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Home/Rod Dreher/The Day They Drove Old Dixie Down

The Day They Drove Old Dixie Down

'There goes Robert E. Lee' (Virginia Public Media)

The friend with whom I stayed at the end of my Italian trip has excellent taste in American music. As he drove me to the airport, the mix tape on his car radio included The Band’s immortal 1969 ballad “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. Watch this, especially if you haven’t heard it in a while. It’s a clip from “The Last Waltz”:

We were driving through exurban Rome, and there I was listening to a song that makes me love my Southern home like no other. I was right back there, even though I was on the other side of the ocean, and about 20 hours away. I have always loved that song, and I still do. It is a song of defeat, of what it can mean to lose a war: it means losing your brother, it means going hungry, it means watching everything that gave meaning to your life crushed to dust. Here are the lyrics:

Virgil Caine is the name
And I served on the Danville train
‘Till Stoneman’s cavalry came
And tore up the tracks again

In the winter of ’65
We were hungry, just barely alive
By May the 10th, Richmond had fell
It’s a time I remember, oh so well

The night they drove old Dixie down
And the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down
And the people were singing
They went, “Na, na, la, na, na, na”

Back with my wife in Tennessee
When one day she called to me
Said “Virgil, quick, come see,
There goes the Robert E. Lee!”

Now, I don’t mind chopping wood
And I don’t care if the money’s no good
You take what you need
And you leave the rest
But they should never
Have taken the very best

The night they drove old Dixie down
And the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down
And all the people were singing
They went, “Na, na, la, na, na, na”

Like my father before me
I will work the land
And like my brother above me
Who took a rebel stand

He was just 18, proud and brave
But a Yankee laid him in his grave
I swear by the mud below my feet
You can’t raise a Caine back up
When he’s in defeat

The night they drove old Dixie down
And the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down
And all the people were singing
They went, “Na, na, la, na, na, na”

The night they drove old Dixie down
And all the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down
And the people were singing
They went, “Na, na, la, na, na, na”

It’s told in the voice of a Southern man who survived the end of the Civil War. He was not a patrician or an officer, but a small farmer. The song is a dirge. Towards the end of the war, Gen. Stoneman’s troops were under orders to wage total war on the Southern population, including destroying their food supply to starve Lee’s army defending Richmond. This is what Virgil Caine means when he says they were starving nearly to death at the end. The Confederacy surrenders, and he returns home to his wife, but the tragic figure of Robert E. Lee still draws respect and awe. His young brother died fighting, and his lament about how they “have taken the very best” is a bitter protest against the waste of war.

I always thought that the line “you can’t raise a Caine up when he’s in defeat” was just a bad pun, but thinking about it, I think it has a deeper meaning. To “raise Cain” is an expression meaning to be rowdy and violent. This seems to be Robbie Robertson, the songwriter, saying that the South’s defeat has been so thorough that it will not rage again. The pun of “feet” and “defeat” can be read as saying that Virgil’s brother is dead and buried, and there will be no resurrection of him or of the Confederate cause. Plus, if you think of the Civil War as a war between brothers, as it is often described, Abel slew Cain — the righteous brother slew the unrighteous one, in a reversal of the Biblical story. In any case, the death of Virgil’s brother has resigned him to accepting the loss of old Dixie.

What could he mean by saying “all the bells were ringing”? Again, I think Robbie Robertson rather brilliantly gives us a double meaning: in the South, the bells were tolling for the death of the lost cause, but in the North, the bells were sounding victory for the defeat of slavery and the defense of the Union. The fact that the bells of victory could sound like bells of defeat, depending on where you lived in America, captures the tragedy of civil war.

Though I am a white Southerner, from the time I was old enough to understand what the Civil War was, I have believed that the South deserved to lose. It was a bad war, fought for a bad cause. Nevertheless, these were my ancestors who fought in the war, and the ancestors of the (white) people I grew up with. And those ancestors fought in a cause that enslaved the ancestors of the black people I grew up with. History is heavy, and history is tragic. It’s as tragic as hell.

