urged them to rethink their position between the North and the South, and the reintegration of former Confederates into the nation's political life. Lee became the great Southern hero of the War, a postwar icon of the "Lost Cause of the Confederacy" to some. But his popularity grew even in the North, especially after his death in 1870. He remains one of the most revered, iconic figures of American military leadership.
posted by gudrun at 5:49 PM on May 27 [5 favorites]


There are plenty on the Confederate side worthy of rebuke. And many on the Union side as well.

Who can even say which one was fighting to preserve slavery? Let's not get bogged down in the details.
posted by Greg Nog at 5:51 PM on May 27 [40 favorites]


He was a traitor who led an army of traitors who fought at the behest of traitors who wanted to preserve the system of pillage, murder, rape, and other cruelty we usually shorten to "slavery." If there's a Hell I hope he rots in its darkest, most terrible and lonely corner. And if not - good riddance.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 5:51 PM on May 27 [14 favorites]


At least it's an ethos.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:52 PM on May 27 [5 favorites]


But when I read about Lee's campaign, I see a man trying to do his duty, as he saw it, as best he could.
"I, Robert Edward Lee, appointed a second lieutenant in the Army of the United States, do solemnly swear, or affirm, that I will bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the rules and articles for the government of the Armies of the United States.
Lee took that oath upon his graduation from the United States Military Academy in June 1829. For the next thirty-two years, he served as an officer in the United States Army. He did not serve in any capacity in the military forces of the commonwealth of Virginia until after it provisionally voted to secede from the Union and after the attack on Fort Sumter.

Lee was a traitor, and he knew he was committing treason.
posted by Etrigan at 6:15 PM on May 27 [35 favorites]


From a purely military standpoint, yeah, Lee was an impressive commander who fought an impressive defending campaign against long odds. But what he was defending can't be ignored when looking at his place in history. And unlike those lower-class whites discussed above who may not have been fond of the choices of the political class in their states, he was in damned good position to do something about it--namely, lead the Army of the Potomac instead of the Army of Northern Virginia. He made his choice, and I'm comfortable judging that choice.
posted by stevis23 at 6:28 PM on May 27 [2 favorites]


It's also worth noting that Lee was not held in such great regard in the white South after the war -- he was just one of the fools who had led the disaster. His beatification came a bit later. See Marble Man by Thomas Connelly.
posted by LonnieK at 6:34 PM on May 27 [1 favorite]


Is it really that impossible for you to think in other ways? To consider that Lee placed his duty to his State above the Union? Those were other times! The usual speed of communication was that of a galloping horse! The Union was only slowly knitting itself together through the railroad and the telegraph.

And of course he fought on the side of slavery. But go back and read the documents of those times! Was Lee worse than Washington or Jefferson? Lee was a man of his time and there are few in the South or North who could rise above that.

This is why I will always admire Lincoln. Like Lee, he was a man of his time, but he looked forward and saw something better, a time when the stain of slavery would be washed, through blood, from the Union.
posted by SPrintF at 6:46 PM on May 27 [2 favorites]


Yeah, they totally should've voted against secession.

Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee did not vote for secession until Lincoln called out troops. It was a pretty eyebrow raising move, far less than offenses that made northern states toy with the idea of secession. Hell, William Lloyd Garrison wanted New England to secede.

It is not at all a stretch for me to consider seizing Lee's land as mild in the context of what Robert E. Lee did to the country.


Sheridan burned and looted the Shenandoah. Sherman burned and looted Georgia. War crimes, in short. Nothing close to that on Lee's CV.

His duty to...?

His state, of course. You don't get it. Back in the day, charity began at home and allegiance was to the local. Where everybody knows your name. People didn't up stakes and move every seven years, fail to put down roots, move again in seven years.

Lee was a traitor, and he knew he was committing treason.


Had he marched into DC and strung up Lincoln, that would be a yes. But he didn't, nor did he ever intend to. (The Gettysburg Campaign was intended to destroy the army of the Potomac, not to burn DC.) Nor did Jefferson Davis. The whole war might have been a whole lot shorter and less bloody if he had. Instead, he said "save in the defense of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword."

Bear in mind that the troops invading Virginia were not marching to abolish slavery.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:47 PM on May 27 [3 favorites]


You don't get it. Back in the day, charity began at home and allegiance was to the local.
The local white guy.
posted by Flunkie at 6:52 PM on May 27 [9 favorites]


Back in the day, charity began at home and allegiance was to the local.

Even after swearing an oath to the national and serving in its military for most of one's life? Some people would consider that to be "allegiance."

People didn't up stakes and move every seven years, fail to put down roots, move again in seven years.

Lee was stationed in four states and the District of Columbia in the 1830s. He spent most of the 1840s in Missouri and Mexico. He spent the bulk of the 1850s at West Point and in Texas. He barely spent seven years in Virginia between the age of 18 and his taking up arms against his nation.
posted by Etrigan at 6:55 PM on May 27 [21 favorites]


oh_snap_flowchart.gif
posted by elizardbits at 6:58 PM on May 27 [2 favorites]


War crimes, in short.
I am eternally amused by people who will whine about 'war crimes' in the destruction of the factories and transportation systems that make war possible, yet stay silent on the ongoing rape, torture and murder of millions that was the 'peculiar institution.'

to destroy the army of the Potomac
So, treason as The Constitution Of The United States defines it.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:58 PM on May 27 [20 favorites]


You don't get it.

pretty sure he gets it
posted by Greg Nog at 7:01 PM on May 27 [4 favorites]


Well put, Mr Twists and Turns. One rich man's plantation burned = 3 centuries of carnage.
posted by LonnieK at 7:06 PM on May 27


Lee was a leading U.S. general.

Technically Lee was not a US General, only a Colonel. He was offered the promotion to major general, but he quit.
posted by humanfont at 7:07 PM on May 27 [1 favorite]


And, of course, despite this mysterious magical compulsion, such Virginians as Gen. George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga, stood by their oaths and their country. Despite his family disowning him. And despite coming from a slaveholding family, what he saw during the war led him to become a strong advocate of civil rights, including helping to put down the first rising of the Ku Klux Klan.

So fuck you to ol' Rob Lee, traitor, slaveholder, a man who betrayed his word to defend one of the most vile institutions the world has ever known. He made the world a worse place by being in it.
posted by tavella at 7:11 PM on May 27 [14 favorites]


Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee did not vote for secession until Lincoln called out troops. It was a pretty eyebrow raising move, far less than offenses that made northern states toy with the idea of secession. Hell, William Lloyd Garrison wanted New England to secede.

Thanks but I guess you missed the snarky point I was making about how the majority of the people who didn't vote for secession literally couldn't because they weren't allowed to, because of their sex and/or their status as not-really-human property of "real" people.

His state, of course. You don't get it. Back in the day, charity began at home and allegiance was to the local. Where everybody knows your name. People didn't up stakes and move every seven years, fail to put down roots, move again in seven years.

