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.