Something to think about … before we tear down those Confederate memorials

These are some great days if you are the type to enjoy intersecting Civil War history into current events.  The word “Confederate” has appeared more often in the news over the last three weeks than over the collective years of the sesquicentennial.  Though I would point out that the words “Federal” and “Union” are once again getting little air-play.  Yet, darn near every day someone passes another link my way calling for a Confederate monument … or all of them… to be torn down.  Maybe that is the way things are heading.   A great deal of effort has been spent in what I see as “windmill tilting.”  Or perhaps, for some, building straw-men.    As mentioned in an earlier post, I see trouble in this trend.

I would encourage you to read a column by William C. Davis, posted this weekend, titled “The Right Way to Remember the Confederacy.” The column is far to lengthy for me to quote or even summarize sufficiently here.  Davis weaves through a whole litany of topics – from the veneration of Lee to the Black Confederate myth.  Best for you to devote some time in your schedule to read and digest it all.  Your mileage may vary….

A section that stands out for me is this:

All of which demands that we ask: Can we ever separate the memory of the Confederate experience from the memory of slavery? Is there any positive legacy to be drawn from the Confederacy? Can we admire Confederate leaders, even the all-but-deified Lee, without tacitly endorsing their cause? Ultimately, can we make the Confederacy worth remembering for the descendants of the slaves and those following generations of freedmen whom the whole nation betrayed by ignoring their new rights and liberties for a century?

This paragraph reminds me much of the insightful talk offered by John Hennessy at Longwood, last winter.

Both of which remind me the Civil War is a topic with few absolute right angles.  Instead, complexities that require the historian to bring more than a crosscut saw, box of nails, and hammer.  Indeed, a set of woodworking tools is more so required just to define the subject.  Davis, a good historian, brought some of those woodworking tools for that column:

To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, America has ever been a laboratory for that democracy. The Confederacy is its most notable failed experiment. The debate over the relation of the states to the federal government had been present since independence. The idea that secession was an alternative if conflicts over sovereignty couldn’t be resolved arose often enough that it was likely to be tried eventually, and so the Confederates tried. They failed. But good scientists don’t erase their laboratory failures; they learn from them.

That, my readers, is why we study history.  It’s not for the “good” parts only, but for “all the parts”  Every piece of it need be considered.

Let me run with what Davis offered in that column…  and localize it a bit for me.  Of late this statue in downtown Leesburg has come up for discussion (again):


There are calls from some sectors to have the memorial removed.  And I can understand the underlying logic, even if I find the arguments lacking.  That statue depicts a man bearing arms in defense of slavery.

But that’s me, a historian, drawing a right angle where there isn’t one.  I’m making it TOO simple and avoiding the complexities here.

What does that inscription say?

In memory of the Confederate soldiers of Loudoun County, Va, erected May 28, 1908

Not exactly chilling, is it?

And let me go back to those “nouns” again. This is a “memorial” in the proper sense of the word.   A memorial designed so as the visitor would be called upon to contemplate society’s collective memory of something.

So what was that something?  Well it says what we are supposed to remember… right there on the stone – Confederate soldiers.

Not the cause.  Not the flag.  Not Jefferson Davis. Not even General Lee (who by the way, stayed a block and a half down the street while in town).

This memorial calls for us to remember the soldiers sent off to war.  In that respect, it is not far removed from the other memorials that grace the courthouse square:


These are not memorials to “Black Jack” Pershing.  Or Ike.  Or to Westmoreland. Or to the Enola Gay.   Nor to “Peace in our Time.” Or to “The Arsenal of Democracy.”  Or to the “Domino Theory.”

These are memorials that speak to the service of young people whom the community sent forward to represent the society in wars.  The county honors the sacrifice of those who’s names appear, and those alluded to in the inscriptions. And it is important to understand that the community sent those men into war.  Some volunteered.  Some were conscripted.  But it was the community… society, in the larger, national sense… that made the call.  The individual answered that call in the manner which they felt best.

Every war has a “cause.”  I’ve personally seen three wars.  Each has had a “cause.”  Some will say one of those causes was control of oil.  Maybe so, though I’d sort of like to think from my ground level the cause was something else. You see, there’s a fine example where the “right angle” we hope to impose is spoiled by the complexity.  I could care less about what you pay for gas at the pump, as there were other things which hastened my stride.  Whatever the cause for which society deemed important enough at the time, we heeded the call with our own personal motivations.  And none of those motivations will ever get a single letter on any memorial.

We can certainly say the same for the Confederate soldiers of Loudoun.  The “almost” right angle on this subject might be the cause of the Civil War.  As Davis said,

The shibboleth that “state rights” caused secession is a suit of clothes desperately lacking an emperor. Only slavery (and its surrounding economic and political issues) had the power to propel white Southerners to disunion and, ultimately, war.

But that is a “cause.”  The memorial is not celebrating a cause.  It is calling on us to remember individuals. Why did they put on those grey uniforms?  What motivated them?   We might find some answers in the words recorded by those men.  But we will find no right angles there.  Those answers will vary and scatter like leaves in fall before the storm.  It’s complex.  And it is interesting.

Is that memorial for ONLY the true, die-hard Confederates who wanted to uphold slavery?  What about those who thought little about slavery, but were concerned of the protection of their homes?  What about those conscripted to fight?  (Mind you, Loudoun is somewhat a special case for Virginia, what with a strong unionist enclave just a few miles from where that statue stands today.)  What about those who volunteered, maybe felt different about that decision later, yet continued to serve as they had little other option?  We practice redemption in our society, don’t we?   In other words, is “being” Confederate something we can define with such a sharp degree to measure only against a single word?

In a complex way, that memorial is both inclusive and exclusive.  It is for all of those from the county, regardless of motivation, who fought for what their community, at that time, felt was a compelling reason – a cause – to wage war.  And please note the complexity of that sentence.   I can’t find the words to make it less complex.  You, the reader, have to study that sentence.  That’s what this subject requires.

Think about what actions that translated to.  Not just the Civil War, but any and all wars, require individuals to commit acts which are – lacking a better word – inhuman.  Yes, inhuman, which the dictionary says is “lacking human qualities of compassion and mercy; cruel and barbaric.”  Walk that through the bold-face sentence above.  When turning to war, society finds the cause so vital and important that it must ask individuals to turn their nature.  That’s a heavy thing.

So, as we walk around the discussions about what memorials need to be removed, think about that heavy thing.  Maybe those memorials serve a higher purpose.  As Davis pointed out in his column, we need to be reminded of failed experiments of the past.  Perhaps that will give pause at some future time when a “cause” is on the lips of those calling for war.   And at the same time, maybe those memorials will serve to instruct future generations as to the responsibilities and burdens shared by individuals who are part of our society.