Oh, horsehit. He was a military officer who swore an oath to his country. This was not some newfangled idea; this was older than our little nation was at that point. Lee certainly well understood what it meant. It didn't suddenly have new meaning because the nation was not yet a century old.
posted by rtha at 7:11 PM on May 27 [6 favorites]


Bear in mind that the troops invading Virginia were not marching to abolish slavery.

Oh Jesus. Troops marched into Virginia because the governor of Virginia was like 'OH FUCK REPUBLICANS WANT TO END SLAVERY' and was like 'Imma build a crazy awesome militia so we can always keep people as property, people as property is my jam' and the Secretary of War of the US sent him a letter being all 'Uh, so since Virginia is part of the US I guess thanks for the militia?' and Mr. Gov was like 'Are you joking? Fuck the US! I want to own people and rape them all day! The US Constitution doesn't apply to Virginia anymore, woooo party central' and Gen. Robert E. Lee looked at this and went 'Yup, Virginia all the way'
posted by shakespeherian at 7:12 PM on May 27 [31 favorites]


I am slightly doubting shakespeherian's commitment to primary sources.
posted by Etrigan at 7:18 PM on May 27 [25 favorites]


wait I left out the part about how Virginia had an 'election' to see who wanted to secede from the US and used threats of death and other intimidation to keep any pro-Union folks from voting and deliberately made it an open ballot for the same reason and STILL 30% or so of folks who did vote voted against secession and THAT is the proud state that Lee decided he was I guess bound by a blood oath to follow into killing a shit-ton of his fellow US soldiers so good ol' Virginny could keep on owning people and raping them.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:18 PM on May 27 [15 favorites]


His state, of course. You don't get it. Back in the day, charity began at home and allegiance was to the local. Where everybody knows your name. People didn't up stakes and move every seven years, fail to put down roots, move again in seven years.

Sometimes you wanna go
Where everybody knows your name
BUM BUM BUM BUM
And they'll always duck the blame
BUM BUM BUM
You wanna go where people know
All people ain't the same
You wanna go
Where everybody knows your name
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:20 PM on May 27 [7 favorites]


shakespheherian, those where the days. The past is another country and your ancestors foreigners. In the North, my ancestors, the Irish, were considered little more than debased apes. In the South, the slaves were farm equipment. It was a different mindset! Your "I want to own people and rape them all day!" is ridiculous! Don't you get it? You can't judge them by your own standards.

Let me make this personal. I grew up in a family that was very anti-Semitic, racist and misogynistic. (We weren't homophobic, no, because in our universe, homosexuals didn't even exist.)

I am almost 60 years old now and I am terribly ashamed of what I believed, thought and said in my childhood. I understand what it means to be horribly wrong and I still struggle to do better.

So, when I read history, I try to cut everyone some slack. Those were other days, and we are just visitors in their country.
posted by SPrintF at 7:37 PM on May 27 [1 favorite]


You can't judge them by your own standards.

Pretty sure I can.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:46 PM on May 27 [17 favorites]


Makes you wonder who will be honoured in the White House and Pentagon Memorials. Yknow, when the x ys.
posted by vicx at 7:47 PM on May 27


I've mentioned my great grandfather previously. This whole "allegiance was to the local" thing - no, just no. Ggrandfather was a poor drover in Pennsylvania at the time of the start of the war and explicitly joined to preserve the Union, not to preserve Pennsylvania. History can indeed judge Lee - a professional U.S. soldier for years, a graduate of West Point! - on his actions and find them wanting, by our standards today and by the standards of his time as well.
posted by gudrun at 7:51 PM on May 27 [1 favorite]


I cut historical figures plenty of slack and try to take into account the context of their life and times. But Lee fails even on that score by breaking his oaths to the United States. So I don't know exactly how the "look at it in context!" stuff helps here.
posted by Justinian at 7:53 PM on May 27 [1 favorite]


shakespheherian, those where the days. The past is another country and your ancestors foreigners. In the North, my ancestors, the Irish, were considered little more than debased apes. In the South, the slaves were farm equipment. It was a different mindset! Your "I want to own people and rape them all day!" is ridiculous! Don't you get it? You can't judge them by your own standards.

Lots of people in the South didn't believe this. They judged their contemporaries who did harshly and did not cut them the slack you are so willing to. Not that that slack costs you anything, mind.
posted by rtha at 7:53 PM on May 27 [13 favorites]


There are always the most excruciatingly intricate excuses made for the poor sad oppressors, it would be excellent and gripping storytelling if only it wasn't so repulsive.
posted by elizardbits at 7:54 PM on May 27 [6 favorites]


I mean if the 'Lee didn't even think of black people as people' is supposed to make me feel more charitable to him
posted by shakespeherian at 7:56 PM on May 27 [14 favorites]


I hope that a hundred years from now when someone tries to argue that you can't blame Americans for drone-killing the shit out of civilians because hey, that was just how it was back then and they should cut us some slack that some of us will rise from our zombie dens and roar THE FUCK IT WAS and BRAAAAIIINS.
posted by rtha at 8:01 PM on May 27 [17 favorites]


corb Honestly, this may make me reconsider my desire to be buried at Arlington.

Hey, corb, I have been trying to process why this statement of yours is so offensive and upsetting to me since my girlfriend and I read it about a 1/2 hour ago.

We both have relatives in our family (some deceased, some still alive) who are US combat veterans. Neither of us go in for the nationalistic "USA! USA!" bullshit and we both opposed the war in Iraq.

You know what, though? In talking about it with my gf, we both agreed that regardless of the war (WW II & Vietnam in my family and Vietnam in hers) our relatives answered when called upon to serve their country. They wore a uniform with the American flag on it and went into combat. They fought to defend the US.

That you would invoke your service in the US military and your entitlement to burial at Arlington to further an argument *in support of traitors who took up arms against the United States* is appalling.
posted by mlis at 8:18 PM on May 27 [31 favorites]


You can't judge them by your own standards.

How about by the standards of more than a hundred years of abolitionist thinking that had seen the practice abolished in much of Europe (although, to be fair, most of the European powers were ok with slavery in their colonies)? It's not like revulsion at the "peculiar institution" is something we just pulled out of thin air in the last few decades. Lee and his friends knew what they were defending (and, I would wager, the oaths and laws they were breaking). They just gambled on winning the war as their whitewash tactic.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:26 PM on May 27 [9 favorites]


I feel, at this point, that jessamyn would ask me to step down. I'm sorry that argued so much, everyone.
posted by SPrintF at 8:28 PM on May 27 [1 favorite]


Libertarians gonna libertariatate. That whole "treason in defense of slavery" thing is small potatoes compared to "the big gubmint stole my slave plantation".
posted by Flunkie at 8:31 PM on May 27 [5 favorites]


Presumably, the point of ongoing civilization is to continue to make our civilization and society better. I'd argue we've become more enlightened regarding human rights, on the whole, as time has moved forward. Not only do we (as a nation) now regard black people as whole people who should go to the same schools and use the same fountains; we let women vote, and are starting to let gay people get married. It flies in the face of the notion of progress to say "those were different times" when what you should be saying is "those were shitty times," otherwise everything is excusable and why even bother striving to make progress at all? That line of reasoning, proferred in this thread, is just ridiculous to my mind.
posted by axiom at 8:57 PM on May 27 [1 favorite]


It flies in the face of the notion of progress to say "those were different times" when what you should be saying is "those were shitty times," otherwise everything is excusable and why even bother striving to make progress at all? That line of reasoning, proferred in this thread, is just ridiculous to my mind.

