Make all remaining Historical Monuments and Statues protected Historical landmarks!
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In the wake of Charlottesville, a chorus of media outlets, political activists, and random people on the Internet have called for the removal or destruction of Confederate statues in cities across the country. They say we shouldn’t honor a bunch of racists who fought to preserve slavery, and that it’s long past time for these painful reminders of our past to come down—stow them away in a museum or smash them to pieces, just get them off the streets.
This iconoclastic impulse is a mistake, even after the harrowing events in Charlottesville last weekend. It’s a mistake not because there was anything noble about the Confederacy or its raison d’être, which was slavery, but because there is something noble—and, for a free people, necessary—about preserving our history so we can understand who we are and how we should live.
For all the tough talk this week about the problems with these historical monuments, there hasn’t been nearly enough discussion of their history. Most of them were built a half-century after the war, as the Civil War generation was beginning to die off. Before the turn of the century, Confederate graves had for the most part not been cared for in federal cemeteries, and erecting a Confederate monument was considered treasonous.
But as the veterans of the war began to die, there was a renewed push for reconciliation between North and South, and with it an outpouring of filial piety. Of course, the monument boom across the South during the first two decades of the twentieth century came at a time of terrible race relations, mass immigration, and the pernicious influence of the Lost Cause mythos, which poisoned the South.
So the monuments reflect more than one current of early twentieth-century America. They served to venerate Confederate heroes like Robert E. Lee, thereby cementing the narrative of the Lost Cause and all its misty-eyed nostalgia about the South. But they were also an outpouring of grief and remembrance for the hundreds of thousands who had died in the war. Nearly a quarter of Southern white men in their twenties were killed or died from disease. Is it any wonder that decades later, as families began to bury Confederate veterans in greater numbers, there would be a push to erect memorials to that generation?
And for as much as Lost Cause mythology adorns so many of these monuments, their purpose was also to convey to future generations why so many people kept fighting, for years and in the face of staggering casualties. For the ordinary soldiers who fought and died, devotion to the Confederate army did not arise primarily from a devotion to the institution of slavery (just as most Union soldiers were not fighting primarily to end slavery) but from a devotion to their home states and a sense of honor and duty to defend them from what they considered to be an invading army.
That they were wrong about slavery does not excuse us today from the burden of trying to understand what motivated them to fight—and what motivated them and their families to undertake a flurry of monument-building decades later as the surviving veterans began to die off.
Speaking on Memorial Day in 1884, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a Union veteran who saw a great deal of action, talked about the importance of transmitting the emotional weight of the war from one generation to the next, and he specifically mentions the role of monuments: “I believe from the bottom of my heart that our memorial halls and statues and tablets, the tattered flags of our regiments gathered in the Statehouses, are worth more to our young men by way of chastening and inspiration than the monuments of another hundred years of peaceful life could be.”
For Holmes, it was also the duty of Civil War veterans themselves to convey the significance of the war to posterity. He said, “the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire… we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after.”
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