What was the “cause so grand” for which Confederates fought?

And why are their monuments still standing on public property?

Hank Willis Thomas’s sculpture, “Rise Up,” at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

“I think it well…not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.” — Robert E. Lee, from a letter to David McConaughy of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association in which Lee turned down an invitation to participate in their preservation efforts (1869).

A troubling disconnect often exists between collective memory and historical scholarship, and this predicament is not unique to our understanding of the American Civil War and its aftermath. “Unfortunately,” as Alex Wellerstein explained in June, “quite a lot of what Americans think they know about the atomic bombs [our country dropped on Japanese civilian populations 75 years ago this month] is dramatically out of alignment with how historians understand them, and this shapes their takes on these present-day issues as well." Simply replace “atomic bombs” with “American Civil War” in that sentence and you have accurately diagnosed the festering condition that all too often infects our public discourse about Confederate monuments on public property in the United States.

An English translation of Camus’s “La Crise de l’homme” (1946).

It’s “heritage, not hate!” You’re “erasing our history.” It’s just “political correctness” run amok, a surrender to “cancel culture” instigated by “anarcho-communists” trying to “rewrite our history.” These monuments are “not about slavery or white supremacy” but are a way to “honor” the sacrifices of “loyal soldiers” who “so willingly and obediently offered their services when they saw that war was inevitable” (George Hahn, 1911). And so it goes. As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the “most formidable destructive rage that man has witnessed in centuries” (Albert Camus) and once again pledge “Never Again!” the ghosts of “an insurgency to preserve slavery and destroy the American experiment” (David Blight) over 150 years ago continue to haunt our ongoing, and presently plague-ridden, efforts to form a more perfect Union.

“The civil war,” as David Blight wrote in 2017, “lies upon us like a sleeping dragon…ever ready to rise up when we do not expect it and strike us with unbearable fire.” Or as James Baldwin immortalized in words and a 1963 book title, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, fire next time.” As peaceful protests erupted in Minneapolis and around the world in response to the lynching of George Floyd by police officers, Confederate monuments have come down across the country as a result of both official decisions and anger or frustration by demonstrators. Fires have been ignited by both opportunistic individuals taking advantage of chaotic situations and white supremacists trying to incite violence and start a “race war.” And so it goes.

In the midst of this latest round of reckoning with a contemptible part of our past and the ongoing problems of systemic racism in this country, I am proud to stand with a group of concerned citizens urging our local leaders to remove a lawn jockey of white supremacy from public property in our community. Too harsh? You be the judge. Two years after the “Confederate Monument Association of Catawba County” was formed in 1897, and eight years before the monument was actually unveiled in 1907, Locke Craig — who delivered the keynote at its unveiling — gave a campaign speech on the proposed “Suffrage Amendment” to the North Carolina constitution as a candidate for the N.C. House representing Buncombe County.

The amendment, which added a literacy test and a poll tax requirement for voting, was submitted to the people for a vote the same year as Craig’s campaign speech (1899) and ratified by the legislature the following year (1900). In his speech, “The Little Giant of the West” noted that the proposed amendment would ensure that “the white men of North Carolina shall make and administer all the laws.” As quoted in his memoirs and speeches (published in 1923):

“This one section will wipe out the negro vote in North Carolina. Of the 120,000 negro voters it will disfranchise 110,000 of them, practically all of them. It will be good-bye to all negro office holders, and all those who base their hope of office on negro vote…There is only one kind of a white man in North Carolina that will be disfranchised, and that is the white man who…denies his race and color. ..and swears that he is a negro or the son of a negro, or the grandson of a negro, and that white man will be disfranchised.” — Locke Craig (1899)

“On the stump,” notes Gregory P. Downs in The Journal of Southern History (2009), “Locke Craig quoted [Wolfgang] Menzel’s history of the ‘royal’ Teutonic race to prove that the white supremacy campaign was the culmination of a natural evolution in human society in which ‘North Carolina too is the Anglo-Saxon’s heritage.’ Blocking its forward movement ‘will be like attempting to drive the ocean’s waves with a straw broom,’ wrote a reporter paraphrasing Craig.” He won his election to the N.C. House, where he served from 1899 to 1901, and Locke was later elected as the 53rd Governor of North Carolina, serving from 1913 to 1917, where he encouraged private contracts for prisoners to perform road and railroad labor.

In his 1907 keynote address at the unveiling of the monument to the “flower of the manhood of Catawba county” who “followed the greatest Generals that the Anglo-Saxon race has produced” (The Newton Enterprise, 15 Aug 1907, Page 2), Craig fully embraced the Lost Cause and its “pseudo-historical negationist ideology” about “the heroic deeds of the men of the Confederacy.” Directly contradicting Rev. J. D. Arnold, a local Methodist minister who said “[s]lavery was the cause, and sole cause, of the war” during his own keynote earlier that year at an “eloquent tribute” to Robert E. Lee in which the final design for the monument was selected by Confederate soldiers and a contract was awarded to construct it, Craig instead claimed: “These men did not fight for slavery.” And so it goes.

