What Does Your Civil War Soldier Have To Say?

Charlottesville's Confederate Soldier Statue

Well, it’s early Sunday morning and I am sitting in my office preparing my classes for the start of a new trimester.  Once again, I am teaching an elective called, Civil War Memory, which I’ve offered over the past three years.  The course has taken different forms from a standard readings course to a course on film.  This year I am trying to structure the course so as to give my students a sense that they are contributing to the ongoing discussion about how the Civil War ought to be commemorated throughout the sesquicentennial.  I’ve played around with the idea of having my class form their own commission and build a website that would outline what they hope to accomplish over the next few years.  One of the activities planned will ask students to write their own proclamation for the state of Virginia after a careful examination of documents related to Governor McDonnell’s experience.

I tend to use the first day of a new class to jump right in rather than go through the tedious steps of outlining the course as well as my expectations.  Most of my students are already aware of my expectations and they can read the outline on the course website.  Let’s get to the important stuff.  I think I found a promising little lesson to get things going.  This morning I read a brief editorial in our local newspaper that attempts to give voice to our courthouse Confederate statue:

My name is Johnny Reb, the young soldier you see downtown every day at the courthouse. I killed and died for the Confederate States of America. I now see the great pain and suffering I brought to my family and my country in this misguided war. I am sorry too for attempting to perpetuate the slavery of Africans, brought here in cruel servitude, an enduring stain on America’s heritage of liberty. “If I could rise from my grave, I would walk to President Lincoln’s memorial in Washington and ask his forgiveness. And I would ask to shake the hand of President Obama and thank him for his service in healing the great country America has become despite my mistake.

I’m not so concerned about the substance of the editorial as much as I am with the imaginative act of speaking for the statue – an act that reminds us that our understanding of the meaning of these sites is always changing.    Perhaps I will come up with a couple of questions to assist them or maybe it’s better just to let them go to see what they come up with.  Most of my students will have taken my survey course on the war.  This is also a way to connect students to the local memory of the Civil War and this exercise can be done on any number of grade levels.  I will let you know what, if anything, comes of it.

11 responses... add one

The idea is intriguing. It should get the creative juices flowing. Look forward to hearing about how the students respond.

I give the effort you cite a big fat D minus at best. From high up on that pedestal that fellow up there has seen year after year of veneration – first on May 10th (Confederate Memorial Day) and later on May 30th (Memorial Day) eventually on July 4th and also November 11th and finally back to the practice of May 10th again. I think far from any apology he would remain a good old Rebel – not needing a pardon for anything he did. When anyone pays him any mind at all it is to honor him on those days. If he is next to the court house he might “see” some other things but maybe not. The danger is projecting our 21st sensibilities on his 19th century or early 20th century core. But it will be interesting to see what young minds can imagine …

Fascinating idea. It fits just about perfectly into the concept of “Civil War Memory” and I agree it also ties into local history quite well.

In fact, it’s something I may have to consider trying myself. There are not may Civil War monuments here in Northern Kentucky, but I have found many headstones to soldiers from different states and born in various countries, so I could try to apply this line of thought to these headstones as I find them. It would certainly give me a different perspective and way of thinking about the war myself.

In South Carolina, our Confederate soldier out in front of the State House is saying, “The Christmas tree is blocking me and there’s a flying Confederate flag behind me and I hope I don’t fall down and land on either one. I’m extremely confused about this situation. I’ve got my back turned on the flag like I’m rejecting it. I’m holding a gun and yet I appear to be, from the front, the angel of Christmas. I think I should put my gun down to either open the Christmas presents or to salute the Confederate flag. This is the craziest and most ridiculous sight I have ever seen, and I would have thought my fellow South Carolinians would be able to use their own eyes and common sense to figure out some reasonable resolution to this ridiculousness.”

It’s not a bad idea, if you could somehow squelch in advance the sort of PC flapdoodle that wound up in the newspaper. It would take a lot of thought—and a broad view of the war—to do it well.

How about this.
I am a native of North Carolina and I had always honored the Stars and Stripes because my ancestors fought for it to be established . I took a lesson from the Tories who supported England in the Revolutionary War.and at the end of the War between the States I accepted my defeat and again honor the nation whose banner I both fought for and then against. I did not fight for slavery and I am glad that it is in our distant past. I fought because Mr. Lincoln raised an army and made it plain that he was going to invade the the Southern States..My choice was fight against my neighbors and welcome the invaders from the north or fight to keep my state free to make our laws. I had always believed that Thomas Jefferson was right to say that an overreaching government must be opposed . As a last resort by open rebellion if necessary. I am sorry it came to be the long and bloody war that killed so many on both sides and I am sorry that reconstruction destroyed any good will remaining between the warring sections for 60 more years. I will not apologize for what I did but I would ask the leaders of this country why it came to war.

my great grandfather died at Perryville, KY……if he could speak he would not say what you are trying to get your students to imagine……..politically correct jibberish.

Thanks for the comment, Bill. What do you think I am trying to get my students to imagine based on this post?

Join the Conversation