It’s not often that longitudes is stumped. On issues like guns, environment, domestic terrorism, fascism, political electionism etc., this blog has no trouble clearly expressing where it stands.
But longitudes has struggled to make sense of the polarized reactions to chunks of Confederate stone being carted away recently.
Usually, there are one or two soundbites that, like little marshmallows in hot cocoa, always bob to the surface. In the case of monument removals, that soundbite is the word “history.”
“But it’s history!” some say (including my wife). “You can’t change history!” is also heard. But are monuments to history history? And how is history actually being changed?
As loyal readers know, longitudes loves history. An understanding of history is good, because it often prevents us from repeating past mistakes. Frequently, longitudes appears dismayed at the indifference of many Americans to their own history. So it’s perplexing to hear so many Americans now, suddenly, expressing concern for American history. This applies to statue removers as well as statue defenders. Why this sudden obsession with history???
Alright, I’ll cut out the cuteness. This is a serious issue. But not because historical remembrance is threatened. It’s not. It’s serious because, like most everything else in America today and 152 years ago – including the hue and cry over the Confederate flag two years ago, on the heels of the murders of nine black church parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina by a white supremacist – the subject is race. And people are once again being killed over it.
Now that the statue hue and cry is gradually subsiding, and the U.S. media is being diverted by other dishes at the buffet table, I’ll take my turn and weigh in on monument removals (side note: like food dishes, news stories in the U.S. have a limited lifespan. Politicians learned this a long time ago, and they merely wait until the food gets stale: perhaps one reason why the incompetent blowhard in the White House hasn’t yet been impeached).
Every issue requires historical context. Many of those who now claim to be concerned about history, however, don’t provide it. Since longitudes does value historical understanding, here’s some quick context:
- The first slave in colonial America was African John Punch, an indentured servant (a temporary bonded laborer) who ran away from Virginia to Maryland in 1640, then was captured and sentenced to lifetime servitude.
- Slavery flourished in America for the next 225 years, when the United States Constitution finally abolished the institution.
- Between 1861 and 1865, a war was fought between different states in America. Although there were concerns about maintaining the union of states, about the admission of new western states, and about preserving an agrarian economy in the South, the base alloy for these issues – and the war – was human bondage.
- The war commenced after southern states withdrew from the union and formed a new nation, the Confederate States of America (C.S.A., or Confederacy).
- Some military leaders, including United States Military Academy graduates Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, chose to remain loyal to their southern states, abandoned the United States nation, and committed treason by taking up arms against it as part of the new Confederate nation (which wanted to preserve human bondage).
- The Confederate States of America lost the war to the United States of America. The southern Confederate states were then readmitted to the United States of America. The period of rebuilding the devastated Southern economy and infrastructure (without slavery) is known as Reconstruction.
- During Reconstruction, although slavery was now illegal, Southern leaders nonetheless wanted to honor their heroes, and monuments to these people began to be erected. Unlike slavery, monument erection was still legal.
- The first monument to a Confederate soldier, “Stonewall” Jackson, was erected in 1875 in the onetime capital of the Confederacy: Richmond, Virginia.
- The biggest flurry of Confederate monument erections occurred between 1900 and 1920, the height of the Jim Crow era (when Southern states enforced racial segregation, also legal at the time).
- Currently, there are an estimated 1,503 Confederate memorials (statues, flagpoles, obelisks, monuments) in public places throughout the U.S.
While all of this monument activity was occurring in the American South, rural blacks were being hauled into the woods at night and strung up by their necks. Between the start of Reconstruction and 1950, nearly 4,000 blacks were lynched in the American South.
Based on the last paragraph, one might guess that longitudes supports the removal of monuments to people with white skin who fought to maintain bondage of people with black skin. Actually, longitudes agrees with Civil War historian David Blight. He argues that Confederate monument removal is a healthy thing for America, but it should be conducted in a thoughtful, intelligent manner, and not hastily and indiscriminately, with grandstanding and finger-pointing.
For example, there’s a palpable difference between an obelisk at Yellow Tavern, Virginia denoting where Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart was killed, and the obelisk in Andersonville, Georgia that memorializes Henry Wirz, commander of infamous Andersonville prison, who was hung for war crimes. Likewise, there’s a difference between the giant stone engraving in Atlanta of General Lee astride his warhorse, Traveller, flanked by Jackson and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, all with their hats pressed to their hearts in devotion to The Cause, and a statue of civilian Robert E. Lee at his home in Arlington, Virginia, gazing ruefully across the Potomac toward Washington… a statue which currently doesn’t exist.
