Toward the end of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee asked, and was granted, the ability to use slaves as soldiers. The Confederate government even promised freedom to those who would serve. This was a last, desperate attempt to stave off inevitable defeat, true, but it shows that a lot of people in the South were moving in a new direction, even as people in the North had been moving in a new direction. We shouldn't forget that both North and South were part of the same society, and neither was all one thing or all the other on any of the great questions of the day, including slavery.
So, let me ask you: what if it had worked? What if the South had managed to stave off defeat by freeing the slaves, and the North finally gave up in frustration and negotiated an end to the war? What would you do with an independent South committed to manumission? Well, we'll never know. Maybe it would have worked out, with two independent nations re-joining at some point, agreeing on the principles of freedom and dignity for all. But it didn't come to that. The South lost, and it is well that they did.
In the world as it really was, though, there was a new South arising after its defeat. Lee showed his respect for blacks as people in various ways after the war. General Longstreet became a Republican. Grant's administration enforced civil rights and destroyed the first Klan organization. The South was changing. And then came the election of 1876, the disputed Hayes-Tilden election. To resolve the most complicated election in American history, there was a tacit agreement made to withdraw federal troops from the South and leave the region to its own leadership. The unreconstructed Democrats came back into power. The Klan came back. Jim Crow descended upon the South and blacks were systematically excluded from their rightful place in society for another hundred years. What might truly have been never came to pass.
Emblematic of this resurgent, racist South were men like Alexander Stephens. Before the war, Stephens had been a Congressman from Georgia. When the South seceded, he became Vice-President of the Confederacy. At the time of its launching, Stephens said,
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [to that of the founders of the old constitution]; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.When people try to make apologies for secession and say that the Civil War was about States' Rights or some such nonsense, they are ignoring Stephens and everyone he spoke for. And after the war and the general amnesty, why, Stephens went right back to his old seat in the U.S. Congress. Later, he served as Governor of Georgia. Stephens, and people like him, created and nurtured the new form of racist society that prevailed in the South from 1877 through the 1960s.
When we remember the past and choose whom to honor and whom to censure, we need to make distinctions. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, though they were men of their times, are not Alexander Stephens. And in the general reconciliation after the Civil War, we should remember how willing the South was to step into the new era of racial equality -- before it was yanked back by those who regretted nothing, and had learned nothing, from their rebellion.