A Monumental Conundrum

What should be done with the monuments to Confederate soldiers and warriors erected across the United States?

In some cities, like Baltimore, the monuments are coming down. Monuments in New Orleans were brought down amid fanfare and protest. In others, like Tampa, the fight over whether to leave a monument in place or take it down, continues. That issue is one of the reasons why white supremacists and others descended on Charlottesville, VA,  nearly 2 weeks ago, which precipitated violence and death.

The situation involving the Tampa monument might be instructive. According to The New York Times, the statue shows two Confederate soldiers on either side of an obelisk. It sits in front of an old county court building. Following the uproar in Virginia, members of three professional sports teams in the Tampa Bay area banded together and donated money to finance the monument’s move to a nearby cemetery.

One of the suggestions frequently floated to handle the monument controversy is to move the statues to museums. That makes a lot of sense. No one is advocating removing statues from Gettysburg, Antietam or Bull Run, sites of epic Civil War battles. Those places are hallowed ground in American history and are places where young and old can travel to learn about the war, those who participated, what they fought for and how the war played out. Those places are sacrosanct and they should see a important purpose as a place of education and understanding of how we arrived at such a critical juncture in our history, why the war was fought and how it continues to impact our lives today.

But the larger question is this — is there a place for monuments to Confederate soldiers and war dead in our public parks and city and county buildings? Advocates who say yes point to a piece of history that allows us to remain aware of the war. They argue that removing those statues attempts to whitewash a vital time in American history. Those against them say those monuments only add to the grief and pain of those left marginalized by the war. Besides, how many statues and monuments are erected to the losers of a conflict? What is the purpose of these monuments today? Do they serve to unite us or to divide us? Plus, if you want to learn the history of the Civil War, there might be a book or two written about it. Oh, and a few documentaries.

Many of the monuments to the Confederacy were built decades after the war, particularly during the Jim Crow era when blacks in the South faced a series of dehumanizing laws designed to prevent them from voting, owning property and enjoying other basic human rights. It seems likely that the statues were built then as a way to honor a bygone time that had become romanticized in Southern history and also as a way to remind an entire population of people of a racist past where they had no rights whatsoever. Imagine the psychological impact of those monuments, huge and varied, in public places, would have on Southern blacks, who were one or two generations removed from slavery and who would have grown up hearing the stories of the terrors and horrors of the peculiar institution. Certainly the sight of memorials honoring those who fought for their race to be perpetually enslaved, beaten, sold, torn from their families and permanently held without any sense of basic human right, would have found that chilling indeed.

As I prepared this post I came across an intriguing quote about these types of monuments from an unlikely source — Confederate General Robert E. Lee. He wanted nothing to do with them. According to an article on pbs.org, Lee wrote prior to his death in 1780, that he eschewed memorials. He said “I think it wiser…not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”

The sores of war. Lee, a well-educated and respected military leader,  was prescient, understanding that once a conflict ended, the healing needed to begin immediately. Putting up memorials that honored those who lost and that continued to inflame tensions would not facilitate healing.

I believe that we should honor Lee and remove these statues. There are those who argue that if we take down statues to Lee and Stonewall Jackson and others, then we also need to take down statues to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both slave-owners. Looking further, the question is where do we draw the line on the purity of those we deify. If you dig deeply enough into anyone’s background, you’re likely to find something unseemly or offensive. There are monuments to many — including athletes and others — who have checkered pasts but who contributed to their communities in  a way that has been seen as extraordinary and worthy of honor.

Those are questions for each community to grapple with. But I do know this — leaders and members of the Confederacy took up arms against their country. Neither Washington nor Jefferson, each of whom struggled with slavery, did that. Sure, Confederates believed in the righteousness of their cause and many died defending it. There is some honor in that and it is right to remember what they did and why. But I don’t believe it’s necessary to erect a monument to them. They fought to maintain an economic way of life that stripped millions of their dignity, orphaned children, left countless numbers murdered and maimed and left generations of people fighting against rampant discrimination and social and cultural stigma. In my mind, that doesn’t merit a statue of honor.

(Photo credit: Gamma Man via Foter.com / CC BY)

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