Years ago, while visiting a Civil War museum with my father down South, I read a letter Lee had written to his son. I was taken aback by his words, which seemed to me to be mature, reasoned, and enlightened. Unfortunately, Lee was also shaped by his unenlightened time and place. He owned slaves, he ordered them whipped, and he led the fight in a cause to preserve slavery. He wasn’t a god, despite what many neo-Confederates would like to believe. He had feet of clay like the rest of us.
So did slaveholders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both honored by monuments in the nation’s capital.
But longitudes also feels that too many white Americans are unwilling to walk in the shoes of non-white Americans. By virtue of their birth, they don’t have to. So they don’t make the effort to even speculate. Perhaps if these privileged white Americans envisioned themselves as being black, and living in Richmond or Charleston, and, on their daily commute, having to pass a memorial to a cause that was committed to keeping their ancestors in shackles… they might see things a bit differently regarding removal of certain flags and monuments.
Removing these memorials doesn’t remove or re-write history, despite what monument defenders claim. The history can’t be erased. The removals merely erase symbols that are painful to certain people, and a gruesome cause célèbre to others. If folks want to remember Confederate history, they don’t need a statue or flag to do so. They can go to the library and read a book.
And in the process they might learn some American history.
19 thoughts on “Making Sense of Monument Removals”
Well said. I also hope people realize you can’t hold history to the standards and laws we have today. When we truly appreciate and understand history, we allow it to shape our attitudes and actions by learning from the mistakes of our ancestors. It’s sad to realize that after the great strides we began making 150 years ago, progress has been at a standstill in race relations. It’s hard to understand how a country who values freedom and was built around the immigration of people from all over the world could elect a leader who apparently places no value in history or ethnic diversity.
Very well said yourself, WL61, and of course I completely agree with you. I’m trying to think of something to add to your comment, but you said it perfectly.
Pete, I really enjoyed this article until the last two paragraphs. I agree that Confederate monuments should be considered in the proper historical context, and I believe that local governments and communities should decide whether to retain or remove them. However, I take umbrage at your blanket assertion that “privileged” white Americans cannot or will not “even speculate” to consider the plight of non-whites. Say what? I’ve had this message pounded into my head since kindergarten, and I’m weary of the endless drumbeat of identity politics that so many self-styled progressives glibly deploy to assuage their liberal white guilt. Our society has made tremendous progress since the dawn of the Civil Rights era in the 1950s, and yet we still keep picking this scab in order to perpetuate the cult of victimhood among non-whites. It’s time to let it go. Let’s stop judging people by the color of their skin and assuming we know the content of their character.
Thanks for commenting, Tad (and I mean that).
Maybe I’m taking a huge leap of faith in speculating that many white Americans won’t speculate what it’s like to be an oppressed minority, at least regarding Confederate monuments, but I don’t think so. And I think I know the content of the character of those white nationalists who recently paraded in Charlottesville against monument removal, and I have no problem judging them based on their actions.
It’s a shame you frequently feel compelled to bring up partisan politics (on Facebook and now on WordPress) whenever I critique something you disagree with (“self-styled progressives,” ”liberal white guilt”). These FOX-News-styled labels perpetuate a type of cult, as well.
Like you, I’m weary of all the identity politics today, and there are ultra-liberals that engage in this stuff way too often, and it hurts democracy more than it helps (look at the backlash that elected Trump). But how can race NOT be an issue, when the topic is the American Civil War??! I don’t know what you mean by “self-styled,” and I don’t consider myself “glib” or having a need to “assuage (my) liberal white guilt.” I don’t feel guilty about anything, except maybe watching too much Lawrence Welk. Glib means “superficial,” or “lacking depth and substance.” I know we disagree politically, but do you really feel that way about me?
Thanks again, my friend, but I stand by what I said in the last two paragraphs.
My rant was not necessarily about you, Pete, but if you’re weary of all the identity politics then why do you engage in it? You lurched from a thoughtful discussion of Confederate monuments in their historical context to a huffy conclusion that most white Americans just don’t give a damn about blacks.
Tad, you’re a helluva lot smarter than that. Did you really think I would limit my essay to monuments in a historical context? Look at the title! This essay is about a current event, all over the news and, in one locale, where people were killed. The history section is to offer context only, as backstory to my opinion on monument removals. I don’t like having to bring up “identity,” but it’s unavoidable in this instance. It’s thrust onto the front page. I’m trying to “make sense” of the removals, and to do so involves discussing race… unfortunately.