I think the idea is that "In the context of history, this person was good relative to his/her [shitty] times, even if on an absolute scale, they were still giant assholes." I think it really boils down to where people draw the line on good/asshole.

Lots of people hold the Founding Fathers in high esteem, even though they, among other things, were complicit in the continuance of slavery as an institution, giving power to the south through the 3/5th compromise, and several owning slaves themselves. They could conceivably even be ultimately blamed as the root cause for the massive amount of gun violence in this country via the vaguely-worded 2nd amendment. All that said, even given their faults, I think they are righteous dudes in the context of their times, even if they would be pilloried as backwards racists/misogynists/homophobes in today's times.

Admittedly, we're not talking about the Founding Fathers here, were talking (mostly) about Robert E Lee. Some people draw that "alright in context" line with Lee on the "right" side of it. I'm not one of them by a long shot. But I do think it's interesting where people draw these lines, and I think it's something can be engaged with thoughtfully, like you have.
posted by grandsham at 9:24 PM on May 27 [2 favorites]


I think taking the Lee family land and turning it into a [then] Union cemetery was perfect.

Certainly those in the confederacy who benefited from slavery should have been stripped or their wealth, so should have the Krupps [guns and your coffee maker] and Mitushibishi [fighter planes and your car] and the Swiss of a substantial sum. Pol Pot, post Khmer Rouge was at the UN in New York. Yeah, they don't do that. It's impolite.

As much as you want to imagine yourself being on the side of justice and all that is good because of where you live the US civil war was really more a matter of a bunch of boys getting dragged into a brawl by old men. To borrow and alter a phrase, "There are no idealists in war".

Punishing a geographically defined population because they lost a war is an entirely different matter though.The Treaty of Versailles could have used a Gettysburg Address. The consequences of failed reconcilliation are well known.
posted by vapidave at 11:02 PM on May 27 [1 favorite]


your ... your ... yourself ... you

If you can provide evidence for your assertions, I would find it illuminating. Otherwise, you're "offering nothing that is stimulating or challenging."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:17 PM on May 27


Simply that the majority of people in the South despised the Confederacy and favored the Union. Seems like a pretty important point to me, but possibly it's common knowledge to others. Oddly, though, I've never seen it acknowledged by any historian, north or south, except here and there in the last few years.

For the people enslaved in the Confederacy it's true but trivial because, well, duh, but for those who did the enslaving this is untrue otherwise why would it take the most destructive war in America's history to stop it?
posted by MartinWisse at 1:38 AM on May 28


Libertarians gonna libertariatate. That whole "treason in defense of slavery" thing is small potatoes compared to "the big gubmint stole my slave plantation".

Worse, the idea that slavers should've been compensated for losing their slaves, but not the slaves compensated for decades and generations of involuntary labour, something that should be the biggest sin in libertarian ideology.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:03 AM on May 28 [24 favorites]


That they turned Lee's land into Arlington makes me want to break into "America, fuck yeah!" every time I think of it.
posted by sporknado at 3:15 AM on May 28


That you would invoke your service in the US military and your entitlement to burial at Arlington to further an argument *in support of traitors who took up arms against the United States* is appalling.

I'm sorry you and your girlfriend were upset by my statement, but this is certainly a misread.

I love my country. I love my country more than it is fashionable even in non-East Coast circles, and an order of magnitude more than is considered tasteful here. I loved my country enough to raise my right hand and swear to risk my life and sanity to defend it.

But the oath I swore was not to the government of that country, but to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. In my eyes, that means a Captain America-like loyalty. You are loyal to the ideals of your country, what your country can and should be, even when your country is betraying those ideals.

So it matters to me whether we did the right thing. It matters to me whether we did the right thing against people who fought against our country nearly as much as it matters whether we did the right thing for those who fought in its defense. It matters to me how we treat "enemy combatants." It matters to me whether we take retribution against the families of those who fought against us, or treated them honorably according to the laws of war.

My ability to be buried at Arlington is something I earned, and I don't take it lightly. I have thought long and hard about it - whether I even deserved to be there along with the heroes of WWII, whether my shitty, ugly war should even matter enough for me to enter that sacred ground. And yes - the idea of whether or not the ground of Arlington was fraudulently acquired does influence my desire to be buried there - because I can be buried in any national cemetery for veterans and don't need to be buried on the site of yet another wrong action by our government.

But those qualms are not being used "to further an argument." They are genuine, and they are mine, and if you truly respect those who swore to serve and defend, then I hope you can accept that as well.
posted by corb at 5:03 AM on May 28 [3 favorites]


... the majority of people in the South despised the Confederacy and favored the Union.
---
For the people enslaved in the Confederacy it's true but trivial ...


Trivial? Blacks fought for the Union in greater numbers, proportionally, than whites. The 'Sable Arm' was a central element in the Union victory, morally as well as militarily.

for those who did the enslaving this is untrue

Those who enslaved on a mass scale were the ones who launched the treason. Vast numbers of whites didn't 'do the enslaving' at all. Yes, most followed their leaders, unsurprisingly, but enough did not to pose another major challenge to the Confederacy. Treason could not destroy treason within.

As I said: Taken together -- as people -- the majority despised the traitors and favored the Union. This fact was the foundation of Reconstruction politics.

otherwise why would it take the most destructive war in America's history to stop it?

That's a more complicated question, having to do with the slavocracy's long stranglehold on the federal government, the initial softness of the Union effort, et al.
posted by LonnieK at 5:28 AM on May 28


Those who are commenting without RTFAing might be surprised to learn that the US government paid the Lee family for the property in 1883.
posted by exogenous at 5:37 AM on May 28 [1 favorite]


It matters to me whether we did the right thing against people who fought against our country nearly as much as it matters whether we did the right thing for those who fought in its defense.

This seems fundamentally wrong to me. The wealth of the South – in a sense, the wealth of the whole United States – is the fruit of a poisoned tree. Arlington, the estate, only existed because people were violently kidnapped, beaten, stripped, locked in the cargo hold of a sailing ship, brought to a foreign country against their will, and forced upon pain of death to work in the fields of those plantations. They were beaten, the women frequently raped, their names and their language and their religion stripped from them and treated as chattels. They bore children only to see them toil or be sold.

