A Unionist’s Case for Preserving (Most) Confederate Monuments

If Confederate statues are really generators of racial hate, as their most fervent detractors insist, it seems incongruous that over the past 50 years attitudes in the South on race have seen such an incredible transformation, all the while under the watchful eyes of those Confederates of stone and bronze. But with White Nationalists now taking center stage in the debate over Confederate monuments, you may think that all hope is lost for anyone paying heed to a rational defense for keeping many of these monuments from the scrap yard. Let us hope not, for such a defense does exist, even if, like me, you are no fan of the Confederacy. But first we have to rid ourselves of all the nonsensical ones that have here-to-for made up the bulk of the “pro” monuments position.

Perhaps the most frequently used retort is the one recently used by Donald Trump that if we tear down monuments honoring Confederate heroes, then how can we possibly defend monuments to Washington or Jefferson or other Founding Fathers who owned slaves? This is a particularly bad argument to make because it implicitly endorses the idea that there is some sort of moral equivalence between a Jefferson Davis and a George Washington. There are a few voices on the radical Left that argue that one’s contributions to society are irrelevant if one owned slaves. But the great majority of those who find the arguments for removing Confederate memorials compelling are not making this argument. They understand that owning slaves is not the only issue, and it is disheartening to hear conservatives dragging Founding Fathers through the mud as a means to support the likes of a Jefferson Davis.

Of course, the purveyors of this line of thought will always be able to point to the ravings of some kook somewhere and hold them up as “proof” that if we don’t stand up for Jefferson Davis now, Washington and Jefferson will be blasted off of Mt. Rushmore tomorrow. This is all reminiscent of another debate from the late 1980s, when conservatives were upset about repulsive art, making the rounds with help from NEA funding. Liberals then countered that if we didn’t support a crucifix in a jar of urine, what would be next to go? Would local theaters lose funding over productions of Oedipus Rex, or other things that might upset local “sensibilities”? The argument that most Americans are just too stupid to be able to make reasonable distinctions is an old one, but it doesn’t hold much water, and making such an argument only reflects poorly on those making it. In any case, making this argument in no way explains why Confederate monuments, in and of themselves, are, or at least can be, proper.

The argument being used in favor of tearing down Confederate monuments is that the Confederacy stood for slavery and institutionalized racism and, therefore, by extension of some superficial logic, we should expunge from our public places any monuments to do with the Confederacy, or anyone associated with it. That is the argument that needs to be effectively countered.

But another frequent argument of the preservationists — that Confederate monuments represent our “heritage” and that to remove them is to “erase history” does not address that criticism. When we erect statues of people we do so to honor them and their accomplishments. If the people and accomplishments are odious, does it matter that they are part of our “heritage”? Did the people of Iraq “erase history” when they took down statues of Saddam Hussein? Or how about the Russians when they pulled down monuments to Lenin? Again, this is a losing argument.

There is one final line of argument that we need to rid ourselves of before we can make a rational cause for the preservation of many Confederate monuments. That argument is that the aspirations of the Confederacy were, and still are, worthy of honor and our admiration. The Confederacy, after all, wasn’t really about slavery (the argument goes), it was about the noble cause of “self-determination.”

If you find this argument appealing, all I can do is point you in the direction of a number of primary documents. We have Jefferson Davis’ farewell address to the Senate in 1861, in which he mentions one, and only one, reason why his state, Mississippi, was compelled to secede: that the election of Lincoln and the rise of abolitionist sentiment in the northern states threatened the continued existence of slavery in the south. There is Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ infamous “Cornerstone Speech” in which he asserts that the government of the Confederacy is not founded on the idea that “all men are created equal” but rather “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” Four states issued official Declarations of Secession explaining the reasons for their actions and all four (plus the unpublished draft Declaration for Florida) all put slavery front and center. Look them up. I will not attempt here to address the issue of secession’s supposed constitutionality, as for my purposes here it is sufficient to say that if the main reason behind secession was repulsive then it really doesn’t matter whether or not it was “legal.”

I don’t want to get too bogged down here in history, but it is safe to say that very few Americans ascribe to this unorthodox view that the cause of the Confederacy was not inexorably linked to slavery, and using this as an argument to save Confederate monuments will not be useful.