And I didn’t say “most” Americans. Only those white (sorry, unavoidable) Americans who justify keeping these monuments in public places, without taking into consideration the feelings of blacks who might be offended. Sorry if I touched a nerve.
No nerve touched, my friend. I just enjoy tangling with you on these topics.
Yeah, I enjoy it too. You might be surprised, but there’s a lot of PC today that I take issue with, and we could probably find common ground. But this issue is a little different, IMO. It’s not a brain-dead stunt like removing the ‘N’ word from “Huckleberry Finn.” Here’s a good op-ed that kind of sums up my feelings, if you’re interested (the author also wrote an excellent book called “Confederates in the Attic,” about Southerners still fighting the war): https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/is-the-confederacy-finally-about-to-die-for-good/2017/08/16/289e4db8-82b3-11e7-902a-2a9f2d808496_story.html?utm_term=.3c43affccd9a
Good article. Check out what’s happening here in my town. https://theincline.com/2017/08/16/will-pittsburghs-stephen-foster-statue-be-the-next-racist-symbol-to-go/
I noticed “The Incline” didn’t include a photo of the statue. The idea is to hit the target, but if you pull back too far on the bow…
There is a photo at the top of the article. Not sure why you don’t see it on your link.
Ok, I see the link. But it won’t open for some reason. I’m at work, so maybe the link is a company violation. Tad, you just cost me my job. 🙂
Enjoyed the piece Pete. As simple as it sounds “read a book” and educate yourself are probably the strongest sources we have to any kind of moving forward (with so many issues). I was lucky to grow up in a home were my thinking was formed by a lot of common sense and empathy for others. Not the case for many people. Extremists on any side of an argument repel me. Good chance to use this “sound bite” to educate. If you dig into that history you like (CB is with you) there are all sorts of surprises. Again it’s good for me to get off the music/film thing for a while but not too long.
“Empathy” (i.e. walking in someone else’s shoes) can be misguided sometimes, but at worst it’s naïve. It’s not uncaring or cruel. In lots of places today, empathy is ridiculed. It doesn’t help when you have a myopic president who considers empathy toward select people to be a dirty word, or a sign of weakness.
Glad you had a home of common sense and empathy, CB, and from my limited knowledge of you, sounds like you’re a better man for it!
I thank you for that. As you know change is not easy. Doing the right thing is not always easy. We have lots of great examples to turn to for courage and strength. We also have a truck load of ignorance to work through. Keep the takes coming.
a couple things –
I went to Wilmington College in the mid 70’s.
The Seven Hills, Skyline Chili…
Prior to Ohio I attended college in Greenville, SC.
The heart of Bible Thumper, Confederate flag, Guns pulled on hippies.
We lived for 30 years in CT. but moved back to SC 4 years ago.
The transformation of this state from redneck to metropolitan has been slow but steady.
I feel as a result that I have a fairly good grasp of the issues.
My take…take all of the statues off their pedestals and present them at ground level where they may be considered for the artistic skills to form them.
Designate a section (s) where both Union and Confederate statues are grouped together explaining the pros and cons of each individual.
We have a complicated history – at some point I say why not put up a statue of Hitler. After all were not the goals the same for Lee, Davis,etc who were all trying to destroy our country, constitution.
Like I said, it’s complicated.
Let’s not resort to Isis blowing up thousand year old monuments.
Thanks for commenting, Rob. Indeed, Isis destroying antiquity makes me sick to my stomach. I started reading an article about that in Smithsonian Magazine, but I couldn’t finish it because it disgusted me so much. Your idea about the statues, I think, is great. It’s a good way to enlighten people, in the open air (not shuttered away), without being offensive. Are you interested in running for office? Washington and some state capitals could use more brainpower like this.
I’ve been reading a bit more since my article, and never realized how pervasive and entrenched the Lost Cause myth/movement is, and how these monuments are a deliberate part of it.
Wilmington College is right up the road from us (Kings Island vicinity). Thanks again!
Pete, “running for office…?” you are too funny.
My life could best be described as –
I set out running but I’ll take my time
A friend of the Devil is a friend of mine
If I get home before daylight
I just might get some sleep tonight
I do though : yell at the TV interviewers when they miss obvious, pointed questions.
Sen. Graham gets the occasional missive.
The closest I ever came was in a 1980 volunteering as the Secretary for the Camden,Me. Jimmy Carter re-election committee…lol
“Deadheads for Jimmy”? Jimmy had a rough time as president, but what an incredible human being.