Author’s note: I wrote this before I read the transcript of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s explanation for taking down Civil War monuments around the city. His rationale is compelling and has altered some of my thinking. I hope, as he alludes, they will be moved to a place where all citizens can have the opportunity to deal with a dark time in our history in an honest and forthright manner, perhaps in the same way Germany has dealt with its inhumane past. I am posting this because much of what I have to say is echoed in Mayor Landrieu’s comments. It is also important to highlight the fallacies of both sides of this argument and to call those who fought against our country what they are. But this piece is also illustrative of what is possible when one is willing to critically consider counter-arguments to your own way of thinking. That, more than anything else, may be the ultimate lesson in all of this.
I am watching the national attempt at cleansing a terrible past with much interest and some trepidation over what it says of our ability to effectively deal with history. In many cities across the south, citizens are trying to have Confederate monuments and memorials removed. I say the following with even greater trepidation. While I do not think the Confederate Battle Flag should ever fly over this soil, removing monuments is a mistake.
Because of a fluke of fate and my father’s military career, I graduated from Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery, Alabama. It was a different school experience than I had ever had. Being the son of an Air Force officer, I had gone to school mostly on military bases among a student population that was a better reflection of what we now call diversity than many schools desegregated by law but still segregated by geographic choice, a lack of economic means to alter that geography, or simply—as was the case at Lee High School—internally self-segregated by the students who chose not to mingle to any degree not forced on them by the class schedule. It was not easy. I was the new kid among those who’d gone to school together their whole lives, a short boy of fifteen with long hair and a penchant for English football in the early eighties deep south. I confronted overt racism for the first time in my life, sometimes from those whom I considered my friends and once from a church youth group who told me I was welcome but my friend, Omar, was not. Race was a palpable and ever-present undercurrent. Yet on Friday nights we cheered a football team that was majority African-American wearing the jerseys of the Lee “Generals” in a stadium only blocks away from the First White House of the Confederacy. It was all very surreal for a teen trying to figure out who he was in the world.
Now the city council of New Orleans has decided that several Civil War monuments around town must go. Not surprisingly this has dredged up heightened tensions and plenty of hyperbole from all involved. Activists for removal rightly claim the statues are of men who stood with an evil cause, one that could hardly be judged as just, and very nearly cleaved the nation in two. Defenders of the monuments rightly claim the men in those statues and those nameless thousands they represent fought a war with honor and deserve to be remembered for it. There is plenty of hate and vitriol on all sides.
Removal activists are often not content with critiquing the contribution to devastation the men on these pedestals made to their once and future country, deciding instead to personally denigrate those who support keeping them standing. They should recall the behavior General Ulysses Grant modeled at a critical moment. At Appomattox, after General Lee surrendered, Grant ensured his men gave proper respect to a general officer he had met in battle and allowed Lee to keep his sword and ride off on his own horse. It was the first act of restoration for a battered Union, a magnanimous gesture that set the stage for a just and lasting peace.
Monument supporters too often cling to the hollow sentiment of “heritage not hate” and actively deny the central role that slavery held in the rationale for war. Such nonsense is not up for debate. The official grievance of the Confederate States specifically mentioned slavery and the protection of the agrarian society it supported as a fundamental cause for secession and threat of war. Those who desire only to remember men of valor have allowed official symbols to be high-jacked by those who care nothing for the heritage of honorable men practicing jus in bello on a battlefield more than a century and a half gone. These are the forces of hate that drive white nationalists and supremacists. Those who truly believe only in honorable heritage have been far too silent about the motives of these opportunistic interlopers and have allowed them to alter the meaning of Confederate symbols for all time.
These are the intricately woven strands of the history of the Civil War and what it continues to project into our own time. How are we to address such a tangled past? Well, one thing is clear. Tearing down monuments, changing the names of law schools, erasing any public evidence that these men existed, attempting to whitewash what they must have believed in their hearts will not alter the painful history of the war that was one further step in the American Revolution. I am willing to do as Grant did and give these monuments and statues their proper due. I am willing to believe those who say they only want to preserve a heritage of honor on the battlefield. But I will also confront history as it was, not how those with political agendas for the twenty-first century—whatever they may be—would wish it to be. And I will judge equally harshly those who attempt to shackle their fellow citizens with the sins of a past they cannot alter and those who continue to use symbols that are now synonymous with hate in vain attempts to live some longed for, though never real, heritage. In this endeavor, such stone and bronze artifacts act as a portal to those dark days and hold us all to account for recalling the uncomfortable facts of our shared legacy.
By another fluke of fate—and my own military career—I have a son who was born in Montgomery, Alabama. Perhaps someday when I take him back to his birthplace, I will also take him to where I graduated into my latter adolescence and went off to make my way in the world. I will tell him that place is named for a man who fought well but led an army against the United States of America in order to enshrine on this continent the concept that one human had the right to subjugate another under force of slavery. That is the distasteful and honest truth. It bears remembering. And it bears remembering that great men of uncommon character fought to crush that concept and drive it from the conscience of humanity, so that school names and statues are its only bequest. If a few monuments around our cities can sear that into our collective psyche, we should never let them fall.