John Kelly is wrong on the Civil War — he can't rewrite history

John Kelly is wrong on the Civil War  — he can't rewrite history
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For a man who devoted his life to military service to the United States of America, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly’s defense on Fox News of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was unfathomable.

According to Kelly, Lee was “an honorable man” who gave up his country to fight for his state of Virginia, “which 150 years ago was more important than country. Now it’s different today.”

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Kelly also said that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”

 

The die-hard Confederate loyalists, the Lost Causers and crackpot historians who insist that the Civil War was a noble but doomed fight by the South over states’ rights, and had nothing to do with slavery, must be deliriously happy. General Kelly, that’s not what happened. 

Start with the proposition that Lee fought for his state. While it’s true that Lee was more loyal to Virginia than to the United States of America, he didn’t sit out the war rather than take arms against his native state and he didn't just fight for Virginia. Lee fought for a government whose “cornerstone” and “foundations,” as explained in 1861 by Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederacy, were that “the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

But who Lee fought against was also significant. The South considered the North to be an enemy country. In that sense, the Confederate armies killed more than a third of a million American soldiers — the northern “enemy.”

The notion that the Civil War could have been averted by compromise, as though this was nothing more than a commercial dispute in which both sides negotiated inflexibly, doesn't hold up to historical scrutiny. The immediate cause of the Union’s breakup was the South’s insistence on the right to expand slavery to the vast western territories, which Lincoln opposed. As Lincoln pointed out with considerable moral insight, compromising the principle that there must be no territorial expansion of slavery “acknowledges that slavery has equal rights with liberty.” Thank God that Lincoln did not compromise on that principle. 

Kelly can’t square his “good faith” on both sides contention with the fact that one side fought for the right to subjugate human beings like cattle while the other ultimately fought to free them.

What Kelly suggests was the South’s good faith was actually the deluded rationale that the black man’s inferiority justified slavery, which one southerner termed the “painful discipline” that was “necessary for their instruction as a race.” The southerner was Robert E. Lee, himself a slave owner. As General Ulysses S. Grant, the commander of the northern armies, justifiably wrote in his memoir, Lee’s cause was “one of the worst for which a people ever fought.”

Just days ago, in connection with the controversy over President Trump’s call to a widow of an American soldier killed in Niger, Kelly, whose own son was killed in Afghanistan, spoke movingly about the devastation to families when a loved one dies in battle and the need to respect and honor the soldiers who make the ultimate sacrifice for their country. By suggesting that there could have been a moral equivalence between North and South with people “ of good faith on both sides,” Kelly deprived of any meaning the sacrifice of some 600,000 lives, the total deaths on both sides. In fact, what gave those deaths meaning, what kept the Civil War from being nothing more than a pointless slaughter of young men, was the defeat of Lee’s and the other Confederate armies, which ended slavery and made us a better nation.

General Kelly, you of all people, should have known that.

Gregory J. Wallance is a writer, lawyer, former federal prosecutor and author of : “Two Men Before The Storm: Arba Crane’s Recollection of Dred Scott and the Supreme Court Case That Started The Civil War.” Follow on Twitter at @gregorywallance.