The Loyal Rebels

Jefferson Davis’ monument says a strange thing if you are not ready for it.

“As citizen, soldier, statesman, he enhanced the glory and enlarged the fame of the United States. When his allegiance to that government was terminated by his sovereign state, as president of the Confederate States he exalted his country before nations.”

Davis did, indeed, serve the United States government before 1861, but observers may be excused for any confusion about the claim on both governments.

Loyalty to one of these nations during the Civil War meant an intention to dismantle the other. But ex-Confederates and their descendants saw no inconsistency. Their declarations of loyalty to two nations across time made sense in their own history. It also mattered to their sense of their place in the modern United States.

In this way, the monuments and the history they projected—despite their simple appearance—reflected a great deal of complexity in the things they said.

Ex-Confederates bristled at the charge of disloyalty. They rejected the names rebel and traitor. Disloyalty, to them, implied dishonor, desertion, and above all, a lack of principles. The men on the monuments, described as honorable and courageous above all, could not have been so cowardly as to have been disloyal.

The Reverend Robert Cave, a former soldier, declared in his oration at the Soldiers and Sailor’s Monument on Libby Hill in Richmond in 1894, that “if history affords an instance of loyalty to an established form of government more unswerving and self-sacrificing than that of the Southern people to the Union, I fail to recall it.”

Cave explained that it was the South that had endured 40 years of hostility from northerners bent on subverting the Constitution. Therefore, Northerners had been disloyal, and the South had remained faithful in its attempt to preserve what it considered liberty, even if by leaving the Union.

Ex-Confederates readily agreed that not only had their cause been morally superior, but that losing a trial by arms had not in any way disproved the righteousness of their cause. Therefore, steadfast loyalty to moral principles trumped blind loyalty to a nation. Southerners could point to their consistency as they switched allegiance from the United, to the Confederate, and back to the United, States.

But it wasn’t always an historical argument. To be seen as steadfast and principled in the 1890s still mattered, and many southerners proved willing to act on their desire to demonstrate loyalty, even if they remained suspicious of the nation’s direction.

A few ex-Confederates like James Longstreet and John S. Mosby served in Republican administrations during Reconstruction. But while the outcome of the struggle for supremacy between conservative Southerners and the United States government remained in doubt, ex-Confederates largely regarded Longstreet and Mosby as traitors themselves.

In the 1890s, however, after ex-Confederates had regained control of state governments and the national government no longer threatened to impose black voting rights on the south, Southerners reconsidered serving the nation. And while Mosby and Longstreet had served as bureaucrats and diplomats, the military—legitimized by monuments to soldiers—proved the best venue for loyal display.  

No ex-Confederate embodied this desire to be seen as national equals and loyal citizens better than Fitzhugh Lee. The former Army of Northern Virginia cavalry commander and governor of Virginia (1886-1890) had served as president of the Lee Monument Association and was critical to the creation of Monument Avenue as a real estate venture. President Grover Cleveland appointed Lee to the United States consul-generalship in Cuba in 1896 and he was still there in 1898 when the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana harbor to precipitate the Spanish American War.

Lee returned to the United States, the center of national attention as the country mobilized to fight Spain. (Lee took time from his return tour of the east coast to attend the unveiling of the Jefferson Davis memorial window at St. Paul’s Church in Richmond, and stole the show with his Cuban entourage and his proximity to current events.)

Republican President William McKinley appointed Lee a Major General of Volunteers and the old ex-Confederate led United States soldiers back to Cuba. Among them were thousands of young Southerners who had rushed into the army, and ex-Confederates everywhere celebrated the idea that full reunion had finally been achieved through the South’s loyal support of the United States’ war against Spain.

Former Confederate General Stephen D. Lee (no relation) tied together Confederate virtue with American patriotism after the Spanish American War in a report to the United Sons of Confederate Veterans in 1899.

“The spirit of 1776, of 1812, of the Mexican war, and of the great struggle between the States, kindled again in the hearts of Southern people and found them as ready as their fathers to bring the sacrifices of fortitude and fidelity. The result has been no surprise to us, but it is a source of no small pride that the whole country has at last learned at its true value the depth and fervor of Southern patriotism, not only for the State but for the union of all the States.”

Many Southerners who viewed the statues on Monument Avenue likely nodded in agreement. Loyalty to moral causes removed any stain of rebellion and explained any apparent inconsistency in allegiances to warring governments. Ex-Confederates could, indeed, be the most patriotic Americans; and it was in war, as soldiers, that loyalty could best be proven.

For further reading on the Spanish American war as the consummation of reunion, see Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause and the Emergency of the New South, 1865-1913 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), particularly chapter 11.

The next post, “Wars of Words,” will appear on Thursday.

Chris Graham2 Comments