Robert E. Lee is the ultimate embodiment of that tragedy. He was the best of the South, an iconic Southern gentleman. He did not believe in slavery, and he did not believe in secession. But once Virginia decided to secede, he saw it as his duty to fight for his people, even though he thought they were wrong. Having good intentions is not a moral excuse, as we know. But what would I have done in Lee’s position? If you know for sure what you would have done, you are almost certainly wrong. If there were a civil war in America today, for whom would you fight?

A couple of years ago, a cousin of mine sent me a bound volume of a memoir that some distant relative had printed. It was a manuscript left behind by a Southern relative who was too young during the Civil War to serve in the military, but who had vivid memories of it. His older brother served. I guess he would have been just a little bit younger than Virgil Caine. He lived in southern Mississippi, near the Louisiana border. His family were small farmers. His description of everyday life was so prosaic. They were fairly poor. Everybody had it hard, except the rich. He did not mention slavery, and barely mentioned the presence of black people. You could fault him for that, but the fact was that for a small white farmer back then, slavery was simply a fact of life. When my kinsman wrote about his brother joining the Confederate Army, there was no sense that this caused any moral anguish, and I’m sure it did not. Few non-rich white men had the luxury of choosing which side they wanted to fight for, or if they wanted to fight at all. Besides, of course you would have fought for the side your people were on, North or South. To have taken up arms for this abstraction called the Union (or, alternatively, if you were a Northerner, for the Confederacy in far-off Richmond), would have made no sense. Most people back then who were not wealthy never traveled far from where they lived. To have had the presence of mind to have been able to morally imagine that you could choose to fight against your own kin and neighbors would have been impossible in the 1860s.

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” doesn’t make me sympathetic for the Confederacy, or to the Confederacy, and never did. It conveys to me the pain of defeat, and of the tragedy of giving everything you have to a losing cause. There’s nothing in the song to indicate that Virgil Caine believes slavery was wrong, but to have put that sentiment into the mouth of a Southern veteran of the Civil War would have been anachronistic. The song speaks for itself about what it means to love your land, even in defeat — and even as you forswear vengeance as futile (“you can’t raise a Caine when he’s in defeat”).

On The Band’s website, record producer Jonathan Taplin recalls:

It was May and they’d just finished it the night before. They said it’d come out fast and hard and clean. It was just the most moving experience I’d had for, God, I don’t know how long. Because for me, being a Northern liberal kid who’d been involved in the Civil Rights movement and had a whole attitude towards the South, well, I loved the music but I didn’t understand where white Southerners were coming from. And to have it all in just three and a half minutes, the sense of dignity and place and tradition, all those things … Well, the next day after I’d recovered, I went to Robbie and asked him, “How did that come out of you?” And he just said that being with Levon so long in his life and being in that place at that time … It was so inside him that he wanted to write the song right at Levon, to let him know how much those things meant to him.

Levon Helm, the Band’s drummer and the singer of that song, was from small-town Arkansas. His father was a cotton farmer. Robbie Robertson, a Canadian, got the idea for the song after visiting Helm’s parents.

Taplin is right, though: “the sense of dignity and place and tradition, all those things.” I have spent much of my adult life living outside the South, and have understood the contempt that many of the people I’ve worked with there would have for my family and my people (meaning, those I grew up among) if they knew everything about them. I don’t know if it’s an American thing, or a Northern thing, but the lack of a tragic sense is a terrible thing to see. Me, as I’ve looked back over my younger life, and think of all the old folks, most of them now dead, who formed me, I recognize how terrible the race hatred they had was. And yet, that race hatred wasn’t the whole of them. They could also be so good, even heroic. And always complicated.

I think of my own late father. He and I did not talk about race, by unspoken mutual consent, but I’m fairly certain that he had all the prejudices of white men of his time and place. One of my most vivid memories of him was his telling the story of Calvin McKnight, an older black man who lived on a shack on our family’s land. My father farmed that land — about 50 acres — with only Calvin to help him. Daddy had a desk job, but it barely paid, and he wanted to be able to afford a family one day. In 1965, a year after my father married, he had to have back surgery. Doctors warned that it might leave him paralyzed.

