In the late 1990s Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. toured our Civil War battlefields. He was disappointed both by what he saw and especially by what he read and heard at various interpretive stops. Rather than call for the removal of Confederate monuments, he demanded a more inclusive interpretation that ultimately pushed the National Park Service further in the direction of interpreting Civil War sites within the broader context of the history of slavery.
The congressman understood that our Civil War battlefields are opportunities to learn about our complex and often divisive past. With Confederate monuments coming down across the country over the past few years it is easy to conclude that all of them need to be removed, including those located on Civil War battlefields.
This would be a mistake.
There are important differences between the way Confederate monuments function in public spaces such as downtown intersections, public parks, court house squares and a battlefield.
Removing Confederate monuments would deprive battlefield interpreters and educators the opportunity to focus visitors on the long history of these important historic sites, whose stories did not end with the battle itself.
Sites of history soon became sites of commemoration and memory. Understanding this process of memory making through the dedication of monuments and memorials can help shed light on broader events in American history and why the war and its legacy remains divisive to this day.
Confederate monuments at Gettysburg shed light on themes of reunion, the Lost Cause and later the Cold War as well as “massive resistance” and the Civil Rights Movement.
At the same time there is a great deal of overlap between the questions we can and should pose about Confederate monuments in public spaces and those located on battlefields. There are numerous challenges associated with interpreting battlefield monuments and we certainly shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we can defuse the pain that they may cause for some in the name of education.
That, however, is not a justification for their removal.
Before moving on, I will acknowledge that some critics have questioned the educational value of monuments. Education cannot reach everyone, they insist, and in the meantime monuments can offend some people—so we should take them down to make everyone feel safe. These arguments are misguided. Education is not just a convenient rationalization in support of retaining some elements of the memorial landscape; it is the only hope for a serious, productive engagement with our past—warts and all. And no education of any value depends on selective erasure of troubling dimensions of America’s story.
Visitors should expect to be challenged and made to feel just a little uncomfortable when visiting a site of such violence and learning about a moment in history that transformed the United States in ways that we are still struggling to come to terms with.
In a 2011 article for The Atlantic Ta-Nehisi Coates explored why so few African Americans identify with the history of the Civil War era. His observations were based, in large part, on his own visits to Civil War battlefields. In the final paragraph he offered this observation that I think can be applied to all of us in this moment in time:
The Lost Cause was spread, not merely by academics and Hollywood executives, but by the descendants of Confederate soldiers. Now the country’s battlefields are marked with the enduring evidence of their tireless efforts. But we have stories too, ones that do not hinge on erasing other people, or coloring over disrepute. For the Civil War to become Our War, it will not be enough to, yet again, organize opposition to the latest raising of the Confederate flag. The Civil War confers on us the most terrible burden of all—the burden of moving from protest to production, the burden of summoning our own departed hands, so that they, too, may leave a mark.
Let’s get to work.