Inscription on the Confederate monument in Newton, from “The Sword of Robert Lee by the “Poet-Priest of the South” in 1866.

Of course, it’s difficult to ascribe intentions to individual actors in history. The President of the the “Confederate Monument Association of Catawba County” (a first cousin thrice removed) also later claimed that “[s]lavery did not enter into the question” and that he “didn’t know much about the issue, but enthusiasm, patriotism, and the fact that all my companions were enlisting, made up for the lack of knowledge and decided me.” Even if we take him at his word here, it should still scare the hell out of us. Ignorance is not bliss in this regard, and “just following orders” is no excuse for participating in an armed insurrection against your country in support of enslaving other human beings.

EJ’s interview with a local historian on the Shelton Laurel Massacre (1863).

As Susan Neiman noted in The Atlantic last year, “descendants of the Nazi armed forces — the Wehrmacht — once made exactly the same claims as the descendants of the Confederate army, and not just in the dark, shell-shocked days that followed the unconditional surrender outside Berlin in 1945.” In fact, it wasn’t until the Wehrmacht Exhibit started exposing the myth of the clean Wehrmacht in 1995 that many Germans came to understand that these “loyal soldiers” were not just “brave men who defended their homeland against the Bolshevik menace.”

“Not everyone seeking to preserve symbols of the Confederacy is a Nazi. But the Nazis’ embrace of the Confederate cause makes plain: Anyone who fights for those symbols is fighting for Nazi values.” — Susan Neiman

This is not to suggest that the North (any more than the Allied forces in the Second World War) was “clean” or did not also commit atrocities. As a distant cousin once said about General Sherman, who engaged in a “scorched earth” policy of total war against the Confederate States, he “had his faults, but he was no sissy.” Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the “fundamentally unknowable” number of deaths that occurred there in 1945 remain etched into our collective consciousness because of the “new anguish…being offered to us” by nuclear weapons, but the firebombing of Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo further reinforce for us all that wars create fertile grounds for war crimes — even among those on the “right side of history.” From Lincoln’s support of the “DC Emancipation Act” of 1862 to the Manhattan draft riots of 1863, we are reminded that even noble causes are all too often tainted by the ignoble actions of otherwise honorable leaders and angry mobs in the streets.

However, as with the Wehrmacht, the “cause so grand” for which some Southerners fought and died discredits the whole enterprise and exposes the sham which some continue to defend. One need only consult the primary sources to discern what led to secession by the Southern states and the deaths of more than 600,000 Americans between 1861 and 1865. As Attorney General Jeff Sessions put it, in prepared remarks at the Abraham Lincoln Foundation of the Union League Of Philadelphia’s Annual Lincoln Day Celebration on 12 February 2018, “The cloud, the stain of human bondage — the buying and selling of human beings — was the unsolvable problem and was omnipresent from the beginning of the country.” Granted, North Carolina was the last state to secede and was reluctant to do so until the first shots were fired at Fort Sumpter. Its Ordinance of Secession doesn’t even mention slavery, but the message from the churches, politicians, and community leaders at the time was loud and clear.

“[T]he injunction of the New Testament is not, masters discharge your slaves, but be merciful to your slaves — slaves be obedient to your masters.” — John Mitchel, The Western Democrat (Charlotte, N.C.), 24 Feb. 1854

In November of 1854 a piece by the pro-slavery editorialist John Mitchel appeared in the Western Democrat expressing the South’s growing frustration with the Christianity of abolitionists. “Neither can the South safety take any longer for its monthly reading the platitudes of the abolitionists, who quote the Bible for the ‘unity of the human race,’ (which the Bible does not assert,) but condemn the same Bible as an authority for slavery, (upon which the Bible is clear,) — who have the face to appeal to Christianity, yet are ready to call the Apostle Paul a ‘doughface,’ because he returned a fugitive slave.”

And in August of 1856, the Western Democrat in Charlotte re-published (“by request of a lady”) a response to Rev. A. Blackburn by Frederick Augustus Ross, a Presbyterian New School clergyman, slave owner, and author of Slavery As Ordained of God (1857). Ross’s response, which had been published in the Knoxville Presbyterian Witness in July, attempted to clarify his position on “the slavery question” after “Brother Blackburn” had apparently objected to an earlier commentary by Ross.

“Yes, that is the difficulty, and that is the whole difficulty, between the North and the South, so far as the question is one of the Bible and morals. Now, I say again, that sin per se doctrine will, in this agitation, be utterly demolished. And when that is done; when the North will know, and feel, fully, perfectly, that the relation of master and slave is not sin, but sanctioned by God, then, and not till then, the North and South can, and will, without anger, consider the following question; whether slavery, as it exists in the United States, all things considered, be or be not, a great good, and the greatest good for a time, notwithstanding its admitted evils?”

