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The sin of Confederate hero worship

Why do Americans stand for Southerners idolizing the Confederacy, despite the evils of slavery and treason at its heart?

By The Rebbe with a Cause, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

This week, I took my family to Virginia in pursuit of one of my favorite summertime activities, visiting Civil War battlefields. We traveled to the four great battlefields around Fredericksburg, where more than 100,000 soldiers died in the course of the war. I also fulfilled my lifelong dream of visiting Appomattox Courthouse where on April 9, 1865, Lee famously surrendered to Grant, in effect ending the war.

What consistently baffles me in making these visits is the romanticization of the Confederacy that continues 140 years after the war’s end. Wherever you go in the South, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart, James Longstreet, and the other Confederate leaders are venerated as heroes. In the course of my travels, I have driven on Robert E. Lee Drive and Jefferson Davis Highway. I’ve seen myriad monuments to Stonewall Jackson, and I’ve seen the Confederate flag flying from cars and homes.

As an American who loves his country, I am appalled by the persistence of Confederate hero worship in the South 140 years after the Civil War’s end. After all, the South fought for a truly evil cause. While there were other factors that led to the Civil War, no serious, objective historian would deny that the principal cause of the war was the institution of slavery, and that the South fought to preserve its “peculiar institution.”

Whether or not the soldiers of the Confederacy personally believed in slavery, they still fought to preserve the hideous, reprehensible practice of buying and selling human beings–each and every one created in the image of G-d–like animals. Babies were torn away from their mothers’ breasts; men, women, and children were whipped like beasts. This was the essential, defining institution that the Confederacy struggled to keep.

General Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee was opposed to slavery. But his personal feelings about the institution are utterly immaterial. The only relevant point was that he used his military genius to fight a war that would have kept men, women, and children in chains. What on earth could make a man like that a hero? What could make a man like Jefferson Davis a hero in the eyes of the good people of the modern South, and what message are those who lionize this man sending to their children? That it is good to rebel against the United States?

Last summer, when I visited Richmond, the Confederate capital, with my children, I was astonished to see the enormous statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and the other confederate luminaries that line Monument Avenue, which the Virginia tourism literature calls “one of America’s most beautiful boulevards.” This, in the heart of a city that is about 60 percent African-American. If I were they, would I abide this display of veneration for the Confederacy’s leaders? Were the statues erected with any thought to the feelings of the city’s black residents?

And aside from the slavery question, were these men not traitors to their country? The Confederate rebellion cost the United States 580,000 lives. It began when the South rejected the election of Abraham Lincoln, a president who they believed would abolish slavery but whom we Americans today regard as the greatest president ever to lead this country.

Let’s put this in the starkest possible terms. The cause for which the Confederate leaders fought, namely slavery, was no more noble than the cause for which the terrorist mastermind Abu Musab Al Zarqawi fights for today in Baghdad.

Zarqawi fights to enslave the Muslim people, and the Confederate leaders fought to continue the enslavement of American’s black sons and daughters. Zarqawi fights to deny Muslims their rights and to deny them a say in their political future, and the Confederate leaders fought so that blacks would have no rights and no future. Zarqawi fights so that women can be whipped in the streets when they are dressed immodestly, and the Confederate leaders fought so that black women could be lashed when they disobeyed the orders of their masters. In every way, the enslavement of blacks that Lee and Davis fought to perpetuate is much more severe than any kind of enslavement that contemporary Muslim governments, however brutal and despotic, would currently inflict against their people.

To be sure, I do not compare the Confederate leadership to terrorists. Davis and Lee never waged a war against civilians, and in their personal lives historians tell us they were scrupulous gentleman. Lee in particular was instrumental in getting his fellow Southerners to lay down their weapons after Appomattox rather than continuing a guerrilla struggle from the mountains of the West. But the cause for which these men fought was just as odious as that for which terrorists would lay down their lives today.

It is high time for the United States to remove statues of Confederate leaders. And for those who say that removing such statues would be an affront to free speech, I would respond, are there any statues of Benedict Arnold in the United States? And would anyone dare erect one? And yet Arnold’s treachery against the United States was child’s play compared to the damage caused by Davis, Lee, and Jackson.

The great men of the Civil War were not the rebels, but those who fought to preserve the unity of this great nation rather than to tear it asunder. The great men of that terrible war were those who ultimately freed the slaves from bondage–most notably Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman–rather than those whose victory would have had fellow Americans owned as beasts of burden by their countrymen.

The idea that any southern state capitol would fly the Confederate flag offends the sensibilities and perpetuates racial division. Did we forget that it is the symbol of rebellion against the authority of the United States and stands for hatred of America?

