Monuments and the Civil War Trust

The Confederate memorial on the grounds of the Alabama capitol

The Confederate memorial on the grounds of the Alabama capitol

A few times a year, ever since I subscribed to the Civil War Monitor, I get mail from the Civil War Trust. They raise money to acquire battlefield land for preservation. Ideally they then hand it over to the National Park Service or some other dependable group to manage. As one might gather from the name, they focus on Civil War battlefields, but they’ve lately branched out into the Revolution and War of 1812. About as often as I get mail from them, I think about sending them money. (I haven’t yet, but may still in the future.) I hear good things about their work from people I trust.

The Civil War Trust also did a piece of less than good work. It stood to reason that they would have something to say eventually about the growing challenge to Confederate monuments in the wake of the Charleston murders. They came out with a petition defending the monuments, about which Kevin Levin and Al Mackey have already written. I think it deserves examination, even if I tread over some of the same ground that they have.

After briefly laying out the circumstances, as these things do, the Trust tells its readers

It is our privilege as a free people to debate our history. However, we must remember that such freedoms come at a tremendous cost, paid for in the blood of brave Americans in uniform who sacrificed all to forge the country we are today. We owe these men and women a debt that can never be repaid.

I don’t care for talk about debts owed to soldiers as I think it easily shades over into glorification of the military and warfare in itself, if it ever meant anything else. But I know that most people feel differently. Accepting the premise for the sake of argument, we come to an immediate problem. The monuments to the Confederate military and leadership could only commemorate the bloody price paid for freedom and to forge the modern United States if those Confederates paid the blood dues out of the bodies of members of the United States military. This reading, however perverse, has the apparently esoteric virtue of comporting with history. I say esoteric because having identified the monuments under threat by implication, the Trust’s petition then tries to distract us from them:

Recognizing this debt, generations of Americans up to this day have built memorials honoring those who served in the military and have fallen in battle. These monuments are silent sentinels recognizing the soldiers who crossed the frozen Delaware River with Washington, fought amid the boulder-strewn hillsides of Gettysburg, served in the trenches of Vicksburg and Petersburg, landed on the beaches of Normandy and the islands of the Pacific, and most recently served in the deserts of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Leaving aside my pacifism, I understand the debt that people feel to those who died fighting the good fight. Surely this debt arises from their participation under the banner of a just cause and in service to noble aims. Those aims might not fit with a clear understanding of preserving American freedoms, of course. My grandfather fought on islands in the Pacific against an enemy that did not in any meaningful sense threaten American freedoms. Neither the Japanese, nor the Germans, nor the Italians, proposed to launch grand invasions of American soil, conquer it, overthrow the American government, and replace it with one created in their own image. But we all know the monstrous crimes of Nazi Germany. The Japanese did similarly horrific, if less industrialized, things in China and the Pacific. Defeating them served the cause of freedom generally.

If all of that holds true, then how must we read the references to Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Petersburg? The Trust doesn’t go into specifics; it means for us to take the dead of those battles indiscriminately, the United States Colored Troops who died in the Crater as much martyrs to freedom as the men in gray who killed them. Somehow, both slavery’s soldiers and the solders who ultimately fought to destroy slavery had equally noble causes. We owe this debt alike to both parties. Only one freedom concerned the Confederacy and the Confederates: the freedom to enslave. If this counts as a nobility, then I propose we cultivate meaner virtues.

The Trust tells us

It is important to remember that many of these memorials are historic in their own right some more than 200 years old. In countless instances, these monuments were erected by the veterans themselves, who wanted to remember their leaders, their units and their fallen comrades. Many of these memorials were also paid for not with public money but through small dollar donations made by survivors and local citizens, determined to give of their limited means to honor the military.

No Civil War monument has yet had its two hundredth birthday. Once again the Trust considers every monument alike, as if all faced the same criticism. It rightly sees the monuments as artifacts in their own right, but then flees from considering anything but the most superficial reading of them. The authors do not, beside appeal to bad math, consider when the monuments went up or under what circumstances. Nor does it look to their content. The Trust doesn’t care if they lie about the Confederacy’s cause or if veterans put them up to celebrate the defeat of Reconstruction. It chooses not to inquire about monuments erected as protests against the civil rights, nor how many of these monuments served as rallying points for the resistance of the same. It even lumps together Confederate monuments built with public money on public land and those elsewhere, as though no difference existed between a kitsch statue of Lee in one’s backyard and one bearing the unquestionable imprimatur of the state.

The Trust asks for understanding and nuance while systematically eschewing the same. They say it outright:

we have a sacred duty to protect these war memorials, from all of America’s conflicts, whether they rest on the battlefield, in national cemeteries, or on town squares.

The Trust then calls on Congress to preserve and protect the lot, presumably even including those on private property that the owner would want removed and those on public property that the community wants gone.

Given my past iconoclasm, I can surprise no one by declaring myself unpersuaded. I remain convinced that the worst outcome involves the monuments, as a whole, remaining as they now stand. Simple battlefield markers noting where a unit stood and what it did can remain untroubled, of course. They serve a perfectly good educational purpose, provided their inscriptions get the facts right. Nor do I propose removing individual grave markers in cemeteries, though I do think the nation should get out of the business of erecting tombstones for dead Confederates. Memorials celebrating the Confederacy and/or lying about its cause present a different problem, especially when on public land and far from battlefields. Leaving them as-is continues the endorsement of their message, informing any who see them of untruths and exhorting them to mourn slavery’s end.

These monuments require correction or removal. If the Trust wants to have them as museum pieces, then I’d be happy to see them relocated somewhere and presented as ways the memory of the Civil War served, and still serves, the cause of white supremacy. Removal without that presentation comes next. If some private group wants to have the things and no corrective seems likely, then best have them out from under the smiling gaze of state buildings. If the owners simply wish to destroy the monuments, I consider that a missed opportunity for education but still superior to leaving them undisturbed.

If the monuments must remain in their present locations, then I think correctives must go beyond a simple plaque or a contrary monument elsewhere on the grounds. At the very least any companion monument should stand in a position of similar or greater prominence, easily visible from the original, and accompanied by interpretative materials that situation the two together. Though the best outcome, this one seems the least likely to me. Just as the original monuments had a clear, unambiguous message, so must any new pieces clearly counter it. I don’t foresee many plaques appearing with words like “the people who erected this other monument lied, and here’s how” with illustrative quotations and statistics. This would risk turning heritage sites designed to give one a bland, patriotic feeling of a sanitized past with all the messiness and conflict of actual history. Someone could learn something.

I have come down hard on the Civil War Trust today, but I think no harder than the petition deserves. I still think they do good work. They have among their officers competent historians. They produce good educational content, some of which I’ve highlighted before. But with this petition they fell prey to the inherent tension between their real estate business, and the fact that Lost Cause cash spends as well as the rest, and the educational mission which informs that business. They did this bad thing, but it does not undo the good they have done and I trust will continue to do.

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