A Response to Anonymous

First, thanks to all of you who have commented on the recent guest post in favor of maintaining Confederate monuments. A number of you have expressed concern about my decision to allow my guest to post anonymously. I understand your concerns and I am re-thinking my policy. For now I want to share a few thoughts in response to the content of the post.

I could not disagree more with the overall thrust of this piece. The author appears to be unaware of the underlying fact that the vast majority of these monuments were erected during the Jim Crow-era–a point at which African Americans were legally barred from taking part in public discussions (that involved their tax dollars) about how their community’s past would remember the Civil War. Many of the soldier monuments that the author fondly recalls were dedicated on court house grounds that regardless of their intent would have sent a specific messages to different segments of the community.

The author’s tendency to reduce anyone who has questioned monuments as part of the ‘radical political left’ overlooks the decades long struggle on the part of black Americans and others who have campaigned in their local communities against the public display and sanctioning of Confederate iconography, including the battle flag. Does the author also believe that the battle flags should remain? They were as important a symbol of sacrifice and comradeship for the veterans, their children and grandchildren as the monuments themselves. This is little more than a straw man argument.

On the history of the battle flag the author falls into the same trap as others. This notion that the meaning of the battle flag was hijacked by white supremacists as symbols or rallying points of white supremacy ignores their role in an army whose goal was the creation of an independent slaveholding republic. It was no accident that the state of Mississippi adopted the battle flag in it state flag in the 1890s. It was no accident that the Dixiecrats adopted the flag in the 1940s. They understood the history and they also understood that the public would immediately recognize their goals. It was no accident that the flag was later adopted as a symbol of “massive resistance” against civil rights. And finally, it was no accident that Dylann Roof embraced it.

The author would also do well to read Joseph Glatthaar’s study of the Army of Northern Virginia. As Glatthaar notes, most soldiers may not have owned slaves, but a high percentage came from extended families that were slaveowners or had other interests in maintaining the institution. More importantly, slaveowners were over represented in the army, thus challenging the assumption that this was a ‘Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight.’ After 1863 and the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Confederates were clear-eyed about just what was at stake. You can see this on battlefields in which they confronted black Union soldiers as well as in the very debate to enlist slaves into the army. The ANV functioned as the military extension of a government committed to defending slavery. There is no distinction to be made between the cause of the soldier and the nation he served.

Monuments are an expression of the values of a specific time and place and they often themselves distort the history being commemorated. Look no further than the many monuments that portray African Americans as loyal slaves. Monuments are not timeless structures. The United States oversaw the destruction of monuments to the Nazi regime at the end of WWII. The Penn State community recently decided to remove a statue of football coach Joe Paterno. Americans removed a statue to King George III at the beginning of the American Revolution. No generation should expect that their work to shape society must be embraced by future generations.

We are under no moral obligation to maintain the monuments and statues of previous generations. While I am deeply saddened by the violence in Charlottesville and elsewhere I have consistently maintained that these debates are not only necessary, but welcome. The author only sees extremism and violence. I see people engaged in the vital work of community building and justice.

The author overlooks the fact that in many communities throughout the South a majority of the population never had the opportunity to engage in discussions about how the Civil War and the Confederacy would be remembered. Where are the monuments to the thousands of black southerners who fought for the Union? Where are the monuments to emancipation at the turn of the twentieth century? It is no accident that they are missing from this commemorative landscape. Indeed, the very monuments that were erected obscured and erased this history from the public memory. The author never comments on any betrayal of moral responsibility here.

But in distorting the past and engaging only a segment of the population these monuments helped to reinforce Jim-Crow white supremacy and segregation. In some cases this was their explicit intent, but it is a point that holds regardless of the intentions of the men and women who helped to dedicate and erect them. The author laments what he describes today as “run-amuck politically-correct presentism,” but such a label could just as easily be ascribed to many of these turn-of-the-century dedications.

The author concludes with the following: “And by all means permit the remaining monuments to stand, if for no other reason than to allow future generations the liberty of judging them for themselves.” The generations past that were prevented from doing so are now judging for themselves. We should allow that to continue.

16 thoughts on “A Response to Anonymous

  1. Paultourguide

    This is a well reasoned rebuttal to a post that left me questioning the original writers claim to understanding the statues and their plea to leave them up.

    Reply
  2. Rob Baker

    Well said.

    There is no distinction to be made between the cause of the soldier and the nation he served.

    Are you arguing that the two are not mutually exclusive?

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    1. Bob Beatty

      Not sure if the author is but I would say they’re not mutually exclusive, but I would. The Civil War is the one war in which the motives of individual soldiers are often used to determine the war’s overarching cause. Whether slaveowners or not, avowed defenders of slavery or indifferent to the issue, Confederate soldiers were fighting for a cause: the creation of a new nation built upon the protection/preservation of slavery.