Calvin walked all the way up to the house to speak to my mother, my dad’s new wife. He was wearing his dusty overalls, and crying. He gave my mother a silver dollar. “I want to help pay for Little Boss’s operation,” he said. That was the only money Calvin had saved up. My dad told that story to me maybe twice in his life, and he wept both times.

Those two men lived in a time of white supremacy, both de facto and de jure. Calvin could not vote, and could not eat at the same lunch counter as my father. I doubt very much that my father recognized that at the time as an injustice. I could be wrong, and hope I’m wrong, but I doubt I’m wrong. My dad was not mean to Calvin, as far as I know, but Calvin should have hated my father as a representative of white supremacy. And yet, he loved my father, and my father loved him, and honored his memory. Who can explain this? Who can explain the human heart?

Thus the humanity in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. Thus the agony of Virgil Caine’s lament. He was just a working man. His brother was shot to death in this senseless war. He and his companions were nearly starved to death. His supreme commander, the embodiment of the South, was humiliated, yet still revered for his nobility in defeat. The waste of it all — all that blood and honor poured out for the sake of defending an evil thing.

We used to be a people who understood this stuff. Levon Helm was a liberal, but he sang that song. Joan Baez had a Top 10 hit by covering the song in 1970. Does anybody think Joan Baez was a Confederate sympathizer? She saw it as a story of pain and tragedy. The Yankee who laid Virgil’s brother in his grave — that was Virgil’s other brother Abel. It would have been great to have heard a song written from the point of view of the Yankee soldier who shot the Caine boy. But we are incapable of writing such a song today, because we discourage young people from recognizing that life is tragic, and that the line between good and evil runs down the middle of every human heart. Southern whites can only ever be simple bigots who deserve what they get.

So, they took down the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond last week. Here’s how NPR reported it:

One of the largest Confederate monuments came down Wednesday in Richmond, Va. Now, the state is announcing new plans for the base that used to hold the massive statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

They’re going to remove a 133-year-old copper time capsule inside the pedestal and replace it with one that they say will reflect the current cultural climate in Virginia.

More:

According to the governor’s office, a group of historians, educators, artists and state officials worked together to select nearly 40 submissions to be placed inside the new time capsule.

Some of the items include a photo of a Black ballerina taken by a local Richmond photographer in front of the statue, Kente cloth worn at the 400th commemoration of 1619, a “Black Lives Matter” sticker, “Stop Asian Hate” fliers, an LGBTQ pride pin, and an expired vial of Pfizer’s COVID-19vaccine.

God. The utter triviality. We tear down a statue of a tragic figure like Robert E. Lee and replace it with this.

Four years ago, at The Federalist, John Daniel Davidson made a case for leaving the Confederate monuments. Part of what he said was that this was not really about punishing the Confederacy, but a much broader and deeper campaign. Excerpt:

For the Left, the Confederacy is just a small part of a much larger problem, which is the past. Iconoclasm of the kind we’ve seen this week is native to the Left, because the entire point is to liberate society from the strictures of tradition and history in order to secure a glorious new future. That’s why Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China torched temples and dug up ancient graves, why the Soviets sacked Orthodox churches and confiscated church property, and why various governments of France went about de-Christianizing the country during the French Revolution.

The modern-day American Left isn’t as bad as all that, but its ideology about the past is more or less the same. Hence the statement issued Thursday by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray calling for the removal of all “symbols of hate, racism and violence that exist in our city.” Murray is at least consistent, as he includes not just Confederate symbols but also a well-known statue of Vladimir Lenin. These symbols, Murray says, represent “historic injustices,” and “their existence causes pain among those who themselves or whose family members have been impacted by these atrocities.”

He is not interested in the history of the statues themselves, the people or events they depict, or “what political affiliation may have been assigned to them in the decades since they were erected.” Don’t be fooled by the therapeutic language about causing pain. The statues must go because they remind us constantly of a past that needs only to be overcome and forgotten.

