About those Confederate monuments…

There are basically two schools of thought floating around the public’s consciousness about confederate monuments right now, especially in light of recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia.

  1. These are monuments to slavery, hatred, bigotry and the losing side of a war. They should be destroyed, or at the very least put in museums.
  2. You’re rewriting/destroying history. They should be left in place.

Now let me tell you a story:

In 1968 and 1969, I spent a year at Gettysburg College.

Old Dorm

Pennsylvania Hall, also known as Old Dorm, was built in 1837 and was used as a signal station and field hospital by both Union and Confederate forces. It was gutted and restored the year I was there, and underwent additional restoration in subsequent years. The entire campus is steeped in the history of the Civil War.

Decades later I returned to visit the campus, and had more time and more mobility to visit the historical sites, museums, and the battlefields.

20090518 - Michael Contemplates Gettysburg

In May of 2009, my son contemplates a battlefield.

The silence that hangs over those fields, where about 8,000 people lost their lives and over 57,000 were listed as casualties, is haunting. In Lincoln’s words, “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” Standing on that quiet land, listening, one can almost hear the tumult and terrors of war – and it’s important to note that Lincoln did not single out either Union or Confederate soldiers in his appellation “brave men.” Those who fought and died, regardless of how just their cause or how willingly or not they served, deserve to be remembered. They belong to the annals of our nation.

The word nigger appears 219 times in Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, but it was a product of its times and remains a classic piece of literature – an ode to the evils of slavery – just as it stands. I’ve seen “sanitized” versions of the work, which has long been one of my favorites, and they just feel wrong.

When I visited Albania numerous times in the early 90s, shortly after the fall of Communism, I found a land in which almost every reference to Enver Hoxha had been purged, except for the national museum in Tiranë. And I understood that national sentiment as well. After 41 years of brutal repression, very few Albanians had any desire to “remember” that part of their history, that they had so recently been relieved of.

In our case, the civil war is now 150 years behind us, but the history of slavery in the USA was almost 100 years longer than that, beginning on 31 August 1620, when John Rolfe recorded that “there came in a Dutch man-of-war that sold us twenty negars.” And the ripples and ramifications of slavery extended well into my lifetime; although I personally never saw scenes like this one, I was 14 the year of the Selma to Montgomery marches, 15 when Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the Black Panthers, and am watching the social media storm swirling around the Black Lives Matter today. If black lives really mattered, there would be no need for such a movement.

The record shows that most Confederate monuments were put up during the eras of Jim Crow segregation and the civil rights movement. They were put up, many with financial support from  The United Daughters of the Confederacy, to influence the narrative of the Civil War; the message was that the Civil War was not an issue of slavery but rather an issue of states rights.

On one hand, historical revisionism is a slippery slope. Humans are imperfect, and there will always be unpleasant truths in our past that must be acknowledged and remembered if we are not to repeat them. On the other hand, while my experience has been one of white privilege I can at least begin to imagine the gut feelings of those who have been impacted by the legacy of slavery at viewing – or even thinking of the existence of – monuments to people who fought, killed, and died to keep their people in bondage.

There are no monuments in Germany venerating Hitler or Göbbels or Eichmann. According to Joshua Zeitz, writing for Politico,

“The generation of Germans that came of age in the 1970s and 1980s confronted the country’s Nazi past and forcefully repudiated it. It took several decades of hard self-reflection, but a reunified Germany emerged from the Cold War as one of the great mainstays of democracy and human rights.”

Even though America stood for freedom and self-determination during the many wars of the last century, at home our own legacy of keeping a large part of our own population in miserable servitude for centuries remains not only unrepudiated but continues to be celebrated under the guise of another kind of historical revisionism.

It’s not enough to remove bronze and stone monuments to human wretchedness and cruelty; the underlying attitudes of the antebellum South and the Civil War remain enshrined in the hearts of too many people and too many textbooks. But it’s a step that we owe to the descendants of those who sweated under the loads and suffered under the lash and who have endured second-class status since their forefathers were emancipated, a step that must be taken if we are to eradicate those attitudes.

And what of private Buford Liles who marched off to war believing that the cause of the South was just and who never came home to wife and children, and all the privates and sergeants and fighting men like him who laid down their lives? A nation that has turned its back on the inhuman excesses of the past and that strives to build a society that works for everyone, with no one left out, can honor the bravery of these men and women, and all the victims of that wretched conflict, in memory without celebrating the flawed cause that moved them.

A contemplative visit to a peaceful battlefield would suffice.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

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