Finding middle ground on Confederate monuments
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