The Statues and Other Symbols of the Confederacy

 

“I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.” Robert E, Lee

 

August 13, 2017 (San Diego) After the end of the civil war, the monuments to the heroes of the Confederacy did not rise. The flags were buried. The Sons of Confederate Veterans were not formed until 1896, partly in a delayed response to reconstruction.

The south was a broken defeated country. The statues of Confederate generals, including the one at Charlottesville, come from the 1920s. This particular statue was erected in 1924. Its unveiling drew 30,000 people, including military cadets. It was part of a movement to memorialize what at the time was called the lost cause. It was that decade that saw the rise of monuments to people who took up arms against the United States. Most who fought on both sides were dead. It was their grand children mostly, who built these monuments. It was a decade of unprecedented social change as well.

But what about General Lee? He retired to become an educator and an intellectual. He took an oath to the Constitution, and chiefly wanted no statues, heroic or otherwise, in his name. For that matter, he did not want schools named after him either. If he had won in the field of battle, he would not have had a choice. Those statues to the heroes of the Confederate States would have come in his lifetime. Alas, none were built in his lifetime. This is a critical point. This statue build up coincided with the second Klan revival. This was the beginning of the Confederacy entering a mythic space.

The Stars and Bars flag revival is also a reaction to the civil rights movement starting in the 1950s, that started with Brown v Board of Education. The South became a mythic time when whites were a ruling elite and lords of the land. That mythic past does not include the tenant farmers, who were the majority, living on the edge of starvation. The present, with deep poverty, s not that different than some of that past. But the hate merchants have drawn to their ranks many of those poor and middle-class whites who are blaming all the wrong things, and people, for their lot.

So what should we do with those statues? First off, let’s disabuse ourselves of the notion that we do not need to do anything because all this is politically incorrect. That term is code, for let’s do nothing, best case. It is code for leave me alone. It is code, for fingers firmly implanted in ears. It is a dog whistle as well.

There have been suggestions that these monuments should be blown up, melted, destroyed. While these monuments are not World Heritage sites, this is not different from the Taliban destroying statues of Buddha, or the Islamic State destroying Sumerian monuments. This is an attempt at destroying and erasing history. Americans have trouble dealing with that history. Moving these statues to a local museum is appropriate, however. At that museum, they must be put in full context.

This is the context that curators should emphasize.

  •  Lee himself was against these statues
  •  They were erected in the 1920s, for the most part.
  • They were part of the Klan revival. Photos of the period should be part of that context, both locally and the march on Washington.
  • They are part of the history of conflict in the United States.

What about schools? Most come from the 1950s, and some were built outside of the former Confederacy. San Diego had an example. While renaming them is appropriate. From the post civil war writings of General Lee, I doubt he would have minded a change in names, some sort of memorializing this change, with the context of resistance to civil rights must be included. A plaque would be appropriate. A history lesson as to why we got these schools named this way in the full school district matters.

The United States is a young country and one that has trouble with actual history. This helps the merchants of hate. They can weave successful myths because Americans are allergic to that very real and painful history. It is time to confront that history. It is time to give all these monuments their proper context. Melting them, while it might make you feel better, is hardly the solution.

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