No decent person should respect the property of the slaveowners, because it was all stolen. Their wealth, their fantasies of being gentry, were built on the blood, sweat and toil of millions who they did not treat as humans. That they were allowed the clothes on their backs was charity from the government that finally had to stop the horror they perpetuated.
posted by graymouser at 5:37 AM on May 28 [31 favorites]


Admittedly, we're not talking about the Founding Fathers here, were talking (mostly) about Robert E Lee. Some people draw that "alright in context" line with Lee on the "right" side of it. I'm not one of them by a long shot. But I do think it's interesting where people draw these lines, and I think it's something can be engaged with thoughtfully, like you have.

Doing so requires one to completely deny historical context in the first place. Slavery was frowned upon by most of the world powers before the first shots were fired at Ft. Sumter, so it's not as if the US was bravely forging a path for the rest of the world to follow. That people continue to deny this even after being told that historical context (repeatedly, in the case of some here) indicates that they have no desire to engage in this topic thoughtfully at all.
posted by zombieflanders at 5:55 AM on May 28 [3 favorites]


It's really awful when people use the processes of law deliberately to defraud people.

And yet in the reparations thread your main response to a century of postwar legal theft from African-Americans was to try to poke holes in the illustrative story of Ross and downplay the systemic, racist nature of other mechanisms that stole wealth and property from black Americans. Libertarianism really is an incoherent philiosphy providing cover to some ugly things.
posted by Mavri at 6:21 AM on May 28 [17 favorites]


Just wanted to point out that Captain America would punch Robert E. Lee in the dick.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:22 AM on May 28 [22 favorites]


It's also notable that Lee (through his wife Mary Custis) was the beneficiary of the slaves in his father-in-law's inheritance at the plantation. Which is interesting, considering the elder Custis' stated will that the slaves were to be manumitted upon his death, or if there was a pressing financial need (ugh) within five years afterwards. Lee chose not to free the slaves upon Custis' death, and he actually didn't even free them until two months after the five-year period expired. It was also "coincidentally" after Lincoln had stated that he would issue the edict (that later became the Emancipation Proclamation) that all slaves in the rebelling states were to be freed. And on top of that, he actually fought to remove that stipulation from the will while he was leading Confederate forces. So, in the middle of a war to preserve slavery, he tried to take advantage of the legal system (the same one later used against him) to continue to hold onto slaves in direct contravention of his father-in-law's living will and despite making tiny ineffecutal noises about abolition. This is also a man who, after the war, testified before Congress that it would be better if they just ejected all the black people from the former Confederacy because they were subhumans undeserving of the basic rights allegedly deserved of all Americans. It's only "interesting" where people draw these lines because it illustrates the horror inherent in a lot of thinking about the war, the Confederacy, and its continuing legacy and very strong (resurgent, even) effects both in the south and elsewhere.
posted by zombieflanders at 7:22 AM on May 28 [12 favorites]


I love my country. I love my country more than it is fashionable even in non-East Coast circles, and an order of magnitude more than is considered tasteful here. I loved my country enough to raise my right hand and swear to risk my life and sanity to defend it.

And, of course, since you are the only person in this conversation to have done so, this means your argument gets special weight.

Or is that not the case? Are there people who take significantly different views than you do, and yet still served in the military and swore the same oaths, the oaths that Robert E. Lee broke?

This would mean that your views are not the inherent product of your military service, then, and you are not the sole voice of service on this forum.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:25 AM on May 28 [10 favorites]


I love my country more than it is fashionable even in non-East Coast circles

Diggin the implication that the East Coast, home of the original colonies, our financial center, our biggest population center, and our national capital, is an exceptional bastion of America-haters, whereas literal secessionists from the country get the benefit of the doubt as to their loyalty to America's True Spirit
posted by Greg Nog at 7:35 AM on May 28 [53 favorites]


No decent person should respect the property of the slaveowners, because it was all stolen. Their wealth, their fantasies of being gentry, were built on the blood, sweat and toil of millions who they did not treat as humans.

Yep. It's not uncommon to see slave owners talk and write about the work their slaves did as if they did it ("I plowed such-and-such fields today," etc.). Foul.
posted by dhens at 7:36 AM on May 28 [1 favorite]


I love my country. I love my country more than it is fashionable even in non-East Coast circles, and an order of magnitude more than is considered tasteful here. I loved my country enough to raise my right hand and swear to risk my life and sanity to defend it.

hi I love my country so much that I'm sad a traitor to it got his land taken away so it could make a graveyard for the people who killed and died for it

it really makes sense if you think about it for a second and no longer
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:38 AM on May 28 [11 favorites]


I loved my country enough to raise my right hand and swear to risk my life and sanity to defend it.

A lot of young men did that -- they thought -- in the 60s and 70s. How the slaughter of 3 million Vietnamese 'defended' the US was never quite explained. (NB: I don't hold footsoldiers responsible for the murderous policies of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, et al.)

And a lot of young people built a movement in this country to demand an end to that war. They were no less honorable than the soldiers, and in fact many of them WERE soldiers. Their efforts, and even more so the efforts of the Vietnamese, carried the day. Good thing, huh?
posted by LonnieK at 7:39 AM on May 28 [1 favorite]


I mean, you love America. I believe you. But I don't understand how you can love America as much as you do and not want to throw up at the thought of a bunch of dudes who cared so little for America that they renounced their citizenship, declared that the Constitution had no bearing on them, quit their jobs in the US Armed Forces so they could form their own army and then kill US soldiers-- all because they were afraid Abraham Lincoln wouldn't let them own people anymore.

Like, that's fucking gross, right? They'd rather own people than belong to America? They'd rather shoot American soldiers dead than give up owning human beings?
posted by shakespeherian at 7:55 AM on May 28 [26 favorites]


Maybe it would be good if this didn't turn into the corb show. Again.
posted by stoneweaver at 8:23 AM on May 28


But I don't understand how you can love America as much as you do and not want to throw up at the thought of a bunch of dudes who cared so little for America that they renounced their citizenship, declared that the Constitution had no bearing on them, quit their jobs in the US Armed Forces so they could form their own army and then kill US soldiers-- all because they were afraid Abraham Lincoln wouldn't let them own people anymore.

The first part is that I fundamentally don't believe in dehumanization of the enemy. I think it's a really seductive, but pernicious belief system that causes some really ugly, awful things. I've had people I knew fail to provide medical treatment to prisoners because they were the enemy. It's not an abstract matter to me. I feel that we are morally bound the most to try to understand the people we want to understand the least, because there is a danger of judging them as less-than human and doing some things that are awful for our own souls.