A more mature society would recognize that the past is always with you and must always be kept in mind. There’s a reason Christians in Rome didn’t topple all the pagan statues and buildings in the city, or raze the Colosseum. Edmund Burke had strong words for the French during their revolution, while they were doing their best to destroy a rich past and slaughter one another in the process:

You had all these advantages in your ancient states; but you chose to act as if you had never been molded into civil society, and had everything to begin anew. You began ill, because you began by despising everything that belonged to you… If the last generations of your country appeared without much luster in your eyes, you might have passed them by, and derived your claims from a more early race of ancestors. Under a pious predilection for those ancestors, your imaginations would have realized in them a standard of virtue and wisdom, beyond the vulgar practice of the hour: and you would have risen with the example to whose imitation you aspired.  Respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourself. You would not have chosen to consider the French as a people of yesterday, as a nation of low-born servile wretches until the emancipating year of 1789.

That is part of why these memorials and statues are important. Perhaps not all of them need be preserved, but giving into the iconoclasm of the Left, with temperatures running high, will mean we lose far more than we gain by hiding these physical reminders of our nation’s troubled past.

Let them stand as a memorial of our ancestors who died, a challenge to understand their time and its troubles, and a warning for the present day.

I hate slavery. I thank God that the Confederacy lost. Though I generally hate iconoclasm, I could not muster strong feelings in favor of leaving Confederate statues in place. Now I see that John Daniel Davidson understood all of this better than I did. I was wrong. I apologize. We now live in a country in which the specialists in charge of the National Archives have put trigger warnings on the Constitution and other national documents. I’m not making this up. From the National Archives page:

The Catalog and web pages of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) provide access to many millions of descriptions and digital copies of the permanent records of the United States federal government.

The Catalog and web pages contain some content that may be harmful or difficult to view. NARA’s records span the history of the United States, and it is our charge to preserve and make available these historical records. As a result, some of the materials presented here may reflect outdated, biased, offensive, and possibly violent views and opinions. In addition, some of the materials may relate to violent or graphic events and are preserved for their historical significance.

The National Archives is committed to working with staff, communities, and peer institutions to assess and update descriptions that are harmful and to establish standards and policies to prevent future harmful language in staff-generated descriptions.

More:

What harmful or difficult content may be found in the National Archives Catalog and our web pages?

Some items may:

  • reflect racist, sexist, ableist, misogynistic/misogynoir, and xenophobic opinions and attitudes;

  • be discriminatory towards or exclude diverse views on sexuality, gender, religion, and more;

  • include graphic content of historical events such as violent death, medical procedures, crime, wars/terrorist acts, natural disasters and more;

  • demonstrate bias and exclusion in institutional collecting and digitization policies.

Do you know what “misogynoir” is? I had to look it up. It’s a woke word coined by an activist in 2010 to describe hatred towards black women. This woke crap has even corrupted those with the privilege of archiving national records. What a pathetic country we have become.

That we take down a statue of a great but tragically flawed American like Robert E. Lee, and replace it with a time capsule containing these items (check out the list — it includes an LGBTQ walking tour of Richmond, a Teen Vogue article, and a copy of verses titled “Post-Colonial Love Poem”). The whole list signals that the Democratic governor of Virginia and the woke Left wants to rub the noses of cultural conservatives in our defeat. You might not have had anything good to say about Robert E. Lee, but if you are unwoke, you need to understand that the attack on this monument was aimed at you too. If you are a Virginian who is not part of a minority sacred to the Left, then there is nothing in this new time capsule for you, or about you. You are erased. This is the base upon which the new ruling class is constructing a new American identity.

After the Civil War ended, Lee worked hard for the cause of national reconciliation. Still, we should not pretend that the statue of Lee in Richmond was regarded by all Virginians, black and otherwise, as something positive. But its removal, and replacement within its base with a time capsule that can only be read as a triumphalist act by the Left, signals the renewal of hatred. And for what? The message from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and all those who support this is: hate your fathers, hate your people, damn them in your memory. 

This is supposed to unify the nation? Like it or not, Robert E. Lee was an American. He contributed to the making of who we are. He was our brother. So was John Brown. So was U.S. Grant. So was Harriet Tubman. So was Stonewall Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln. So were all of these men and women, caught up in that terrible drama that taught a nation who it was.

