Find­ing mid­dle ground on Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments

Maryland Independent - - Community Forum -

Fierce de­bate broke out these past weeks over the pro­pri­ety of re­tain­ing Con­fed­er­ate war memo­ri­als, punc­tu­ated by a deadly con­fronta­tion in Char­lottesville on Aug. 12 when a pro­tester rammed a car into a crowd of counter-demon­stra­tors. Those op­pos­ing Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments in­sist they honor men who com­mit­ted trea­son against the United States, men who fought to per­pet­u­ate a po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic sys­tem that rested on slav­ery, and that some of these stat­ues were com­mis­sioned by peo­ple who sought to re­in­force post-Civil War white supremacy laws. Those in fa­vor of re­tain­ing the mon­u­ments point out that his­tory is un­change­able and un­de­ni­able, that re­moval of these memo­ri­als seeks to san­i­tize the past and there­fore con­sti­tutes re­vi­sion­ist his­tory, and that their re­moval will feed de­mands to re­move stat­ues of other men whose views or past ac­tions fall out of public fa­vor.

U.S. his­tory con­tains both tri­umphs and dis­as­ters, and is peo­pled by bril­liant lead­ers whose ac­tions still make the world pause in awe, and oth­ers whose blun­ders are stains on our na­tional rep­u­ta­tion. That is our na­tional le­gacy. Our Civil War lead­ers — both from the North and South — were com­plex men who lived in an era of firestorm is­sues. Sum­mar­ily cat­e­go­riz­ing them into “traitor” or “hero” sta­tus ig­nores crit­i­cal as­pects of their char­ac­ter that are wor­thy of honor.

Robert E. Lee, for ex­am­ple, was thrice brevet­ted for courage dur­ing the War with Mex­ico. As the Civil War opened, he ag­o­nized over his de­ci­sion whether to stand by the Union or re­main loyal to Vir­ginia. Later, when fi­nal sur­ren­der at Ap­po­mat­tox drew near, sev­eral of his mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers pressed him to dis­band the Army of North­ern Vir­ginia and wage guer­rilla war against the Union. Lee knew such a con­flict would drag on for years, cause in­tense suf­fer­ing among the peo­ple where it was fought, and fur­ther em­bit­ter both North and South. He firmly de­clined. Fol­low­ing the war, at a Sun­day ser­vice in St. Paul’s Epis­co­pal Church in Rich­mond, when a black parish­ioner knelt to take communion — to the in­dig­na­tion of many white mem­bers of the con­gre­ga­tion — Robert E. Lee qui­etly came for ward and humbly knelt along­side the man, set­ting an ex­am­ple of ra­cial tol­er­ance and equal­ity for his fel­low wor­shipers who meekly fol­lowed his ex­am­ple. When Lee later ap­plied for amnesty from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment he had for­merly re­jected, many of his for­mer Con­fed­er­ate fol­low­ers also ap­plied for re­newed cit­i­zen­ship, and re­joined the United States.

We can de­bate the mer­its of other lead­ers whose stat­ues are threat­ened with de­mo­li­tion. But no leader is per­fect. Damn­ing one man’s achieve­ments be­cause of his flaws will in­evitably leave us with no mon­u­ments at all, and no his­tor­i­cal ex­am­ples to look to. Is that the even­tual goal here? Will its ac­com­plish­ment unify our coun­try, or will it fur­ther es­trange those from both North and South whose an­ces­tors fought in a bit­terly di­vi­sive war? More­over, where will it end? Calls are now be­ing aired in Chicago for sim­i­lar re­moval of a George Wash­ing­ton mon­u­ment on grounds he was a slave­holder.

There are no sim­plis­tic so­lu­tions to com­plex prob­lems. Those who urge oth­er­wise by press­ing for mon­u­ment re­moval may be cre­at­ing more prob­lems than they seek to solve, and may ac­tu­ally be ad­vo­cat­ing a very dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal agenda. De­mo­niz­ing Con­fed­er­ate lead­ers on grounds they com­mit­ted trea­son against the United States con­sciously ig­nores the mil­i­tary bril­liance they showed. But it equally min­i­mizes the ex­tra­or­di­nary sacri­fice, courage and suf­fer­ing their north­ern coun­ter­parts en­dured to over­come them. Calls to re­move Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments have hardly been matched by a coun­ter­vail­ing surge in es­teem shown to mon­u­ments erected to their North­ern coun­ter­parts. Just the op­po­site: the Lin­coln Memo­rial in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., was van­dal­ized re­cently, as was a Lin­coln bust in Chicago’s En­gle­wood neigh­bor­hood.

Those who dis­dain Civil War mon­u­ments on grounds that some of them were erected to pro­mote white supremacy or ra­cial seg­re­ga­tion also ig­nore the fact that the peo­ple who com­mis­sioned such stat­ues are long dead. The “Jim Crow” is­sues those spon­sors once cheered have died with them, or have been his­tor­i­cally dis­cred­ited — ex­cept among a few hold-outs whose ex­treme views have been re­jected by the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of the na­tion. Why not, then, re­tain these mon­u­ments to com­mem­o­rate the good in these ac­com­plished, but flawed, men?

Mon­u­ments are what we make of them. Let us do so hon­estly here. We should openly de­nounce any con­nec­tion any of these stat­ues once had with “Jim Crow” or white supremacy, and ar­tic­u­late the deeds of the en­shrined men that should be re­mem­bered. We can­not hon­estly dis­re­gard the tac­ti­cal bril­liance of Gen­eral Lee or Stonewall Jack­son; nor can we deny what their bat­tle­field vic­to­ries came per­ilously close to achiev­ing. They are, for bet­ter or worse, our his­tory. We make that his­tory live, not by deny­ing its facts, but by ac­knowl­edg­ing the ac­tions of the peo­ple who shaped it, and by learn­ing the best lessons from their char­ac­ter, their strug­gles and achieve­ments. Cit­ing the best part of those men will help us as a peo­ple learn the best lessons from our na­tion’s civil war. It would also go much fur­ther in heal­ing di­vi­sions in our so­ci­ety than at­tempt­ing to “cleanse” the land­scape of them. The lat­ter course is much more likely to fuel re­sent­ment and con­flict and un­der­mine the na­tional rec­on­cil­i­a­tion that was the goal of Abra­ham Lin­coln, the great pres­i­dent who led the Union to vic­tory and the coun­try to re­uni­fi­ca­tion. David K. Garner, La Plata

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