The second part is that I think, going off that attempt to understand the enemy rather than dehumanize them, is that it's never so simple. I think a lot of the Civil War was less about a personal desire to own slaves and kill soldiers just for the sake of doing so, and more about a fear of societal and economic collapse. Yes, slavery was required for that society to function, and yes, it was awful - but that doesn't make their fears of losing their way of life any less valid - if anything, it makes it more. Like a lot of modern-day enemy that I have spent a lot of time humanizing, they went to war to defend their homes and preserve their way of life. Even if I think their way of life was vile - and at least where it concerns chattel slavery, I do - at heart, I can understand that impulse, because that's why a lot of our own soldiers join up. It's one of the things we are constantly exhorted to remember. Try googling "to preserve our way of life" and see how many modern-day results we come up with. Even though we often intellectually know that our way of life has many problems - misogyny, racism, etc, to name a few - we as soldiers still want and are bound to defend it, because it's the home we know.

So I can't throw up at the idea of people doing, essentially, the same thing as I did, but as products of a different culture. I can't morally say that they are any better or worse than me - even if it makes it easier to contemplate killing them.
posted by corb at 8:28 AM on May 28


that doesn't make their fears of losing their way of life any less valid

The "validity" of their fears of not being able to own people (or live in a society that was built on that foundation) is not a morally defensible premise.
posted by Etrigan at 8:36 AM on May 28 [6 favorites]


[Kinda feel like we've been there and back again at this point, maybe folks can get back to more of a link-centric rather than user-centric discussion here or just go get some coffee if you need to keep going back and forth.]
posted by cortex at 8:40 AM on May 28


The first part is that I fundamentally don't believe in dehumanization of the enemy.

You bring this up in pretty much every thread about the Civil War that you participate in and I have never seen you acknowledge the dehumanization that slaveowners perpetrated upon the people they owned, and I don't understand why this seems to be beyond you.
posted by rtha at 8:42 AM on May 28 [20 favorites]


The American way of life is one that allows the federal government to seize property owned by traitors. That power is written into Article III of our Constitution. The American way of life also allows the federal government to take property through eminent domain with just compensation. That's written into the Fifth Amendment to our Constitution.

Those powers are part of the way of life that American soldiers have fought to defend since the Constitution was ratified.

The federal government would have been perfectly within its lawful authority to try each and every Confederate soldier for treason, including Robert E. Lee. If convicted, it would have been within its authority to strip each of them of their property. The fact that it chose not to do so is an act of forbearance and mercy, not abuse.
posted by burden at 8:59 AM on May 28 [5 favorites]


My ability to be buried at Arlington is something I earned, and I don't take it lightly. I have thought long and hard about it - whether I even deserved to be there along with the heroes of WWII, whether my shitty, ugly war should even matter enough for me to enter that sacred ground. And yes - the idea of whether or not the ground of Arlington was fraudulently acquired does influence my desire to be buried there - because I can be buried in any national cemetery for veterans and don't need to be buried on the site of yet another wrong action by our government.

Dude, Robert E. Lee and his class of landed gentry are the ones who pushed to preserve not just slavery but also primogeniture.

Their damn fault that the plantation's only owner was Robert E. Lee and no family member.
posted by ocschwar at 9:00 AM on May 28 [1 favorite]


You bring this up in pretty much every thread about the Civil War that you participate in and I have never seen you acknowledge the dehumanization that slaveowners perpetrated upon the people they owned, and I don't understand why this seems to be beyond you.

I'm sorry, I thought I'd posted a link about it, but it turns out I'd missed one from an interesting book (Less Than Human - Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others) that goes into it a bit. While it's impossible to state that every single person believed a particular way, I think it's pretty clear from examining primary sources that many, if not most slaveholders, practiced dehumanization in terms of the slaves they owned so as to become more comfortable with their existence and with the cruelties they were practicing. I may not have talked about it because I figured it was pretty obvious and everyone was already aware.
posted by corb at 9:06 AM on May 28


The modern oath of enlistment includes this sentence, very similar to how it read when (as cited by Etrigan above) Robert E. Lee violated it the 19th century:
I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God."
Captain America fantasies aside, the U.S. military is subordinate to its civilian leadership, which is in turn subordinate to the will of the people as expressed through the democratic process. We don't collect taxes to raise an army of superheroes who will pick and choose which parts of their oath they follow based on their own understanding of what the Constitution allows them to do, in open defiance of the civilian leaders we elected to oversee them.

There are, of course, procedures in place for service members to refuse to carry out orders they feel are unlawful, but by joining the military, you forfeit your right to decide how to resolve those discrepancies. When you receive an order you feel is unlawful, you may refuse to carry it out, but you must also accept the punishment that comes with that refusal. Anything else is Calvinball, and would be antithetical to our system of government of, by, and for the people.
posted by tonycpsu at 9:27 AM on May 28 [6 favorites]


In the North, my ancestors, the Irish, were considered little more than debased apes.

And they rebelled and fought for human dignity. The rebellion was a failure militarily, but to prevent another one from exploding, Rhode Island extended the right to vote to all men, regardless of race. This was twenty years before the Civil War. Dorr got it right - why didn't the "Great Men" of the south?

If there weren't abundant contemporaneous counter-examples, we wouldn't be able to judge (maybe, not convinced), but there are.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:36 AM on May 28 [1 favorite]


Did we compensate the British for the territory we won in our War of Independence?

I think what you meant to ask was whether supporters of the British Crown in the colonies were compensated after the war when their lands were stolen by those colonies.


The British certainly compensated some.

However, the United States was not entirely pleased about the "theft" of Americans' "property" by the British as well.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:25 PM on May 28


It's always good to see propertarians

Thanks, and it's good to see improprietarians as well.
posted by michaelh at 1:00 PM on May 28


In the South, the slaves were farm equipment. It was a different mindset! Your "I want to own people and rape them all day!" is ridiculous! Don't you get it? You can't judge them by your own standards.

And yet, having sexual relations with slaves was socially acceptable (especially on the down low), while if you fuck just one sheep or cotton gin, people would think you were some sort of pervert.

Almost as if enslaved human beings were sort of like people, or at least 3/5 of one.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 1:52 PM on May 28 [5 favorites]


I just wanted to add how fucking cowardly the whole "please free my slaves when I die" thing is. How about doing what's right yourself? Oh, that would be fucking inconvenient?

Fucking cowards and assholes, slave owners and their supporters, one and all. I used to really admire Thomas Jefferson, but now when I consider his life and accomplishments, all I can think is "slave owner and hypocrite."

(Also, can we stop calling it "libertarianism" and start calling it by something more akin to the truth: "neo-feudalism", maybe? These modern-day feudal douches are like those people who believe in "past life regressions"--none of them are "destined" to be serfs, they're all destined to be barons.