I know that this is a hot-button issue, and that there are some state capitols that want to incorporate the Confederate battle flag into theirs because, they argue, the Confederacy is an integral part of their history. Indeed it is. But is the wrong history, the worst kind of history that could be perpetuated. While I would never compare the Confederacy to Nazi Germany–there are, after all, gradations of evil, and the Confederacy did not approach the inhuman slaughter by Hitler’s minions–no one would accept a historical argument for incorporating the Nazi flag into modern Germany’s flag. Modern Germany is rightly ashamed of its past and the symbols of that past.

In the same way our country could never remain the United States if the South had gained the upper hand, likewise we cannot be a great country if we romanticize those who fought an evil rebellion whose ultimate objective was the perpetuation of America’s foremost moral sin.

Which leads me to another conundrum. Many of the Southerners who romanticize the Confederacy are religious Christians who lead lives devoted to moral excellence. How is it possible that they would make heroes of men who betrayed the Bible’s essential message: that G-d is the father of all humankind, and all of us therefore are equal before Him?

There is no easy answer to this question. Some would say that the original sin of the Confederacy’s Christians was to talk themselves into believing that slavery was really a benevolent institution, granting support, food, and shelter to a population who they believed could not fend for themselves. The perpetuation of that sin would be lionizing the Confederate leaders and believing that it does not offend the South’s black citizens or undermine its morality. Still others would say that when G-d-fearing Christians honor the Confederate leaders today, they do so as a means of honoring the South and a lost way of life rather than focusing on slavery. It’s collective amnesia. The horrors of slavery have been forgotten and only the charm of the old South has remained.

But all these answers ring hollow. For people of religion should be lionizing only those whose lives captured the divine ideals that they hold dear. And those who fought to preserve slavery, to use an understatement, simply don’t make the grade.

When religious southern Christians engage in nostalgia for the Confederacy, they are making the mistake of putting Southern sentiment before religious conviction, in effect elevating an inferior part of their identity over the most central part. Regional loyalty must never come before eternal principle.

About the Author: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is host of the daily national radio program, “The Rabbi Shmuley Show” on Oprah & Friends, XM Satellite Radio, and host of the award-winning national TV show, Shalom in the Home on TLC. He is also the international best-selling author of 20 books, including his most recent work, “The Broken American Male: And How to Fix Him”. His recent works, “Parenting With Fire” and “Ten Conversations You Need to Have With Your Children” were both launched on Oprah’s TV show. This 6.24.08 article is reprinted with permission from the author. For more information, click www.shmuley.com



  1. I would hope that this rabbi’s knowledge of the Torah and Bible would be more extensive than his knowledge of American history.

    His statement that the principal reason behind the mis-named “Civil War” (see Walter Williams: http://www.jewishworldreview.com/cols/williams120298.aspz) ignores the fact that in his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln announced that he had neither the authority nor the inclination to abolish slavery. Moreover, AFTER the secession, Lincoln offered the original states of the CSA the right to keep their slaves if they would simply return to the union in peace. To argue that they were fighting for this right which they already had and were guaranteed is the height of determined ignorance.

    Moreover, Rabbi Boteach appears not to have been aware that every ship from the US bringing slaves to America was owned and registered by northern states. Not a single slaver ship came from a southern city or was owned by a southerner. To further debunk Rabbi Boteach, one can read the Constitution of the CSA which specifically forbids the foreign slave trade.

    Why would men go to fight a war for a Constitution that forbade the foreign slave trade and to fight it against those supporting a Constitution that ALLOWED that slave trade? And why would those of the other nation, supposedly fighting the other side of the issue do so when their country supported the cause they fought against? Rabbi, get your history straight.

    The War to Prevent Southern Independence was fought for the purpose contained in that more accurate appelation. The south objected to the north’s betrayal of the principles of the US Constitution and wished to start anew with a strikingly similar constitution which they intended to abide by instead of distorting it.

    Rabbi, while you’re visiting those battlefields, get some education from credited historians both of the period and of today. I would recommend Clyde Wilson and Thomas DiLorenzo as good exemplars of the latter period.

  2. If this article was written by someone who had been involved in these groups I would consider it very differently. As it is I have met several people involved in portraying the history of the south. I’m not an expert but two things are clear to me so far in my small amount of research:
    1. The North did not go to battle with the South in order to free the slaves. That issue was introduced later in the war. The young men who fought on the side of the south did not do so in order to protect the wealthy slave owners. When the slaves were freed there was no plan to help them have a better life. Prejudice in the north was extreme.
    2. All of the people whom I’ve met (8) who are into dramatizing the Southern battles are fascinated with history. One of those eight does harbor prejudice that I have seen come out in his writings. Several (4) are freethinkers who believe in equal rights for everyone. It is not a KKK meeting. If there are prejudices, members don’t know.
    If General Lee fought for the south, despite being against slavery, what were his reasons? If brother fought against brother, then why?

