Why I Will Not Sign the Civil War Trust’s Petition

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.

34 comments… add one
  • Pat Young Sep 5, 2015

    What a deceptive petition. All American soldiers fought to defend freedom? How do we know that? Because they were Americans. Preserving slavery is defending freedom. Massacring Indians is defending freedom. Give me a break.

  • renegadesouth Sep 5, 2015

    Well said, Kevin. The logic that we should commemorate every soldier’s heroism for “defending freedom” is the same logic that says if we criticize the motives behind present-day military actions, we are dishonoring the soldiers sent to serve. I can only echo Pat Young’s words.

  • Jimmy Dick Sep 5, 2015

    I refuse to sign any petition that includes Confederate soldiers fighting for freedom. Many of the monuments honoring Confederates were erected with the goal of sustaining segregation in the South and to create a false interpretation of history. This petition is too generalized and is just a feel good moment.

    Also, let us examine the various memorials to American soldiers who fought Native Americans. If anyone was fighting for their freedom it was the Native Americans. Yet, we have a lot of memorials to the soldiers and not the Native Americans. Every single one of the memorials involving the four century long war against Native Americans needs to be examined and remade to incorporate both sides of the conflict.

  • Mark Pethke Sep 5, 2015

    I’ve been a member of the Civil War Trust for over a decade now, and did not sign it either, primarily thinking, in my own state, of the ongoing controversy over the “Battle of Liberty Place” obelisk in New Orleans. It’s useful to remember that for all the good the CWT does, its primary purpose is not education, but real estate acquisition, and for that goal the cash of the last Lost Cause advocate is just as green as anyone else’s. At a Civil War Institute tour a few years back CWT Education Director Garry Adelman commented that he spends a fair amount of his job having to remind people that slavery was in fact a critical cause of the war, and when I’ve attended a few of the conventions I’ve found, let’s say, a wide variety of views about that subject. When your Board of Directors ranges from Ed Bearss and John Nau to Trace Adkins, I suspect Mr. Lighthizer has some long days, and I’d be curious to hear just precisely what generated this petition.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 5, 2015

      Hi Mark,

      I’d be curious to hear just precisely what generated this petition.

      Me too. Was there pressure from certain donors or was this entirely an internal decision. The CWT is certainly well within their right to get stake a position, I just wish it was framed in a way that more clearly compliments their work with battlefield preservation. This is what prompted my point in the post re: education.

      • Mark Sep 6, 2015

        It certainly could have occurred either way, as a response to donor concerns or as a preemptive move to head off same. The fundraising for the organization has always been, for lack of a better term, “value neutral,” stressing the need to acquire the hallowed ground where our forefathers fought and died, irrespective of which cause they fought for. While this approach serves to attract the largest possible pool of potential donors, and from a fundraising perspective certainly cannot be faulted, there is an inevitable tension with the educational component of the mission that the Trust has, to its credit, vastly expanded in recent years. Occasionally that tension rises to the surface and I suspect that’s what has happened here.

        • Kevin Levin Sep 6, 2015

          The CWT is free to explain the purpose of the petition if they so choose. The problem is that they have embraced an incredibly simplistic interpretation of monuments. They are not just about the event, individual or group of men commemorated. Yes, Civil War veterans were involved in the raising of funds and planning for many of these monuments and memorials, but even their roles were rarely defined as veterans alone. I could go on.

          What the CWT should have done is dispensed with a petition entirely. I have no idea what the petition is even asking Congress to do. They should have focused on monuments and memorials on battlefield ground and done something along the lines of helping the general public to better understand why they are there and how they might help us to think about history and memory.

    • Bryce Hartranft Sep 5, 2015

      “It’s useful to remember that for all the good the CWT does, its primary purpose is not education, but real estate acquisition, and for that goal the cash of the last Lost Cause advocate is just as green as anyone else’s.”

      Could not have said it better myself.

  • Sandi Saunders Sep 5, 2015

    Well said and I too agree! While many want to call the Confederate Army US Americans, it is clear they were Confederate Americans by choice and by secession not US Americans. And I will not pretend it was not US American soldiers the Confederate American soldiers were killing. Not to mention that going to the US Congress is the final nail in the “state’s right” coffin that the neo-Confederates insist was and is their raison d’être!

    • renegadesouth Sep 5, 2015

      I must point out, Sandi, that many Confederate soldiers did not join the army by choice. They were conscripted–often forcibly–and when captured as deserters the lucky ones were forced back into the Confederacy; the rest were executed on the spot. Even those who willingly served the Confederacy did not necessarily know they were fighting to save slavery. It’s the same old story–the misuse of our ordinary citizens as fodder for those with the power to conscript under the rhetoric of “defending our freedoms.” I say this not to advocate monuments to their service, but to remember the realities of who makes those war decisions.