      Soldiers fight for all kinds of reasons, often removed from the macro issues on which nations/powers wage war. But rarely, if ever, do we ascribe the cause(s) of war to the motivations of the soldiers themselves as is the case here. Perhaps this is the most lasting, and dangerous l legacy of the Lost Cause narrative.

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      1. Rob Baker

        …but I would say they’re not mutually exclusive, but I would.

        Can you clarify this statement? You would say they’re not mutually exclusive but you would say that they are?

        I agree with the main point that I think you’re making, and I’ve made the same argument. Perhaps I just misinterpreted the point being emphasized (my bad Kevin). Motivations vs causes: aside from personal motivations which, as you say are various, all Confederate soldiers still fought for the cause – new nation based on slavery. And I definitely agree that often the motivations of soldiers are ascribed to the cause of the Civil War.

        I saw polling data the other day about how historians were virtually unanimous in their argument, that slavery was the central issue that brought on the war, but less than 40% saw slavery as the central issue. I think Southerners have a hard time accepting the fact that their ancestor fought to perpetuate slavery – especially when said ancestor did not own slaves. This makes a “Lost Cause” narrative seem more tangible – that’s just an opinion though.

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      2. hankc9174

        as Lincoln said, ‘both sides may be, but one side must be, wrong’.

        in every war, at least one side is wrong. That doesn’t, yet, keep wars from being fought.

        I think it’s important to separate the war’s wrong, and in this case, losing, participants from later generation’s commemoration. Each generation has their own motivations.

        Better to defeat the current generation’s motivations on their own lack of merit rather than on Lee’s or the some other long-dead soldier.

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  3. Sandi Saunders

    Yes, this, all of this! Thank you Mr. Levin! I read the other day about the problems in the secession voting (Georgia, but no reason to think them unique). Where are the monuments to the Southerners who refused to support secession, refused to fight for the confederacy and even went to fight for the Union? As you say, this is not just about Civil War soldiers or the South, this is all about the confederacy and symbols to feed the continuation of white power and white control they would not surrender.

    We had cemeteries, we had “Decoration Day,” we had reunions. There was no forgetting or erasing what happened and no one in this nation was trying to forget it or ignore it. We started preserving the battlefields and artifacts, and people, from the family amateur to the Ph.D’s have researched, studied, taught, written, lectured, and discussed it from every POV and most assuredly from the Lost Cause POV. I follow some of the best! I just reject the whole “just remembrance” aspect for most of the prominent monuments.

    I owe my confederate ancestors the integrity to tell the truth and not let the damage continue if I can help it. I think that is what all Americans owe. Whether the monuments go, stay, change or get competition, we owe history the truth.

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    1. Rob Baker

      Where are the monuments to the Southerners who refused to support secession, refused to fight for the confederacy and even went to fight for the Union?

      Greeneville, TN comes to mind. There are some in Chattanooga, that were put inside of the National Cemetery there. I know of two roadside markers that highlight unionists – one is in front of the old courthouse in Dawsonville, GA; the other is in Blue Ridge, GA.

      There are a couple, but not many. Definitely exceptions to the rule.

      If you ever get a chance, check out A Separate Civil War by Jonathan Sarris – he sort of chronicles some Union/Communal/anti-Confederate exploits in North Georgia during the Civil War. His last chapter touches on memory. He does a good job describing why terming many of those people who were anti-confederate, are not exactly Unionist either.

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        Were these monuments erected at the turn of the 20th century? That was the point I was trying to make. Should have been clearer. Sarris is definitely worth reading. Excellent book.

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        1. Rob Baker

          The monument in Chattanooga was around 1890, pretty close to when the first parks opened up. Greeneville monument was 1919. No idea about the roadside markers.

          I definitely inferred your meaning about the turn of the 20th c., I just overlooked it by mistake. There are some really good histories being teased out about E. Tennessee during the Reconstruction and the Reconciliation era in terms of memory, veterans, and the commemorative landscape. The GAR was very active in the region for a time which added an interesting dynamic. I’ve was lucky enough to hear a few conference papers on the subject. I presented one on Bridge Burners of E. Tenn. Let me link you to Kelli B. Nelson’s thesis, “On the Imperishable Face of Granite”: Civil War Monuments and the Evolution of Historical
          Memory in East Tennessee, 1878-1931,

          http://dc.etsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2580&context=etd

          Reply
  4. George McCormick?

    I find the monument debate very interesting because while Confederate monuments are being removed, here in Tucson, the city is working with several groups to put up a monument to the Buffalo soldiers of the” Indian Wars” period. If slavery and Jim crow were abhorrant, and they were, what was genocide? We don’t want to celebrate the former but still seem keen on finding the latter something to make heroic and just o.k. I’ve always going white liberals very quiet about genocide,400,000 in 1800 to 200,000 in 1900 for native peoples in the U.S. to 4,000,000 to 7,000,000 African Americans in the same period. What is the denial about? Is it because all other groups in this society were actively involved?

    Reply

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