In some ways, the six minutes it would take for the people who would genuinely come-into-their-own in a lawless society to slaughter and eat the silicon valley geniuses and 2nd amendment blowhards might be worth the insufferable pain of that society for the rest of humanity--we could at least enjoy those six minutes before entering the Thunderdome.)
posted by maxwelton at 1:30 AM on May 29 [5 favorites]


The think about people freeing their slaves in there will is that it shows that the slaveowners knew what they were doing was wrong. If slavery was a gentle an institution as Jefferson Davis would insist after the war, why would so many people free their slaves? It was a terrible thing they were doing out of their own economic self-interest, but it was so awful that people would regularly deny their inheritors the chance to inherit the slaves. Of course, as Robert E. Lee did, you could always get around your parents' wishes and keep their slaves if you knew what to do.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 3:54 AM on May 29


Thanks, and it's good to see improprietarians as well.

I think you mean anti-propertarian. "Propertarianism" is not an inherently or exclusively pejorative term, and would certainly seem to apply to the argument that the the Less' property rights are so fundamental as to render their armed revolt against the United States moot as far as the disposition of their land.

It's hard to make that argument, or the argument for reparations to British subjects after the revolution and Haitian plantation owners after Haitian independence, unless you are positing that property rights alone should be the foundation of social order without being essentially propertarian in your ideology.

The argument that the Lees land should have been theirs even after the Civil War must rest entirely on the concept that property rights exist somewhere beyond any particular legal, civil, or political order, such that revolutions and civil wars should not disrupt them, nor should even violations of any other rights. What can that be called other than "propertarian?"
posted by kewb at 4:24 AM on May 29


we could at least enjoy those six minutes before entering the Thunderdome.

oh my gosh i would be so good at Thunderdome
posted by Greg Nog at 6:23 AM on May 29


Thunderdome consists of more than smoking ribs, Greg.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:28 AM on May 29 [5 favorites]


all this talk about slaves

I'm just sitting here in my likely-slave-made dress clothes from JC Penny, H&M, and Target.

You want me to put my money where my mouth is, right? And stop supporting manufacturers who source their labor to questionable factories, right?

Well, maybe I can empathize a bit with the slave owners who freed their slaves in their will, maxwelton. I'm sorry that I'm a coward and an asshole. I guess I just don't know how else to get by.
posted by rebent at 9:55 AM on May 29


Ah, yes, the "being a worker in the north was worse than being a slave in the south" argument. Guess what? There is a difference between being a worker with poor working conditions and chattel slavery. You can tell this, if you are having trouble grasping it intellectually, by the remarkable lack of 19th century northern workers volunteering to become slaves in the south.

Your clothing was not made by slaves. You should absolutely advocate for better working conditions for people making your clothes, the same as the unionization and workers rights movement was a good for 19th century workers, but it's sophistry to pretend this is an excuse for 19th century slavers.
posted by tavella at 11:53 AM on May 29 [10 favorites]


uh, what? I wasn't making that argument. I was saying that it's not easy to give up our luxury - in the past or the present. I'm not defending it, I'm feeling bad about it.
posted by rebent at 7:24 PM on May 29


There's of ocurse a huge difference between being a consumer of clothing that may or may not have been made by slave labour (or indentured labour as close to slave labour as makes little difference) in a system where even the sellers of said clothing, the Targets, H&M, etc have difficulty finding out let alone controlling whether this happens (and isn't capitalism great) and being a slave owner who directly profits from their slaves.

The latter has a much greater power to stop profiting from slavery than the former.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:28 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]


I guess I should, uh, demand that Lee free his slaves?? Instead of focusing on the current system? And also stop empathizing with him because that is somehow excusing him?
posted by rebent at 6:10 AM on May 30


You can understand the context in which someone lived and acted without empathizing and without comparing your not-at-all similar circumstances to theirs. You can also work to change the current terrible working conditions without operating as if condemning slavery means you can't work for better conditions. These are not mutually exclusive things.
posted by rtha at 6:43 AM on May 30 [5 favorites]


Are you seriously arguing against empathy here?

I'm very confused about why my original comment is receiving such push-back. Normally I'm pretty perceptive about why the things I say are dumb, but this is seriously going over my head. I greatly respect both Martin and Rtha, so I'm interested in examining my confusion if you're willing to handhold me a bit.

here's my interpretation of the discussion so far. Can you tell me what I'm missing?

(1) metafilter: Lee was a bad person
(2) rebent: I'm kind of a bad person too, we all are.
(3) tavella: slaves had it bad. don't make excuses for slavers.
(4) rebent: ???
(5) Martinwisse: end consumers of pseudo-slavery are not as bad as for real slavers; the slavers can free their slaves while consumers don't have that direct ability
(6) rebent: I should stop empathizing with slavers?
(7) rtha: yes. Also, stop feeling helpless to make change.

I guess my mistake was implying that people who wear non-made-in-america clothes are basically slavers who sit around doing nothing about it. If that's how it was interpreted, I guess I understand martin's comment, but not the argument tavella made or rtha's suggestion that i avoid empathy.
posted by rebent at 7:23 AM on May 30


(1) metafilter: Lee was a bad person
(2) rebent: I'm kind of a bad person too, we all are.


Pointing out that everyone is bad sounds an awful lot like you're excusing Lee's badness, though. It's called tu quoque.
posted by Etrigan at 7:28 AM on May 30


(1) metafilter: Lee was a bad person
(2) rebent: I'm kind of a bad person too, we all are.


This sort of falls down when you recognize that (3) the idea that owning other people, forcing them to labor for you on pain of beatings and/or death, including sexual labor, was wrong was well-known to people in Lee's generation. To the point that they may have killed a few hundred thousand people in arguments about it. And (4) owning slaves is not something subtle, hard to know, or easy to hide from yourself. It isn't like failing to educate yourself about working conditions in factories in China or Thailand or Vietnam -- the slaves are right there, and you're owning them, and you have to either take some pains to manage your human property or hire other people to do it for you. Including having to worry about your slaves' propensity to want to be something other than your property.

So, yeah, Lee was a bad person, and so am I, and so are you. But acknowledging that I also do wrong in what I have done and what I have left undone doesn't mean that I'm just the same, or just as bad, as Lee or Hitler. The best you can say about Lee is that he's sort of vaguely understandable in the same way that Eichmann is vaguely understandable, but even that falls down since Eichmann was a cog in a huge machine imposing direct demands and commands upon him while Lee was at the very top of his particular slave-owning machine with nobody hierarchically superior to him. So he doesn't even have the excuse that his slaveowning was just following orders.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:41 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]


Are you seriously arguing against empathy here?

Well, yes, in the sense that I think maintaining some historical and emotional perspective is important. Recognizing the existence of a human being's violent impulses doesn't mean you are the same as a serial killer just because you once pushed a fellow five-year-old on the playground.