  • London John Sep 5, 2015

    I strongly agree with all the above 4 comments. In particular, as was brought out last month in posts and comments, some confederate monuments are “really” monuments to the defeat of reconstruction and the re-establishment of white supremacy. And even where that was not the original intention, they acquired that meaning during subsequent struggles.
    As for the wars against the Native Americans, the only memorial I’ve seen is at the Little Big Horn battlefield. I thought that was just right; anyone else agree/disagree?

    • Sherree Sep 7, 2015

      “As for the wars against the Native Americans, the only memorial I’ve seen is at the Little Big Horn battlefield. I thought that was just right; anyone else agree/disagree?”

      I would have to disagree. I think that, in particular, the following quote by the Cheyenne Chief Two Moons is not a view of past events that is shared by many Indigenous men and women of either the past or the present: “Forty years ago I fought Custer till all were dead. I was the enemy of the Whiteman. Now I am the friend and brother living in peace together under the flag of our country.”

      A more realistic and complex view of how the “Indian Wars” were fought, and of what was truly at stake is explored by the National Park Service in the public remembrance of Sand Creek: http://www.nps.gov/sand The NPS has done an excellent job at Sand Creek, to the best of my knowledge. In the pictures of the memorial that are online, the inclusion of prayer ties at the memorial site indicate that Native men and women visit the site. That speaks to its authenticity.

  • M.D. Blough Sep 5, 2015

    I strongly agree with all of the above 5 comments as well. Also, have we learned nothing from what led up to the Civil War? The slave states refused to discuss anything (or even acknowledge the topic) if they thought that there was the slightest possibility that it could lead to the end of slavery even at a slower than glacial pace and with compensation. All the various “compromises”, including the provisions regarding slavery original Constitution, were an attempt to kick the can down the years and try to postpone the day of reckoning indefinitely.

    The mentality that the Civil War Trust’s petition exhibits is the same that bitterly fought any attempts to expand interpretation at the National Park Service Civil War battlefield parks to include anything beyond who shot who and where. The opposition was the most bitter to any interpretation that included slavery, both as to the cause(s) of the war and how it shaped the course and outcome of the war. In the interpretation that governed the parks for way too long, all soldiers were noble and everyone was fighting for what they believed in. God forbid anyone raise the question of why these noble, idealistic soldiers were doing their best to kill and maim as many of the noble, idealistic soldiers on the other side. I pointed out to more than a few that if all we got into was the skill and the bravery of soldiers, there was no difference between soldier volunteers in the American Revolution and the Hessians they fought.

    What the Civil War Trust wants to do would have the effect of freezing these monuments at the time of their erection without discussion of context whether historical or their effects on current events and people. Where something is located IS important. If it is a public building, particularly a courthouse or a capitol building, a monument, statue, etc glorifying the Confederacy would give the strong impression that people other than whites, particularly white males, do not have equal dignity under the law to whites.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 5, 2015

      I know a number of people at the Civil War Trust and I respect them greatly. My guess is that the author[s] got caught up in placing the Civil War within the broader battlefield landscape that the CWT has recently decided to focus on, namely the American Revolution. Still, the language is unfortunate and completely ignores the very issue that is at the center of this debate.

      • M.D. Blough Sep 5, 2015

        Same here, Kevin, but whoever came up with this one just wasn’t thinking of the ramifications.

  • cagraham Sep 5, 2015

    Coincidence here, but just as you posted this and as I saw your critique of CWT’s criticisms of “passions,” I was reading the following passage from this book. (p. 91)

    “The institution’s avoidance of ‘clash’ underlies an expressed aim to deliver ‘social cohesion,’ resulting in the museum’s overemphasis on ‘consensuality’ and denying the opportunity for resistance to be made manifest. The institution achieves this by ignoring ‘passion and partisanship’ (Mouffe 2005:2), both central elements of democratic dialogue, and by rewarding those whose behavior is less challenging and more in keeping with its own behavioural ethos–thus reinforcing what John Gaventa calls ‘false consensus’ within the relationship (2004). As Mouffe reminds us, this is a dangerous strategy, actually at odds with democratic principles and practice…”

    • Kevin Levin Sep 5, 2015

      Sounds like this essay grapples with what I see as a tendency among public historians to think that their role in debates like the one we are having about Confederate monuments is to fix or offer a solution to a problem. It’s a privileged position to be able to take, but as I have suggested more than once it may not be so relevant to the kinds of concerns that are currently being expressed by people on both sides of the divide. Thanks for the reference.

      • cagraham Sep 5, 2015

        In short, yes, that’s partly how I take it. Lynch is doing a particularly British museology thing and applying a heavy dose of critical social theory to her problem. In this case, it’s “contact zone theory,” and she’s critiquing “utopian, democratic, therapeutic, dialogic museum(s)” for “well-intentioned” efforts to generate “consensual” outcomes. She claims that consensus is the result of institutions actually failing to genuinely share authority and is damaging to marginalized communities. She advocates a collaborative process that is likely to produce “opposition and resistance” to the cultural hegemony of museums.

        Um, I don’t agree with some things in here, but it is solid and very applicable to our situation. We could certainly afford to have this discussion.

