The Sin of Confederate Hero Worship

Why do Americans stand for Southerners idolizing the Confederacy, despite the evils of slavery and treason at its heart?

BY: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

 

This week, I took my family to Virginia in pursuit of one of my favorite summertime activities, visiting Civil War battlefields. We traveled to the four great battlefields around Fredericksburg, where more than 100,000 soldiers died in the course of the war. I also fulfilled my lifelong dream of visiting Appomattox Courthouse where on April 9, 1865, Lee famously surrendered to Grant, in effect ending the war.

What consistently baffles me in making these visits is the romanticization of the Confederacy that continues 140 years after the war's end. Wherever you go in the South, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart, James Longstreet, and the other Confederate leaders are venerated as heroes. In the course of my travels, I have driven on Robert E. Lee Drive and Jefferson Davis Highway. I've seen myriad monuments to Stonewall Jackson, and I've seen the Confederate flag flying from cars and homes.

As an American who loves his country, I am appalled by the persistence of Confederate hero worship in the South 140 years after the Civil War's end. After all, the South fought for a truly evil cause. While there were other factors that led to the Civil War, no serious, objective historian would deny that the principal cause of the war was the institution of slavery, and that the South fought to preserve its "peculiar institution."

Whether or not the soldiers of the Confederacy personally believed in slavery, they still fought to preserve the hideous, reprehensible practice of buying and selling human beings--each and every one created in the image of G-d--like animals. Babies were torn away from their mothers' breasts; men, women, and children were whipped like beasts. This was the essential, defining institution that the Confederacy struggled to keep.

Robert E. Lee was opposed to slavery. But his personal feelings about the institution are utterly immaterial. The only relevant point was that he used his military genius to fight a war that would have kept men, women, and children in chains. What on earth could make a man like that a hero? What could make a man like Jefferson Davis a hero in the eyes of the good people of the modern South, and what message are those who lionize this man sending to their children? That it is good to rebel against the United States?

Last summer, when I visited Richmond, the Confederate capital, with my children, I was astonished to see the enormous statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and the other confederate luminaries that line Monument Avenue, which the Virginia tourism literature calls "one of America's most beautiful boulevards." This, in the heart of a city that is about 60 percent African-American. If I were they, would I abide this display of veneration for the Confederacy's leaders? Were the statues erected with any thought to the feelings of the city's black residents?

And aside from the slavery question, were these men not traitors to their country? The Confederate rebellion cost the United States 580,000 lives. It began when the South rejected the election of Abraham Lincoln, a president who they believed would abolish slavery but whom we Americans today regard as the greatest president ever to lead this country.

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