The Civil War Trust is asking members and others to sign a “Citizens’ Petition in Support of War Memorial Preservation,” which will eventually be sent to Congressional leaders. I will not be signing it. It is certainly not because I don’t support the spirit of the petition. Let me explain.
The petition asks the public to reduce all American wars and all soldiers as worthy of continued honor. All soldiers, including Confederates , according to CWT ought to be remembered as “young soldiers who defended freedom.” How we remember the freedoms that Confederates fought so hard to achieve is exactly what is currently being debated. It is a legitimate debate/discussion that relates directly to the meaning attached to many Civil War monuments from Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis to the standard soldier monument on the courthouse lawn.
By lumping all wars and all soldiers into one group CWT sends a message that the causes and consequences of the Civil War are irrelevant. It takes what I believe is a dangerous and even irresponsible position of ‘erasing’ the very history that helps to frame how many Americans interpret these monuments.
The petition is unclear as to exactly what Congress is being asked to do. Does the CWT hope legislation will be passed or are they looking for some kind of statement from Washington? Would legislation override the work that some states are already engaged in to “protect” their war memorials?
Furthermore, what exactly is a Civil War monument? Is a monument that celebrates Jefferson Davis as the leader of the Confederacy a war memorial? How about one that honors Chief Justice Roger Taney as well as monuments to loyal slaves during the Civil War? Does the CWT acknowledge the option of moving a monument to a museum or other location as a form of preservation? Are we talking about the preservation of a physical structure alone or a specific memory/narrative? So many questions.
The CWT would have been on much firmer ground if they had narrowed their focus to memorials and monuments that currently exist on National Park Service battlefields. Perhaps these monuments are in no danger given that they are on federal land, but this would have been a starting point from which the CWT could educate the public about the value of these monuments.
Unlike the CWT I don’t have a problem with the “passions” currently on display. In fact, I welcome it. The last thing I want to see is for Congress to step in and take steps that rightfully belong to the residents who are working through questions about the appropriateness of Confederate monuments and memorials in their communities. Only they should be permitted to make these decisions through their elected officials.
What is needed and where the CWT is perfectly positioned to render assistance is in the area of education. No organization has done more to promote the importance of battlefield preservation and Civil War history than the CWT. They ought to be looking into ways to engage residents in communities like Memphis, New Orleans and Baltimore about their monuments and memorials, but they ought to do so with some humility. Americans have a right to feel strongly about their monuments and whether they ought to remain untouched.
This is a discussion that is much too important to our civic life not to have and it ought to be allowed to move forward with all options on the table.