        Anyhow…getting a bit off topic. I’ll turn it back over to the topic at hand.

  • Matt McKeon Sep 6, 2015

    Its hard not to see this in the context of efforts by state politicians to keep black majority cities and towns from controlling their own monumental landscapes.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 6, 2015

      Hi Matt,

      I certainly don’t see this petition as intending anything along those lines. What we have is a poorly executed petition that was well intended.

    • Pat Young Sep 6, 2015

      It has that look to it Matt. The white Civil War establishment is realizing that the in-your-face erection of Confederate memorials in black majority (but black disenfranchised) cities 100 years ago left these statues in “enemy territory.” They are hoping to take away local control of the monuments if that control is in black hands. At least that is how it looks.Telling a town or city what its monumental landscape should look like without consulting with it is damned arrogant.

      I wonder what effort has been made by the CWT to reach out to African American civic organizations in the cities in question? How about efforts to reconfigure Confederate monuments into Civil War monuments that honor USCT and Southern Unionists the way my local Civil War monument had later war dead added to it.

      • Kevin Levin Sep 6, 2015

        At least that is how it looks.

        Perhaps, but there is absolutely no evidence that this petition can be explained this way. My guess is that the folks at CWT view these monuments as extensions of battlefields, which they most certainly are not.

        • Pat Young Sep 7, 2015

          I think the evidence is in the petition itself. The petition says;

          “Over the past few months, since the tragic Emanuel AME church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, passions have been running high on the issue of how we as a nation remember our shared history.”

          The only history that the petition mentions as part of our “shared history” is the history of the “young men and women” who defended our “freedom” militarily. .

          The war monuments are “silent sentinels recognizing the soldiers who crossed the frozen Delaware River with Washington, fought amid the boulder-strewn hillsides of Gettysburg, served in the trenches of Vicksburg and Petersburg, landed on the beaches of Normandy and the islands of the Pacific, and most recently served in the deserts of Afghanistan and Iraq.” Since the chruch shooting I have not hear of calls to remove World War II or Afghanistan monuments, so I can only imagine that this was raised to disguise the real purpose of the petition.

          There is no mention that some of these monuments were erected by the veterans themselves as silent sentinals of the white supremacist order.Why not say that if the preservation of history is the real purpose of this petititon?

  • John Betts Sep 6, 2015

    Well said, Kevin. Perhaps someone can point out to me just how Confederate soldiers were “defending freedom” on my behalf, because I just cannot see it. I salute the sacrifices and courage of some individuals, and perhaps it does apply to some few, but I just do not see this when speaking of Confederate soldiers in general. I’m also puzzled as to what “freedom” soldiers in the Mexican-American War, American Indian Wars, and Spanish-American War were “defending”. The motives of our leaders at least were not exactly pure to put it mildly. Need I even mention the Filipino-American War or various “Banana Republic” wars of the early to mid 20th century? A mixed lot at best.

  • TF Smith Sep 6, 2015

    I tried to unpack the petition text to figure it out, but interestingly enough, one can read this as “only” focused on the U.S. troops (not the rebels), because of the following statement:

    However, we must remember that such freedoms come at a tremendous cost, paid for in the blood of brave Americans in uniform who sacrificed all to forge the country we are today. We owe these men and women a debt that can never be repaid.

    What freedoms enjoyed “today were paid for by the blood of the casualties suffered by the rebel armies? The context is the petition refers only to memorials for “American” troops, not rebels…

    Maybe?

    • M.D. Blough Sep 7, 2015

      That would be nice, TF, but, unfortunately I don’t think that interpretation works. The language of the petition itself makes it clear that its sole reason for existence is the controversy surrounding memorials, etc. to the Confederacy and/or individual Confederates as well as the controversy over the “Confederate Flag.” For starters, after introductions, the petition begins with “Over the past few months, since the tragic Emanuel AME church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, passions have been running high on the issue of how we as a nation remember our shared history.”

  • TFSmith Sep 7, 2015

    I’m sure you’re both correct, but I was trying to be charitable, I suppose; CWT does important work in site preservation – but they certainly have stepped in it, so to speak, with this one.

  • Mark Pethke Sep 8, 2015

    It may not be a priority to them. “Sign the Petition” is certainly not highlighted on the CWT website, in either the revolving features designed to get your attention or the news section, “From the the Front Lines.” And when they want to push something, they know how to do it. 😉

  • Patrick Jennings Sep 9, 2015

    I am not sure what the CWT is after, but likely it is something concrete like the response from the US Army over base names…

    “Army Brig. Gen. Malcolm B. Frost, chief of public affairs, said the naming of these bases “occurred in the spirit of reconciliation, not division.” He also said that “Every Army installation is named for a soldier who holds a place in our military history. Accordingly, these historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies.”

    The army did well on quelling this issue.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 9, 2015

      Accordingly, these historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies.

      Why should we accept Gen. Frost’s position on what these names do or don’t represent in 2015? That is exactly what is currently being debated.

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