Finally, in June of 1858 The North Carolina Whig in Charlotte published a story about John Todd who had written an article in the New York Tribune about his recent visit to Charlotte. The paper noted that “No threat of a ‘coat of tar and feathers,’ was made, but he no doubt richly deserved one.” The Whigs were upset about Todd’s criticism of the Journal of Commerce, as well as his anti-slavery views and his denial that slavery was sanctioned by the Bible.

“The Journal of Commerce has been considered by many persons here sound on the question of slavery as its motto is ‘THE BIBLE, THE CONSTITUTION, AND THE UNION,’ and when this Rev. gentleman commenced abusing it; he was set down as a rank abolitionist by those present, although he denied being one, and to his abuse of the paper may be attributed the treatment he received in the afternoon at the office, when he remarked that the Bible did not support slavery.”

For behavior that “endeavors to uphold his own peculiar views” and “renders himself obnoxious to our citizens,” Rev. Todd, a leading abolitionist at the time and a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, was warned to “be on you[r] guard when you come to Charlotte.” Even new immigrants to the county understood what the war was about. Corporal Lewis William Keener and his brother Karl, German immigrants to the United States in 1851 who settled in northern Ohio, knew exactly what they were getting into when they “signed up, we weren’t drafted, nor were we tempted by money or the excitement” for service in the Union Army. “The reason for this war is slavery“ Corporal Keener wrote to his relatives back in Germany in 1861, adding “I hope that right prevails.”

As much as slavery was the cause of the war itself, reversal of the war’s outcome and the restoration of the “exiled dynasty of Southern Idealsas Locke Craig put it in his keynote address in Newton in 1907 — was part and parcel of the white supremacy campaign that lynched a “fundamentally unknowable” number of Blacks and disenfranchised most of the rest of them while erecting monuments honoring those who participated in these post-war injustices after committing treason against their country.

My TEDx Hickory talk from November 2019.

The President of the the “Confederate Monument Association of Catawba County” was among the dozens of men in my community indicted by the federal government in 1871 for “unlawfully and willfully band[ing] together and conspir[ing] together” to “go in disguise” and “beat wound and ill treat” Blacks and “Radical” Whites (including at least one locally notable distant cousin) because of their “having fore that time exercised and enjoyed [their] right to vote.”

“The Ku Klux Klan…was designed in an effort to combat Northern secret organizations in the South, to ‘put the Negro in his place,’ to regain control of government, and to protect Southern womanhood.” — Charles J. Preslar, Jr. A History of Catawba County (1954), as quoted by local “Sons of Confederate Veterans” on their website (2020).

By 1890, the “Ku Klux Klan” was officially “destroyed” but undisguised “Red Shirts” and “White Caps” were operating openly in the Catawba River Valley and the local lawyer, judge, and former Klan leader (another locally notable distant cousin) would write in his diary, ominously, that “nothing prevents the white people of the South from annihilating the negro race but the military power of the United States government” (Steward, 2012).

A quote from Hitler’s American Model (2017).

While these truths may already be self-evident to some of my more educated readers, it may come as a shock even to the well-educated to learn that “the Nazis took a real, sustained, significant, and revealing interest in American race policies” during the Jim Crow era, which Hitler praised in Mein Kampf. Our “citizenship and antimiscegenation laws,” in particular, “proved directly relevant to the two principal Nuremberg Laws” as James Whitman recently documented in Hitler’s American Model. Even more shocking perhaps, is the fact that Abraham Lincoln was Heinrich Krieger’s “exemplary statesman, to whom he referred reverently.” An exchange student at the University of Arkansas School of Law in 1933–34, Krieger’s research (which included an in-depth examination of American Indian Law) later “served as the basis for the Nuremberg Laws, the centerpiece anti-Jewish legislation of the early Nazi regime” (Encyclopedia of Arkansas). And…so it goes.

“Looking back over the long and devious roads that lie between the barbarism of the past and the civilization of today, thinking of the centuries that rolled like waves between these distant shores, we can form some idea of what our fathers suffered — of the mistakes they made — some idea of their ignorance, their stupidity — and some idea of their sense, their goodness, their heroism.” — Robert Ingersoll (1897)

For more information about the history and broader context of the Confederate monument in Newton, North Carolina see this (work in progress) page on WikiTree — and be sure to sign our petition! For more information about Klan violence in Catawba County during Reconstruction, see this page. I am currently available for speaking engagements (virtually for now) if your organization would like to learn more about this local history. You can contact me via mail at WilhelmKuhner@Outlook.com. To explore your own ancestry and collaborate with other genealogists on deep ancestors or historical figures, connect your family to our single family tree on WikiTree. As a WikiTree Ambassador, I am also available to do presentations on WikiTree to local groups and genealogical societies or liaise between WikiTree and genealogical societies, libraries and historical groups. Finally, for some related local (and family) history and its relevance to current events, check out my book (available in both eBook and paperback formats)…

Available via Amazon and the Catawba County Museum of History (paperback only).

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Wilhelm Kühner

Wilhelm Kühner

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Pruning the “tangled thicket” of Kühner (Keener) Genealogie in Amerika and reflecting on its relevance to current events.