I recognize and acknowledge that Lee almost certainly felt genuinely and sincerely torn and pained about resigning his commission and fighting against his former country, and that he may well have felt at least...unsettled about owning slaves. I do not feel empathy for him; for one thing, many of his contemporaries made totally different choices, and those choices were available to him. For another, I do not and have not ever owned slaves; clothes or electronics I've bought that have been produced in terrible working conditions do not put me in the same place as someone who bought, sold, bred, worked, and punished or killed human beings under their complete control.
posted by rtha at 8:38 AM on May 30 [3 favorites]


Things were just so much simpler when things like clothes were made at home (by the women who were forced into marriage, childbearing, and lifelong unending servitude from just after puberty).
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:47 AM on May 30 [2 favorites]


This sort of falls down when you recognize that (3) the idea that owning other people, forcing them to labor for you on pain of beatings and/or death, including sexual labor, was wrong was well-known to people in Lee's generation.

Slavery of any kind, of any degree, is in my eyes one of the worst things and conditions - depriving someone completely of their consent over their own bodies and agency. But at the same time, I think that the existence of some people thinking slavery is wrong doesn't negate the idea that some people might genuinely think it was not. I don't think this applies to Lee, necessarily - I seem to recall that he thought slavery was wrong, but didn't know to get rid of it without causing more misery. But it certainly applies to a lot of people.

When I think of it, the analogy I can best think of is the arguments I have with my vegan friends. They insist that owning animals is a form of slavery - that torturing, murdering, experimenting on, and skinning and eating them is incredibly morally wrong, particularly animals that are, in their eyes, nearly as sentient as people. I will do them the credit of assuming they have sincere beliefs on this. But if at some future day, people may look back at us with horror for the casual way we dismiss animals, I don't think it would be fair to point to the vegans and say "Some people knew, this idea was well-known, thus everyone must have understood it and internalized it." A lot of the beliefs people have are the result of the experiences and cultures that have shaped them, it's not merely a series of intellectual decisions.
posted by corb at 9:58 AM on May 30


This wasn't "some people," this was most of the citizens of the US, a good part of those in the Confederacy, and a majority of the rest of the world. Lee certainly understood and internalized it very well, as his writing shows. That didn't stop him from trying to perpetuate it not only for his compatriots, but for himself as well. Wanting to validate that makes it worse, not better.
posted by zombieflanders at 10:04 AM on May 30 [2 favorites]


Vegans are also, for the most part, capable of distinguishing between differences in degree. There's a continuum that begins with reckless animal torture and ends with keeping a domesticated dog on a leash. Somewhere in the middle, you have sustenance hunting, recreational hunting, animal testing, etc. All of these, in some way, deprive animals of their freedoms, but aside from a few zealots, most people recognize the important differences between them.

With that in mind, can we at least acknowledge that comparing textile workers in 2014 to slaves in the 1860s is extremely fraught with peril? These underpaid workers working in terrible conditions might not have a lot of good choices, but they do have choices that weren't available to 19th century slaves in the United States. Trying to minimize these important differences might help you with your goal of making Southern slaveholders seem less morally culpable, but the only person you're going to convince with that specious comparison is yourself.
posted by tonycpsu at 10:25 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]


There's certainly a difference between textile workers in 2014 and slaves in the 1860s - in degree as well as kind - but I think there's a danger when the people who most benefit from those textile workers are the ones suggesting that the comparisons shouldn't be made.

The similarity there is less "how slaves in the 1860s lived" and "how textile workers in 2014 live" - radically different all around - or how culpable slaveowners in the 1860s were vice consumers today - but more "how we feel about the people who produce our clothing and other consumables." Just as, when you wore cotton garments or put sugar in your tea in the 1800s, you were benefiting from the products of human misery by way of slavery, so too now, when you wear clothing or use your iPhone, are you benefiting from the products of human misery. I think there's value in comparing that, even if the misery is different in degree and kind. Particularly when that moral acceptance of misery is one of the things that allowed the slave system to function.
posted by corb at 10:45 AM on May 30


This wasn't "some people," this was most of the citizens of the US

Well, at least a plurality of voters did. It's not like Lincoln was considered anything but the abolitionist candidate. It was his electoral victory that predicated the actual secession of the states because it was clear that they were not going to be able to maintain the "state's right" to continue as slaveholders without an electorate that would accept compromise. Lee sided with the slaveholders and was willing to march tens of thousands of men (at least 12% of which were forcibly conscripted as opposed to the Union's 6% incidentally) to their deaths to uphold that "right".

While it may be to some degree similar, though I may have knowingly purchased some cheap textiles from Bangladesh, I have not lead a massive army to war in order to ensure that the workers that made those garments continue to have crap wages and unsafe conditions, so I do feel that I can still comfortably (thanks in part to my cheap knitwear) cast judgement on Lee.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:46 AM on May 30 [5 favorites]


corb: but I think there's a danger when the people who most benefit from those textile workers are the ones suggesting that the comparisons shouldn't be made.

If you're insinuating that anyone who lives a comfortable life buying affordable iPhones and clothing built on cheap labor isn't in a position to compare the two, then let's ask today's garment workers if, ceteris paribus, they'd choose (a) their current situation in life, where they struggle to feed their families while working in poor conditions, or (b) involuntary servitude as it existed in the antebellum South. How many do you think would choose to be slaves?
posted by tonycpsu at 10:59 AM on May 30


To be more blunt, I think it's universally acknowledged that slavery in the 1860s is far shittier than the lives of garment workers in 2014. That fact, however, does not absolve us of moral responsibility, nor erode the usefulness of taking a hard look at ourselves.
posted by corb at 11:07 AM on May 30


they'd choose (a) their current situation in life, where they struggle to feed their families while working in poor conditions, or (b) involuntary servitude as it existed in the antebellum South. How many do you think would choose to be slaves?

Just as a nonscientific annecdotal throw in here, but having lived and traveled in China and seen these places for myself, one might argue that having left just-subsistance farming on a rural Chinese collective for the slave wages and dormitories of a "special economic zone" the workers have largely already have made a quite similar choice.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:10 AM on May 30


it's too bad Lee didn't take a hard look at himself, then.
posted by agregoli at 11:10 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]


Dammit, I just realized you're just trying to do your part for Metafilter. You magnificent bastard.
posted by corb at 11:10 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]


Well we've got to give Jess something to do on her last day!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:12 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]


She's already rocking the retired badge, so I think she's safe.

I think it's kind of an underhanded move to pull that MeTa comment out at this point of the discussion, though. I wasn't trying to be fighty -- I really just don't see how this thread, about the Civil War, is the ideal place to be reminding us that we wear cheap clothes built by people who don't make a lot of money, unless that point is in service to an attempt to minimize the sins of those who defended slavery as a "way of life." There is no other reason to make that comparison here, and if I can knock down that argument while contributing to MeFi, I'm all for it.
posted by tonycpsu at 11:18 AM on May 30 [3 favorites]


I think there's this assumption that every piece of discussion is in service to something, but I think sometimes at the end of a long thread, things start going kind of far afield, while still not being a derail because the only people left in thread are the ones discussing it.