    There is (and rightly so) bitterness about the issue of slavery. The horrors of it have still not been confronted and admitted by this country as well as the prejudice that still exists. There is much work to do.

  3. Prayer for the Confederacy
    This prayer was composed by Rabbi Max Michelbacher of Congregation Beth Ahabah, Richmond, Virginia.

    Shemang Yisroel, Ad-nay El-hainoo, Ad-noy Achod!
    Hear, O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One.
    Oh G-d of the Universe! Although unworthy through my manifestold transgressions, I approach the seat of thy mercy, to crave thy favor, and to seek thy protection. I supplicate thy forgiveness, O most merciful Father, for the many transgressions and the oft repeated disobedience, which cause Thee to command destruction over me. Behold me now, O my Father, supplicating Thy protection! Thou who art near when all other aid faileth! O spare me, guard me from the evil that is impending!
    This once happy country is inflamed by the fury of war; a menacing enemy is arrayed against the rights, liberties and freedom of this, our Confederacy; the ambition of this enemy has dissolved fraternal love, and the hand of fraternity has been broken asunder by the hands of those, who sit now in council and meditate our chastisement, with the chastisement of scorpions. Our firesides are threatened; the foe is before us, with the declared intention to desecrate our soil, to murder our people, and to deprive us of the glorious inheritance which was left to us by the immortal fathers of this once great Republic.
    Here I stand now with many thousands of the sons of the sunny South, to face the foe, to drive him back, and to defend our natural rights. O Lord, G-d of Israel, be with me in the hot season of the contending strife; protect and bless me with health and courage to bear cheerfully the hardships of war.
    O L-rd, Ruler of Nations, destroy the power of our enemies! “Grant not the longings of the wicked; suffer not his wicked device to succeed, lest the exalt themselves. Selah. as for the heads of those that encompass me about, let the mischief of their own lips cover them. Let burning coals be cast upon them; let them be thrown into the fire, into deep pits, that they rise not up again.” (Psalm 140). Be unto the Army of this confederacy, as thou were of old, unto us, thy chosen people— Inspire them with patriotism! Give them when marching to meet, or, overtake the enemy, the wings of the eagle— in the camp be Thou their watch and ward— and in the battle, strike for them, O Almighty G-d of Israel, as thou didst strike for thy people on the plains of Canaan—guide them O L-rd of Battles, into the paths of victory, guard them from the shaft and missile of the enemy. Grant that they may ever advance to wage battle, and battle in thy name to win! Grant that not a standard be ever lowered among them! O L-rd, G-d, Father, be thou with us!
    Give unto the officers of the Army and of the Navy of the Confederate States, enterprise, fortitude and undaunted courage; teach them the ways of war and the winning of victory. Guard and preserve, O L-rd, the President of the Confederate States and all officers, who have the welfare of the country truly at heart. Bless all my fellow-citizens, and guard them against sickness and famine! May they prosper and increase!
    Hear me further, O L-rd, when I pray to Thee for those on earth, dearest to my heart. O bless my father, mother, brothers and sisters. (if married: my wife and children.) O bless them all with earthly and heavenly good! May they always look up to Thee, and may they find in Thee their trust and strength.
    O L-rd, be with me always. Show me the way I have to go, to be prepared to meet Thee here and hereafter.
    My hope, my faith, my strength are in Thee, O L-rd, my G-d, forever— in Thee is my trust. “For thy salvation do I hope, O L-rd! I hope for Thy salvation, O L-rd! O L-rd, for Thy salvation do I hope!” Amen! Amen!
    Shemang Yisroel, Ad-noy El-hainoo, Ad-noy Achod!
    Hear, O Israel, The L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One.
    Amen ! Amen !

  4. Rabbi Boteach should read his own article: he says that he is “baffled.” Perhaps he should spend more time writing about things he understands and less about subjects that “baffle” him. I am somewhat “baffled” about the fact that women and black men did all the work that kept the Confederate army fed. I am “baffled” that both racist/sexist groups and revisionist progressives equally wish to ignore this fact. I am “baffled” that there were black men wearing gray uniforms during the war. I am “baffled” that there were Jews who engaged in some degree of accomodation with authorities in Nazi-occupied nations during the Second World War. I am “baffled” by a lot of periods in history when people did things that did not fit in with the current sensibilities that we may have today. But these things that “baffle” me are things that I would not deign to write an essay about. I would not deign to presume that I know enough about them to offer an opinion. The good rabbi has established clearly in his essay that his knowledge and understanding of 19th Century American history is limited, at best. Being sanctimonious is not the same thing as being introspective, much less intelligent. But maybe he can help us avoid the sin of improper hero worship by suggesting some proper heroes who are, like him, without sin.

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