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Civil War Generals

August 16th, 2017 / By

George Henry Thomas went to work as a law clerk in nineteenth century Virginia. Fortunately for the United States, he found that the work “lacked excitement” and he enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point. After Thomas gained field experience, he was invited back to West Point as an instructor. There, Thomas gained both the respect and friendship of the Academy’s commandant, Robert E. Lee.

Thomas and Lee later traveled to the southwest, serving on military missions and deepening their friendship. The two particularly shared a love of their homeland Virginia.

And then Virginia seceded from the Union.

We all know what happened to Lee. He declined a top post in the Union Command and renounced his oath to the United States. He led the confederate army for much of the Civil War, defending an economy and lifestyle based on white ownership of black slaves. He invaded the nation he had sworn to protect, killing more than 5,200 Union soldiers at Gettysburg and Antietam alone: that’s more deaths on American soil than the number who died during the homeland attacks on Pearl Harbor or the World Trade Center.

Overall, Americans suffered more casualties in the Civil War than in all other wars combined.

But what happened to Thomas? Despite his love of Virginia and family ties to that state, he refused to break his oath to the United States. The erstwhile law clerk commanded Union troops throughout the Civil War, from Mill Springs (where he gave the Union its first serious battlefield victory) to the March on Atlanta. Thomas’s family renounced him for remaining loyal to the United States; his confederate friends called for him to be hung as a traitor.

When the war ended, Thomas led troops overseeing Reconstruction. He helped defend freed slaves from local governments and the newborn Ku Klux Klan. In 1868, he warned about attempts to lionize the confederacy:

The greatest efforts made by the defeated insurgents since the close of the war have been to promulgate the idea that the cause of liberty, justice, humanity, equality, and all the calendar of the virtues of freedom, suffered violence and wrong when the effort for southern independence failed. This is, of course, intended as a species of political cant, whereby the crime of treason might be covered with a counterfeit varnish of patriotism.

How many statues have Americans erected to honor the man who kept his oath to his country, fought against slavery, and recognized the evils of romanticizing the confederacy? Just one (in Washington, D.C.).

How many statues have we erected to Lee, the man who broke his oath, defended slavery, invaded his former country, and led a war that killed more than half a million Americans? Too many.

We need not excoriate Lee today: reconciliation is part of ending conflict. But it’s long past time to take down all the statues, and we are sadly mistaken to honor him as a leader. We need to come to terms with the way in which Americans have romanticized the confederacy and its culture.

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