My Ancestors Fought for the Confederacy. That Doesn’t Mean I’m Proud of that “Heritage”

I’m a white man. My great-grandmother’s grandfather fought for the Confederacy (so my great-great-great-grandfather). Apparently, we used to have some pretty cool heirlooms like his battle sword and uniform, but my great-grandmother’s sister inexplicably sold the sword in a garage sale and burned the uniform to clear room in the house. Hell, my middle name — which has been in the family for generations — is Lee. I wasn’t named for Robert E. Lee, but I’m sure someone in my family back in the day was. The Confederacy is part of my heritage.

Let me rephrase that last sentence. Unfortunately, the Confederacy is part of my heritage. I would love to say that my ancestors fought on the right side of history, that they fought for truth and justice and the end of slavery in the United States. Unfortunately, they didn’t: my ancestors fought for the bad guys.

That doesn’t mean they were bad guys themselves. But they certainly fought for a bad cause. To say that the Confederacy was evil and that all the people who fought for it were evil are of course two very different things. There was a historical context that must be understood, and many people no doubt chose to fight for the Confederacy for reasons other than slavery: when there’s an army invading your homeland, it’s all too easy to divide the world into us vs. them, and forget that the “them” might actually be on the right side.

But that doesn’t mean we must celebrate those choices.

The institution of the Confederacy was evil, plain and simple: slavery was evil, the Confederacy stood for slavery, so by the transitive property, the Confederacy stood for evil. The fact that I am even writing this in 2017, the fact that we are still even having this conversation, is… words escape me.

We would never have this conversation about Nazi Germany (at least I thought we wouldn’t until last week). I’m sure there were some good men and women who served in the Nazi Army, not out of hatred, but out of coercion or a sense of duty (grandparents of some of my friends in fact) — but you don’t see statues of Nazi generals gracing the plazas of Germany. And it’s pretty easy to understand why: yes, possibly if you looked hard enough, there were perhaps some other things Nazi Germany stood for… but there was only one BIG one. And when the BIG one is the extermination of whole peoples, there’s really not much point in looking for another side of the issue.

In the same way that there’s not much point in trying to find the bright side of Nazi Germany, there’s not much point in defending the Confederacy. For whatever else the Confederacy stood for, at its heart — the animating force that drove its leaders to betray their country and launch a war that killed 600,000 Americans — was one of the great evils humanity has ever known. The men who died — and killed — for the Confederacy were dying — and killing — to protect a government whose very reason for existence was to defend the right of some humans to own others.

And that pretty much overrides everything else. You would never say, “yes, Nazi Germany exterminated 12 million people it considered racially inferior — but it also helped the German economy!” It seems similarly ridiculous to say, “Yes, the Confederacy tried to start a separate country so it could continue enslaving an entire race — but they also wanted better terms of trade with the British!”

What’s the major moral difference between Robert E. Lee and Erwin Rommel, both talented generals who employed their talents on the side that was defending evil?

Some have noted that other great figures in America’s history owned slaves, among them George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. But there’s a huge moral distinction between people who accepted slavery in a time that it was the norm, and those who fought to preserve it when it was on its way out. Washington and Jefferson had been born into a world where few people questioned the morality of slavery, and they certainly went along with it — but they did not fight for it. They did not risk their lives to protect the institution of slavery against people trying to end it. Had they been born 100 years later, I wonder which side they would have been on?

The leaders of the Confederacy, on the other hand, lived at a very different time, when there was a massive Abolitionist movement and slavery was the great moral question of the day. But instead of recognizing its evils, the leaders of the Confederacy actively fought to prevent evil’s abolition, using violence — indeed, causing the deaths of more Americans than all of America’s other wars combined — to actively preserve slavery.

And it is this cause that these men are known for, regardless of what other qualities they may have had. If not for the Civil War, figures like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis would have faded into history. Is a cause whose main purpose was preserving slavery — regardless of whose “heritage” it is — really a cause worth remembering and celebrating?

Two months ago, I walked onto London Bridge just as three men had driven a car into a crowd of people. Watching the same thing happen in America brought back all those emotions — seeing the bodies, feeling the fear of being under attack.

There were no “many sides” at London Bridge: if you’re not against the terrorists, you’re for the terrorists. And there were no “many sides” at Charlottesville: if you’re not against the Neo-Nazis, you’re for the Neo-Nazis. If you’re a conservative who finds yourself unwittingly defending white supremacists because “Black Lives Matter is just as bad”, try to imagine how you’d feel if it was ISIS that Black Lives Matter was protesting against.

The mother of a murderer can still love her child — but that doesn’t exempt the child from the consequences of his actions. And it certainly doesn’t mean we need to build a statue of the murderer out of respect for the mother. Sometimes, heritage just ain’t worth fighting for.

Born in Texas, raised in Oklahoma, working on solar energy and rural electrification in Africa, BA in Social Studies from Harvard