So were men like the fictional Virgil Caine, whose descendants are now being taught to despise him and all that he loved, as the cost of being decent people. They’re doing this not because they despise Virgil Caine or Robert E. Lee. They’re doing this because they despise us. Virgil Caine was not a human being. He was a monster who fought for a treasonous regime in a wicked cause. He deserves his suffering. We used to be the kind of country where a left-wing folk singer who marched for Civil Rights could sing Virgil Caine’s story, and score a Top Ten hit. But we are so much more enlightened now.

This will not end soon, or well. They won the culture war, and are bouncing the rubble.

Levon Helm, the singer of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” died of cancer some years back. Helm was no conservative. In his tribute written on the eve of the great man’s death, magazine writer Charles P. Pierce recalled the 1968 Band album “Music From Big Pink,” and Helm’s contribution to it. Pierce wrote, in part:

The inner sleeve of the album was as radical a statement as you could make at the time. The Band stood there with their relatives all around them, as if to say that the idea of family and friends and neighbors was not the exclusive property of the people who bleated about it while unleashing the cops on their children. It was a summoning of the idea of the American community, which has never been about conformity, either to fashion or to the politics of the moment. And, if you didn’t get the point, there were some sly hints on the record that pointed you back towards what was important, that made you realize that there was an America worth the effort of finding, that there was a country to which it was worth coming home.

“There’s no need to slave / The whip is in the grave.”

This was healing music, but it was in no way peaceful. Levon’s voice made sure of that. It was tough and sound and brooked no easy answers. (When, an album later, he voiced the story of Virgil Kane, a grunt in the Confederate army, he managed to push the story beyond politics. You swear by the mud below your feet and you make a pact with the land that nothing can break.) It was a Southern voice, certainly, but there was in it that universal sense that we are all in this great experiment together, that we hold a number of truths to be self-evident and the ones that Mr. Jefferson listed were only the very beginning of them. That there is a commonwealth that binds us, through the worst of what we can do to each other, and the worst of what we can make of our promise. For all the wild rhetoric and the political posturing, and for all the horror that extended from My Lai to the floor of the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel and back again, that we all had an America to come back to, no matter how long we were away, no matter even if we were half-past dead. Because that America was the America of the tall tale, the underground history, the renegade, buccaneer country that belongs to all of us. Levon Helm told those stories. He gave that history a voice that we could all hear over the din of the times.

He managed to push the story beyond politics. We could use a Levon Helm now. But they would never let him push the story beyond politics. They never let anybody do that anymore.

Listening to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” so far away from home, under these circumstances, was clarifying about the civil war that They are bound and determined to start. Don’t you think for one hot minute, reader, that They are only wanting to drive old Dixie down. This is about old America.

UPDATE: A friend writes:

The idea that it ends with Confederates is the key problem with modern iconoclasm. It very clearly doesn’t, but is intended to normalize the current year cultural revolution, which is why this only started being a Very Important Cause in 2020.
I have no love for the Confederacy and no issue in principle with ditching the statues, but I fundamentally do not trust the people who are loudly calling for their removal — because we can see where it ends. As far as these people are concerned there is absolutely nothing of value or worth saving in traditional American culture and society. It was just a mask of oppression.

That’s right. I was thinking about it this morning, and remembering how last week I visited the statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Campidoglio in Rome. I went because I’m obsessed with the Tarkovsky film Nostalghia, and a key scene takes place there. The Romans quite rightly honor the memory of the great Caesar. Yet the man was a Caesar, and as such presided over an empire of astounding accomplishment, and spectacular cruelty. In honoring him, the Romans today don’t affirm everything about the man and the civilization he represented. They honor what is honorable in his life and character, which was considerable.

We used to know how to do this. We used to be grown-ups.

