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Kelly's Civil War remarks: 'Strange,' 'sad,' and 'wrong'

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was the guest for the premiere of Laura Ingraham's show on Fox News Monday night. During the interview, he outlined a view of the history of the Civil War that historians described as "strange," "highly provocative," "dangerous" and "kind of depressing."

Kelly was asked about the decision of a church in Alexandria, Va., to remove plaques honoring George Washington and Robert E. Lee. "I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man," Kelly said. "He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it's different today. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand."

"That statement could have been given by (former Confederate general) Jubal Early in 1880," said Stephanie McCurry, professor of history at Columbia University and author of Confederate Reckoning: Politics and Power in the Civil War South.

"What's so strange about this statement is how closely it tracks or resembles the view of the Civil War that the South had finally got the nation to embrace by the early 20th century," she said. "It's the Jim Crow version of the causes of the Civil War .?.?. it tracks all of the major talking points of this pro-Confederate view of the Civil War."

Kelly makes several points. That Lee was honorable. That a lack of compromise led to the war. That good people on both sides were fighting for conscientious reasons. Both McCurry and David Blight, professor of history at Yale University and author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, broadly reject all of these arguments.

"This is profound ignorance, that's what one has to say first, at least of pretty basic things about the American historical narrative," Blight said. "I mean, it's one thing to hear it from Trump who, let's be honest, just really doesn't know any history and has demonstrated it over and over and over. But Gen. Kelly has a long history in the American military."

Blight described Kelly's argument in similar terms as McCurry — an "old reconciliationist narrative" about the Civil War that, in the last half-century or so has "just been exploded" by historical research since.

The idea that compromise might have been possible was rejected out of hand by both McCurry and Blight.

"It was not about slavery, it was about honorable men fighting for honorable causes?" McCurry said. "Well, what was the cause? .?.?. In 1861, they were very clear on what the causes of the war were. The reason there was no compromise possible was that people in the country could not agree over the wisdom of the continued and expanding enslavement of millions of African-Americans."

There were a number of compromises on slavery that led up to the Civil War, from the drafting of the Constitution to the addition of new states to the Union.

"Any serious person who knows anything about this," Blight said, "can look at the late 1850s and then the secession crisis and know that they tried all kind of compromise measures during the secession winter, and nothing worked. Nothing was viable."

"All of these compromises were about creating a division where slavery already existed and where for a time they conceded that the Constitution shackled them in their ability to attack it," McCurry said. Before the war, the strategy for dealing with slavery was to contain it. By 1860, she said, the North's economic success and expanding population and the South's loss of representation in national politics put slavery at risk. The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 allowed Southern slaveholders — who had $4 billion in wealth in the form of enslaved people, McCurry said — to argue that the threat to slavery was imminent.

"In 1861, compromise wasn't possible because some Southerners just wanted out. They wanted a separate nation where they could protect slavery into the indefinite future," McCurry said. "That's what they said when they seceded. That's what they said in their constitution when they wrote one."

"Of course we yearn for compromise, we yearn for civility, we yearn for some common ground," Blight said. "But, look, Robert E. Lee was not a compromiser. He chose treason."

"The best of the Lee biographies show that Lee was a Confederate nationalist," Blight said. "He knew what he was fighting for."

Washington Post