As a Mississippian, southern heritage is a subject that I'm well versed in. I would like to shed some light on this topic from a southerner's point of view and maybe even teach you a thing or two about the men we honor with statues and memorials all across the south.
There's a common misconception among southerners as to the reasoning of why we have statues and memorials erected of prominent figures of the Confederate Army in our towns and cities. I've heard some say the reason is so we can remember the evil history, so we can be thankful we're not living in those times, or so we can remember our past in order to never repeat it. While these reasons may motivate certain individuals and help their personal psyche, this is not why we have these monuments. These monuments were raised to give honor and praise to to good, brave, and courageous men. Some of you may have just popped a blood vessel reading that last line. "Good men? How on earth could they have been good men?" Well, let me take you back to American History 101, where your teacher probably didn't cover the entire truth about the Civil War and its prominent leaders due to government mandated curriculum and textbooks.
Robert E. Lee
General Robert E. Lee attended West Point Military Academy and graduated 2nd in his class in 1829. An Army veteran of 32 years, Robert E. Lee was the most decorated soldier in the U.S. Army and is known as one of the greatest military commanders throughout all history. His name can be found on monuments, memorials, parks, buildings, roads, and memorabilia all across both southern and northern states. He was a man of unimpeachable integrity and a hero to the masses.
On the eve of the Civil War, President Lincoln offered Lee control of the Union Army but decided to lead the Confederate army instead, as he couldn't bring himself to lead troops against his native Virginia. Lee was utterly opposed to secession. His view on the United States were equally clear: "no north, no south, no east, no west, but the broad Union in all its might and strength past and present."
Lee considered slavery evil. He did own slaves at one point in his life as an inheritance from his mother, but he soon freed them. The evidence cited in favor of the claim that Lee opposed slavery can be found in his direct statements and his actions before and during the war. This includes Lee's support of the work by his wife and her mother to liberate slaves and fund their move to Liberia, the success of his wife and daughter in setting up an illegal school for slaves on the Arlington plantation which taught slaves to read and write, the freeing of Custis' slaves in 1862, and, as the Confederacy's position in the war became desperate, his petitioning slaveholders in 1864–1865 to allow slaves to volunteer for the Army with manumission offered as a reward for outstanding service. In a 1856 letter, Lee wrote that slavery is “a moral & political evil.”
When Robert E. Lee passed away in 1870 at the age of 63, a former slave of his family did his eulogy. In his own words he said: "I've never met a more noble man as Robert E. Lee who released all his slaves more than 10 years before the War of the States". Shortly after his death, citizens in New Orleans formed the Robert E. Lee Monumental Foundation to honor his legacy.
Nathan Bedford Forrest
Nathan Bedford Forrest was a lieutenant general for the Confederate Army and is probably best known for his ties to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). When the first KKK was formed around 1866 (there have been three KKK groups) it held ideals that are different from the KKK we all know today. The first Klan had formed as a brotherhood with mysterious initiations and beliefs. Forrest described the Klan as "a protective political military organization... The members are sworn to recognize the government of the United States... Its objects originally were protection against Loyal Leagues and the Grand Army of the Republic..." An internal uprising began to brew and its members had mixed ideas and beliefs which led to arguments about how to achieve their objectives. When the KKK turned violent Forrest called for the burning of the uniforms and the group's dismissal. In August 1874, Forrest “volunteered to help ‘exterminate’ those men responsible for the continued violence against the blacks.” After the murder of four blacks by a lynch mob after they were arrested for defending themselves at a BBQ, Forrest wrote to Tennessee Governor Brown, offering “to exterminate the white marauders who disgrace their race by this cowardly murder of Negroes.”
By the end of his life, Forrest’s racial attitudes would evolve — in 1875, he advocated for the admission of blacks into law school — and he lived to fully renounce his involvement with the Klan that he headed and abolished.
He gave a speech in July 1875, that is so revealing of his character that I would like to share it in its entirety. He gave this in front of an organization of black Southerners advocating racial reconciliation, called the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association. Upon his arrival he was given a bouquet of flowers by a black woman, and he accepted them as a token of reconciliation between the races and espoused a radical agenda (for the time) of equality and harmony between black and white Americans. His speech was as follows:
"Ladies and Gentlemen I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is any one on God's earth who loves the ladies I believe it is myself. (Immense applause and laughter.) This day is a day that is proud to me, having occupied the position that I did for the past twelve years, and been misunderstood by your race. This is the first opportunity I have had during that time to say that I am your friend. I am here a representative of the southern people, one more slandered and maligned than any man in the nation.
I will say to you and to the colored race that men who bore arms and followed the flag of the Confederacy are, with very few exceptions, your friends. I have an opportunity of saying what I have always felt – that I am your friend, for my interests are your interests, and your interests are my interests. We were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land. Why, then, can we not live as brothers? I will say that when the war broke out I felt it my duty to stand by my people. When the time came I did the best I could, and I don't believe I flickered. I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe that I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to bring about peace. It has always been my motto to elevate every man- to depress none. (Applause.) I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going.
I have not said anything about politics today. I don't propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, that you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office. I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment. Use your best judgement in selecting men for office and vote as you think right.
Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict. I have been in the heat of battle when colored men, asked me to protect them. I have placed myself between them and the bullets of my men, and told them they should be kept unharmed. Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I'll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand." (Prolonged applause.)"
Forrest's legacy still draws heated public debate, as he has been called "one of the most controversial – and popular – icons of the war".
Today we are witnessing people from both sides of the isle screaming for all mentions of these two prominent figures in our southern heritage to be dismantled, erased, and blotted out. I am saddened, disgusted, and down-right ashamed of the rhetoric, lies, and violence being spread across our nation at this time. Some say that our history belongs in a museum. I say our history belongs right where it sits, so we can remember and give honor to these great men who we admire and respect for their courage and fortitude. May we always research the facts before making calculated decisions and never react out of emotion.