Did you ever read the 1912 Tolstoy novella Hadji Murat? The title character is a Chechen fighter, an actual historical figure who fought against the Russian Empire, but who defected in an attempt to save his family from a Chechen rival. In the book, Tolstoy admires the character of Hadji Murat, who was an enemy of the Empire. It’s a melancholy book, because neither the Russian forces nor the Chechen rebels come off very well. Hadji is a tragic figure: a man of good character who is caught in a conflict in which there is no good option. I read the book in the summer of 2015, as my father lay dying, while I was resting in his room, attending him. It is a profound story, because in it, Tolstoy examines how difficult it is to be good in a world of conflicting loyalties and universal cruelty. The main reason I love that novella is because Tolstoy, a Russian, could see the noble humanity in his enemy. The novella was published after Tolstoy’s death, and you can well imagine that it did not endear his memory to the Russians. But Tolstoy told the truth about what it means to be a man.

UPDATE.2: A reader just messaged me:

You want to toss out Dixie and the Lost Cause, fine, but you still need something for Southern whites to believe in and organize around other than the gospel according to Kendi. This is a huge willful blindspot the left has because they don’t want anything to get in the way of their Tarantino revenge fantasy against real and imagined grievances.

UPDATE.3: James in Alabama comments:

I’m normally neither hot-headed nor given to tears. But seeing the statue of Gen’l Lee removed brought tears to my eyes. It feels like a punctuation, a hard, abrupt end to anything left about the America my fathers left to me. The Governor of VIRGINIA pulled down the statue of Robert E. Lee! Would you have ever imagined it?

My people arrived in Virginia from Yorkshire approximately 400 years ago. In the Revolution they served in the N.C. Militia. After the Revolution, one of those veterans took his family moved west to Alabama around 1800 and we’ve lived in the county where I live (owning the same property) ever since. My family has fought in the Revolution, the Creek Wars (under Andrew Jackson), for Alabama in the Confederate Army (26th Ala. Inf., II Corps [Stonewall’s Corps], Army of Northern Virginia, CSA), US Navy in WWI, and in the Pacific Theatre of WWII (US Army Air Corps, US Marines, US Army, and US Navy).

I was raised to love and honor God, my home, my people, my ancestors, my State, and the Constitution of these United States. But there is nothing left that I have been raised to honor that these people have not taken, or aren’t trying to take, away from me.

I’m an Eagle Scout, the son and grandson of Eagle Scouts. But the Boy Scouts aren’t the Boy Scouts any more. I withdrew my son from Scouting when they capitulated to the LGBT mob. A family tradition was ended because they can’t leave anyone alone.

I’m considered a moral defective if I honor the men in my family who fought to protect their homeland from ravening hordes of Yankee invaders. Who cares if my maternal grandmother’s people in Georgia were burned out by Sherman, their men barely escaping lynching and the women rape, with a handful of possessions in a wagon (true story). Damn them all; they must’ve deserved it, right?

No, people like me are deplorables. We cling to our guns and religion like the Neanderthals we are. We worship a God of hate, in bigoted churches full of loathsome trolls. We need re-education, our children propagandized, our folk ways defenestrated, and our mouths shut.

I try very hard to be a good, loving, kind, empathetic Christian. But they’ve taken my country from me. They’ve pissed on my heritage. They’ve dishonored my fathers. They’ve spat on my faith. They’ve called me every name in the book. And then they judge and blame me for being angry about it.

I’ll tell you this: a governing and societal elite like that deserves no loyalty. If this is what Union looks like, I want no part of it. Slavery was a stupid, foolish, immoral casus belli. But this stuff? These people are so much worse than George III. The Declaration of Independence lists the colonial grievances, and the Federal government has ole George beat by a country mile.

Every day I have another reason to hate our rulers shoved down my throat. And I know I’m not alone. I can’t even escape it in a rural county (pop. 16,000) in po-dunk Alabama.

I tell you what: you can only kick a dog so long before that dog riles up and bites you. I don’t think we’re going to like it when that dog bites.

