Refighting the Civil War
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly was the guest for the premiere of Laura Ingraham’s new show on Fox News Channel on Monday night. During the interview, he outlined a view of the history of the Civil War that historians described as “strange,” “highly provocative,” “dangerous” and “kind of depressing.”
Kelly was asked about the decision of a church in Alexandria, Va., to remove plaques honoring George Washington and Robert E. Lee.
“I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,” Kelly said. “He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today. But 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.”
“That statement could have been given by [former Confederate general] Jubal Early in 1880,” said Stephanie McCurry, a history professor at Columbia University and author of “Confederate Reckoning: Politics and Power in the Civil War South.”
Kelly makes several points. That Lee was honorable. That fighting for state was more important than fighting for country. That a lack of compromise led to the war. That good people on both sides were fighting for conscientious reasons. Both McCurry and David Blight, a history professor at Yale University and author of “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,” broadly reject all of these arguments.
“This is profound ignorance, that’s what one has to say first, at least of pretty basic things about the American historical narrative,” Blight said. “I mean, it’s one thing to hear it from Trump, who, let’s be honest, just really doesn’t know any history and has demonstrated it over and over and over. But General Kelly has a long history in the American military.”
Blight noted that Lee wasn’t simply defending his home state of Virginia against Northern aggression.
“Of course we yearn for compromise, we yearn for civility, we yearn for some common ground,” he added. “But, look, Robert E. Lee was not a compromiser. He chose treason.”