I saw rebent's statement less as a reason to minimize people's sins, and more as an attempt to use something that's not quite the same, but can at least nod to each other in the street, in order to understand something. To a certain extent, it's what humans do and how they empathize - they take something from their own experience, and try to extrapolate what someone else might be feeling based on taking that feeling and magnifying it.

So what I was trying - and failing because I got grar-y about feeling misunderstood - to say is that it's not utterly crazy to use the one lens to look at the other thing - that there is, in fact, enough similar fellow-feeling there to make it a useful jumping-off point for people who want to understand how people felt about things from the inside. Because I mean, how else can we possibly find a point of commonality with slavers? That view is so fucking alien that you just have to find a jumping off point, or you'll be stuck thinking that they were actually a different type of human in order to reconcile the actions with their species.

But I also say it from a point of trying to empathize with a lot of people, even ones I find despicable, because I think it's more important to understand where they're coming from, to dismantle their notions from inside their worldview rather than outside. So the notion of empathy doesn't necessary equal absolvement, if that makes sense.
posted by corb at 11:30 AM on May 30


It's true that there is some sort of acknowledged similarity between the two issues, but it's not even like people buying cheap clothes are on the level of a Randoid arguing for completely unrestricted trade policies and "the market will correct all wrongs" on the intertubes, which would cause a bit of consternation, while Lee, as I said above, marched tens of thousands of men into their grisly deaths, many against their will, for the cause of states' rights to self determination on slaveholding. This was not some guy blissfully detached from the results of his philosophy here, he knew what slavery was first hand and he knew what combat was. This was the guy who brought John Brown to "justice" after all!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:59 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]


corb, I think you've been on safer ground making this point in the past when you focused on how few or perhaps none of us is in an ideal position to be judging the people of the 1860s by the morality of the 20whatevers. Several people in those other threads have provided convincing rebuttals to that point -- citing widespread acknowledgement of slavery as immoral in both the North and the South long before the Civil War -- but at least there was a kernel of truth to the idea that we should be careful when making sweeping judgements about people 150 years ago when society has changed so much since then.

But then, how can you square this warning against us transporting our judgement backward in time with your willingness to compare slaves then to impoverished laborers now? Nevermind things that might look different depending on how you see the world -- this kind of comparison fails on the same terms you cited in defense of slaveholders previously, and, unlike the commenters in previous threads who came with citations as to why they felt comfortable judging the morality of slaveholders, all you have is a vague notion that people who make clothes today and people who made clothes in the 1860s have both faced significant challenges. Well, yes, but there's sitting on a sweltering factory floor working a sewing machine for 80 or more hours a week, and then there's, you know, slavery.

I understand your desire to try to find commonality with people in the past, and to try to be aware of our own willingness in the present day to look the other way when atrocities are happening at a safe remove as long as we get our cheap goods, but it seems really opportunistic to do so here while employing an argument you ruled out of bounds when it cast the slavers in a different light. At a minimum, you have to admit that this is a high degree-of-difficulty argument that's going to leave a lot of room for people to misunderstand the nuance of what you're trying to get across.
posted by tonycpsu at 12:06 PM on May 30


I'll grant it's definitely a high degree-of-difficulty argument, which becomes harder when people are, for whatever reason, not expecting good faith or are expecting a coherent agenda, when you're off beanplating the nuance between judgment and understanding.

Lee leading an army that defended, among other things, slavery, which we would certainly consider immoral, also reminds me ofSmedley Butler leading marines in the Banana Wars, and about how the United States military has historically frequently gone to war to protect economic interests, regardless of their dubious morality. As the man himself said,
I spent thirty- three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country's most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle- man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism...

I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.
I think, speaking for self, I always want to follow the daisy chain of these connections, stretching back over all wars and all soldiers.
posted by corb at 12:34 PM on May 30


Really? You're comparing Smedley Butler -- who followed his fuckin' orders, to paraphrase Tom Hanks -- to Robert E. Lee -- who demonstrably did fucking not?
posted by Etrigan at 12:59 PM on May 30 [3 favorites]


So, this discussion got pretty heated based on an argument I was not trying to make, for which I apologize. I'm a little upset that I wrote so poorly that I could be misinterpreted as mitigating or defending slavery.

Tonycpsu, I did not intend to minimize any actions.

I don't think there's "good" people and "bad" people. Just people. I think that powerful people commit greater atrocities, not because they are bad, but because they are the few people who have the capability to pull it off.

I have to ask myself, if I do (not a question of intention or desire) benefit from the suffering of others, as a "wage slave" myself, what might I be capable of if I had more power?

What are the current people who do have power doing right now, that will be in the history books in a hundred years?

There are no "bad guys" for us to defeat. There's just the relentless grind of power enabling terrible things to happen because we don't have nearly enough moderation over those in power. We can't just sit back and say "Well thank goodness we took Lee's land and turned it into a cemetery! Job complete, evil eliminated!" Because bit by bit it creeps back, until we're doing worse things than the "Bad guys" did in the past. Not saying we're there yet, but if we act like there's no reason to be careful, we will be someday.
posted by rebent at 4:03 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


My first comment was one of emotion. I guess I've answered my own question: I "get by" by keeping an eye out, sic semper tyrannis, and not letting people turn a blind eye to the cruelty at the foundation of our economy.
posted by rebent at 4:04 PM on May 30


There are no "bad guys" for us to defeat. There's just the relentless grind of power enabling terrible things to happen because we don't have nearly enough moderation over those in power

Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:12 PM on May 30


the fuck? (via)
In Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, Michael Korda, the New York Times bestselling biographer of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ulysses S. Grant, and T. E. Lawrence, has written the first major biography of Lee in nearly twenty years, bringing to life America’s greatest and most iconic hero.
posted by tonycpsu at 4:15 PM on June 2


Lee was not 'America's greatest hero.' Or even its 'most iconic,' whatever that means.
John Brown, hanged for an attempt to steal guns, inspired more people to fight than Lee ever did. I've never heard of CSA soldiers on the march singing hymns to Lee.
Most iconic? MLK, Malcolm X, Crazy Horse, Harriet Tubman all trump R.E. Lee, except in tiny circles of Southern crazies.
posted by LonnieK at 7:15 PM on June 2


Evil Knievel.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:19 PM on June 2


Even if you want to roll with white male slaveholder Virginians, George Washington is a hell of a lot more iconic than Lee.
posted by tavella at 9:14 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


Plus he did something genuinely heroic in de-Kingifying the position of President. There's certainly an unpleasant later history of generals-in-chief of wars of liberation turning into dictators themselves, and Washington did a very good thing in setting the tone for treatment and limited terms of Presidents.
posted by tavella at 9:16 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


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