UPDATE.4: A reader writes:

Nothing gets me fighting mad like the desecration of confederate memorials, especially memorials of General Lee. I have thought for years that you were too soft on this point. It really is, as you say, bouncing the rubble. As though we backward rednecks are henceforth only allowed to honor the memories of our erstwhile enemies, and not our own people. Lee was not just one of the greatest southerners, but one of the greatest Americans.
I have spent the last couple of years drilling down into primary source civil war histories – the Freeman biography of Lee; Jefferson Davis’s memoir (The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government); a biography of Leonidas Polk; the very interesting memoir of Frances Howard about life in Georgia during the defeat of the confederacy, Sherman’s march, and the union occupation (1864-1865); inter alia. One thing is clear: that history is a lot more complicated than the New Orthodoxy is prepared to allow anyone to realize. Another takeaway: most of these men understood the evil of slavery full well, and wanted it to end. That is certainly true of Polk and Lee, both slave owners. There was to them only the prudential question of how best to end it. It needs to be born in mind that slavery was an institution that they inherited, already over two centuries old by 1860.
Studying this history has confirmed a longstanding intuition of mine, viz. that the southern plantation economy was really the last vestige in the West of the manorialism of the Middle Ages. On this score too consider that the old southern aristocracy, especially in Virginia and the Carolinas, were drawn to a significant extent from the Royalist / caroline side of the English civil war. Hence our own civil war can be understood as an extension of the English one, and, as I say, the death throes of the Middle Ages. Agrarian manorialism throttled by liberalism and industrialism. In this sense, it is a reiteration of Cain’s murder of Abel (to a person with my philosophical / economic [capitalist-critical] bent), and not vice versa as you suggest.
Another takeaway from my reading: just how diverse southern opinion was on the question of slavery through the 1850s. There were, for example, more southerners involved with repatriation societies, like the American Colonization Society, than there were northerners. The societies staked out common ground for slave owning southerners, northern abolitionists and radicals, as well as free blacks. The repatriation movement was a failure, but only hindsight is 20/20. The point is that the participation of many prominent southerners in the societies demonstrates that they understood very well how problematic (as we say nowadays) the institution was. Moses Mills, who fought for the confederacy with my great-great-great grandfather in the 2nd Georgia Cavalry, wrote before the war that he “saw the hand of God” in the abolitionist movement. Yet he fought for his home.
When secession came, that diversity of opinion was erased. What erased it? The aggression of federal policy toward the south. This is pure Girard. Nothing brings people together like aggression. This is another facet of your observation that the Left now is “summoning demons” it won’t be able to control. In fact, I would argue that it is a recapitulation of the same old goetic aggression, what Walker Percy called yankee liberalism, and what I would argue is just plain old New England Puritanism. Heck, it even emanates out of the same old Puritan institutions as it has for almost 400 years – Harvard, Yale, inter alia. Again, institutions founded by the roundheads / parliamentarians and fellow travelers of the English civil war. A main symptom of the Puritan disease is that they just can’t stand to know that somebody out there might dissent from, or fail to endorse, their opinions. “Silence is violence” and all that.
This history is nearer than people realize. My great grandmother, whom I knew, who died in our house when I was a boy, was raised by a man who remembered the war, and whose home was burned by Sherman’s troops. I grew up surrounded by furniture salvaged from the burning house. Another 3-greats grandfather was killed in the peach orchard at Gettysburg, leaving his young widow to raise two children by herself. That had repercussions that have echoed down the ensuing generations to this day. He was buried in a mass grave a long way from home. My family had a memorial service for him, on the 150th anniversary of his death, in the old country cemetery a few years ago, after a cousin raised money from the family to erect a headstone for him next to the body of his widow and their children.
Anyway, for these reasons and many others, the refusal of our rulers to allow us to honor the memories of our people infuriates me. I could not bring myself to read the articles in my news feed about the removal of the monument Avenue statue yesterday. From where I sit typing this, I can turn my head one way and see a bust of General Lee on a shelf, and I can turn my head the other way and see an engraving of King Charles I on the opposite wall. I will always honor the memory of these great men. It does not need to be said that they were “imperfect” or “flawed” – of course they were; all men are (save one). But their imperfections and flaws were minuscule compared to our current crop of malfeasant thieves, vandals, and incompetents masquerading as leaders. As one of his soldiers said of General Lee, “he loved us like a father and led us like a king.” Compare Mark Milley or Lloyd Austin.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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