The American Left Needs a History Lesson | Opinion

The radical Left that is leading the charge on wrecking statues has, over the month, displayed an ignorance of the nation's past. We have real heroes in our past who deserve to have their accomplishments celebrated as examples for those who live in their future. Three examples highlight the contempt too many now have for our history, which does and should celebrate individuals for their willingness to stand up for what is morally right—even when others did not.

The first trashing occurred on the Boston Commons, where yahoos vandalized the memorial to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment and its commander, Robert Gould Shaw. Painted on the monument were the following slogans: "Black Lives Matter"; "No Justice, No Peace;" and "Police are Pigs." The terrible irony of the first slogan is the fact the 54th Massachusetts Regiment was the first Black regiment recruited to fight against the Confederacy. The Black soldiers of the 54th suffered many casualties; for them, the possibility that they might lose their lives in the cause to free their fellow Black Americans was something worth dying for.

The second incident occurred in Madison, Wisconsin and saw another group of know-nothings topple a statue dedicated to Hans Christian Heg. They not only chopped off the statue's head, but threw it in a lake. Heg had been an abolitionist before the Civil War and, when the war broke out, he joined up and put his life on the line for "black lives." As the commander of the 15th Wisconsin, he led the regiment at the Battles of Perryville, Stone's River and Chickamauga. Badly wounded at Chickamauga in September 1863 with a Confederate bullet in his stomach, he died two days later, undoubtedly in excruciating pain. He too believed that Black lives mattered and, with his own life, showed how much he cared.

The third incident occurred in San Francisco, when demonstrators pulled a statue of Ulysses S. Grant off its pedestal. The rationale was that Grant had once owned a slave. Indeed, that is true, but the issue is of course far more complex than that. The slave, named William Jones, was gifted from his father-in-law, as Grant attempted to succeed as a hardscrabble farmer. Two years later, as he was declaring bankruptcy, Grant signed the following paper: "I do hereby manumit, emancipate and set free said William from slavery forever." Grant could have sold Jones and thereby considerably reduced his debts. He chose not to do so.

There was, however, far more to Grant's life than this simple generosity to another human being. He emerged from the Civil War as the greatest general in American history. Without Abraham Lincoln and his political sagacity, it is doubtful that the North would have won the Civil War. But without Grant's strategic sense and military leadership, it is equally doubtful whether the North would have won. As Frederick Douglass commented: "May we not justly say...that the liberty Mr. Lincoln declared with his pen, General Grant made effectual with his sword—by his skill in leading the Union armies to final victory." That alone qualifies Grant as an individual who fully deserves the statues that exist in his honor around the United States.

Robert E. Lee surrendering to Ulysses S.Grant
Robert E. Lee surrendering to Ulysses S. Grant VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

But there is even more justification for preserving Grant's statues than his battlefield successes. In the trying days that followed the attempt to incorporate Blacks as citizens in the South, Grant's name became blackened for a number of reasons. First, his Southern critics condemned him as a butcher who had defeated Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia only by means of the massed Union armies, in spite of unimaginative leadership. The second charge was that Grant had led an evil and corrupt effort, the so-called Reconstruction period, in which corrupt Northern carpetbaggers and ignorant freed slaves ruled over the former Confederacy. The latter, of course, was the Southern white narrative—one perpetuated by the most overtly racist of American presidents, Woodrow Wilson.

In fact, before he became president in 1869, and while still commander of the U.S. Army, Grant had made every effort to use the troops still in the South to mitigate the vicious pogroms that were occurring throughout the defeated Confederate states. Here, he faced major opposition from Andrew Johnson, successor to the presidency after Lincoln's tragic assassination, who actively supported white Southerners in their efforts to ensure Blacks remained as close as possible to slavery. Grant put his wholehearted support behind the passage of the 15th Amendment, which Congress passed and sent to the states shortly before he took office. Thereafter, he made every effort to ensure its passage by the states. And it was that amendment that formed the basis for the success of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

During his presidency, Grant and his attorneys general broke the power of a rampaging Ku Klux Klan. As James McPherson, the great Civil War historian, has noted, no president after Grant until Franklin Roosevelt did anything to help America's Black population—and some, like Woodrow Wilson, made their lot much worse. Frederick Douglass noted that Grant was "the vigilant, firm, impartial and wise protector of my race." The sorry story of the trashing of his statue in San Francisco suggests how much Americans on the Left have to learn about their history.

Dr. Williamson Murray is emeritus professor of history at The Ohio State University.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.