Indeed, it is rather clear that the Confederacy would not have been formed but for concern over the threat, real or imagined, that Lincoln and the ascendant Republican Party posed to the institution of slavery. In other words, protection of slavery was the reason for secession, and for the formation of the Confederacy. As such, I don’t see why any community would want to have a public monument to a political leader of the Confederacy, such as Jefferson Davis, or a monument that glorifies the Confederacy as an institution. But we should not place the sins of Confederate politicians on the backs of Confederate soldiers.

Though the reason for the Confederacy’s formation is no mystery, the reasons why people fought for the Confederacy were various and complex. Robert E. Lee, for instance, was famously a reluctant rebel. He was not in favor of secession. He was a slaveholder, but one who recognized that slavery was an evil and thought that eventually it would die off on its own (though he may have done precious little to move his own slaves to any sort of transition to freedom). And, yes, most who served in Confederate armies were not slaveholders (though the legitimacy of the institution was largely supported by non-slaveholding southern whites). Some southern soldiers were, no doubt, at least in part motivated to fight for the right of slavery. But many, probably the majority, fought primarily for other reasons, perhaps the biggest being simple regional loyalty (as Lee thought he owed loyalty to Virginia), or, in some cases, that whatever the politics of the war, they were compelled by the very real belief that they were fighting to defend their homes and families against invading armies. Many in the final years of the war were conscripts. The reasons that southerners took up arms for the Confederacy are not so simple as the agitators of the Left (and a few on the Right) think (and would have others think). Not all Confederates were evil. People are not that simple. So whereas Jefferson Davis may not be worthy of honors, tearing down or defacing a monument to Confederate veterans is nothing less than desecration.

And if that monument bears the likeness of General Lee or “Stonewall” Jackson rather than an anonymous soldier, it should be honored no less. Indeed, statues of individual Confederate generals, like Lee or Jackson, in a context absent of an endorsement of the Confederacy, are no more symbols of slavery or racism than a statue of Leonard Bernstein is a symbol of communism. Though we may argue that they fought for the wrong side, we can acknowledge their accomplishments in leadership and tactics — studied by generations of American military officers — just as their contemporaries who fought against them did.

Most Americans have more pressing issues to deal with than Confederate monuments, and the prevailing side will likely be the one that simply has the best gut emotional appeal. For those that think many Confederate monuments are worthy of preservation, that means coming up with something that Americans (and their elected politicians) can instinctively understand as right. Arguments like “It’s our heritage” or “The South was right!” or “The Confederacy had nothing to do with slavery!” are all as ineffective as they are wrong, and don’t stand a chance against “Racism is evil!” What does have a chance is “War memorials should be respected.”

We should recognize monuments to Confederate soldiers as what they should be — memorials to veterans whose valor and sacrifices we can and should honor, even as we do not honor the government for which such sacrifices were given. Ulysses S. Grant understood this when he said, “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought.”

But there is a greater instructive role for these monuments, for in all its terribleness the Civil War produced an incredible legacy, and that legacy is reconciliation of a people who, together, would go on to build the great nation we have today.

The Civil War provides us with many powerful images. To me, no image is more powerful than the grainy old newsreels of grizzled and gimpy Civil War veterans in their 70s and 80s reenacting Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, but when their sides converge, instead of stabbing each other with bayonets, they give each other John Kasich-like hugs.

Though, understandably, great animosity persisted in some for a very long time, for some, reconciliation was almost instantaneous. After Appomattox, Confederate General John B. Gordon (later to serve as a Democratic governor of Georgia) recalling the ceremony of surrendering his troops to Union General Joshua Chamberlain (later to serve as a Republican governor of Maine) wrote that Chamberlain “called his men into line and as my men marched in front of them, the veterans in blue gave a soldierly salute to those vanquished heroes — a token of respect from Americans to Americans.” In his own recollection of the event, Chamberlain relates that after receiving that salute, General Gordon “wheeled his horse, facing me, touching him gently with the spur so that the animal slightly reared, and, as he wheeled, horse and rider made one motion, the horse’s head swung down with a graceful bow, and General Gordon dropped his sword-point to his toe in salutation.”

It is with this spirit that we should view our Civil War monuments. Undoubtedly, many of these monuments were erected by people who had other ideas in mind. Context is key, and if some Confederate monuments need inscriptions altered to remove anachronistic and polarizing commentary, by all means do so. But destruction or removal should be reserved for extreme cases.

In this day and age does such a “nuanced” approach have any chance of gaining traction? The trends in this “debate” have certainly not been encouraging. But one of the great things about America is that here optimism can never be fully extinguished.


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