Confederate Memorials… and Reason

From time to time I’ve deviated from the main topics of this blog – or shall I say the strict content line – to discuss matters surrounding the memorials for Civil War subjects.  It’s not too far off my preferred line of discussion.  After all, in the functional sense, markers, monuments and memorials tend to be lumped together in the public eye.

But there is enough functional differences that we should keep such in consideration.  To me a marker is public-facing display that is intended as purely informational, conveying historical facts, settings, components, context, and such.  Granted, some markers may “have a passing acquaintance with the truth” the function is still the same – misguided, it may be.

Monuments, in my definition, are something a bit more advanced in the mind.  Their function is specifically to remind one of an event, most usually one in close proximity, in terms of space, to the monument.  We have regimental monuments on many large battlefields that indicate where a unit fought.  We have monuments to people at locations where they may have done great deeds.  The point I’ve always made about monuments is, again with function, they are meant to inspire or at least remind the audience, but with less concern with the all raw historical facts.  They tend to grow out of that kernel of history which someone wishes to remain at the fore.  Certainly something to be remembered, but tied to THAT place at THAT time.  Take a monument away from that context of place and time, and it lies flat.

Memorials, on the other hand, tend to be less about the history and more about what the agent (the party placing the memorial) want to have remembered.  And that word, “remember,” I think is the active part in the function of a memorial.  The intent is that something would be maintained in memory.  The memorial speaks, more so than a monument, to the emotions of the audience.  It is not so much there for a history lesson, but as a construct of heritage.

Those categories cast, it is the memorials that have the world’s attention these days.  Though unfortunately the other two types of public displays are getting lumped into the mix.  In my little corner of the world, the Confederate memorial at the county courthouse has been in the news of late.  I’ve even had my spot on TV discussing the memorial (yes… “day off” scruff and a t-shirt… If I’d know I’d be on TV….) Long time readers know where I stand on these issues.  I have no need of Confederate iconography.  For the most part, it’s heritage and not history.  There are places where that iconography may provide a visual supplement to a point of history, to be sure.

And it is the history that I seek.  And it is the history that is being walked past in our rush to judge the memorials.  The problem here is we are practically ignoring the greater history as if attempting to purge the “bad” out.  I’ve written on this before and need not spend time reiterating the concern.   I will say that the Southern Poverty Law Center’s study continues to get a lot of placement, though it is at best a flawed study of the subject.  Toward that point, the “chilling effect” I mentioned years ago has lead to the removal of some markers (which were clearly markers) and even vandalism against some decidedly non-Confederate public displays.  That trend, I would say, needs to stop and stop now.

Regardless, as I say, I’m not attached to the memorials… though I am concerned that the general public doesn’t know what a memorial is!

Specifically to our Loudoun County memorial, different local politicians have come forward with their ideas.  One has suggested that the memorial be moved to the Confederate Cemetery, across town, a section in the, perhaps ironically named, Union Cemetery.  Such is impractical as there is already a Confederate memorial there… not to mention cemeteries tend to be short on space.  Another has suggested the memorial be relocated to the Balls Bluff National Cemetery.  That would be the place managed by the Veterans Administration where FEDERAL dead are buried.  Most unfitting for a Confederate memorial.  Of course, others have suggested placing the memorial at Balls Bluff, just outside the cemetery.  But, well, there’s already a Confederate memorial there.  I could go on discussing more “move here” options floated.  None of these are reasoned or practical.

We could take the memorial down, right?  Well there are some folks who would disagree.  And they would offer their own reasons and purposes.  I’ve found it best, as a historian, to let those reasons be heard, where supporting merit exists.  And, though I’m not going to enumerate those here, some reasonable people have made a reasonable case for leaving the memorial as it stands.  Don’t read into that.  Reasonable doesn’t automatically mean “right.”  Rather, that the presentation has its merit… and we should discuss that merit, not dismiss.

On the other side, what if that memorial is left in place?  Well, I don’t think anyone can say it represents all of today’s Loudoun.  It is, at best, a reminder of what Loudoun was in 1908, not 1861 or 2017.  And there is a lot of the Loudoun of 1908 that does not set well with the Loudoun of 2017.  Again, I won’t enumerate all the reasons offered for removal.  But I will say those sound reasonable.  Yes… having merit and not to be dismissed.

Some have even suggested the memorial be removed, but the pedestal remain for “introspection.”  Well, that might remove the bronze statue, but would leave the words that really drive home the point (which are inscribed on the base).  Besides, I tend to see memorials such as this one reflecting a great scar upon our national history – for better or worse.  What good would it be to attempt to remove the scar, yet leave remains of it?  A partially open wound which may be periodically rubbed with salt?  We sort of have that already.  Better to just have a patch of grass there, in my opinion.

You see, I don’t think there are any simple solutions here.  Remove, move, or leave in place… if we put that out as a referendum, the results would be mixed at best. None of those options are going to leave even a slim majority of people happy.  It is a complex problem…  derived from a complex history.

But it is a problem we need to sit down and discuss.  Reasoned discussion, that is.

Like anyone else on this issue, I don’t have a quick, simple solution.  Though, I do have a complex one….

Before anyone decides what to do with Loudoun’s Confederate memorial, I think there should be an deeper discussion that brings to the fore the full historical background.  Starting with this:


What was said at this event?  John Daniel’s speech might be found in his papers, in the University of Virginia’s library.  To tell the truth, I’ve never gone looking (him being a post-war figure).  But if the speech given at Leesburg does exist, then that’s the first place to look.  Beyond that speech, what ELSE did Daniel say about the Confederacy, its legacy, and the world of 1908?  I have some presumptions of what I THINK was said.  But that’s not how history works… you actually have to use the sources, not what you think of the sources.  I would want that speech, if it can be found, given full distribution for evaluation… as a source document for direct, and spotlighted, interpretation.

And that is just the starting point.  There’s a lot more of the history that SHOULD be discussed.  Including things that happened in, and around, the location where the statue stands today.  Furthermore, unlike what some in this discussion might want you to believe, there were reasons – REASONS, plural – for the memorial’s placement. We should let the words of those who placed the memorial help frame the discussion of the memorial. That’s called full historical context.

From that context, we need to promote understanding of the history.  Right now, there are simply too many emotional reactions – from all sides of the issue – to the memorial clouding the history.  We need to put that emotion to the side.  We need to circle the history, determine it, describe it, and, finally, USE IT!

Use that history to explain the complexity of the issue.  From that, we can … and should… come to a common understanding.   That, I would submit, would be the foundation for a solution that more than a simple majority will agree upon.  Leave it, or move it, or remove it… let the decision weigh from the evidence of history.

P.S.:  I’ve used the word “reason” a lot in this post, taking advantage of the several definitions of that word. And that was for a reason!