A Word on History, Statues & the American Civil War

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Today we’re going to go a little off-topic here and address an issue that has nothing to do with England, the British Royal Family or its history. I say this to acknowledge that I am not an expert in the topic I’m about to delve into, save for the fact that I am American and I like to think have at least a baseline understanding for how we think, consider our own history and teach it in our schools. So, with that said, let’s turn to the debate over the presence of Confederate statues in the South.

The issue has to be considered in three separate questions: What was the intention of these statues? What do they symbolize today? And what does their removal mean?

The war has been over for 152 years. We have been independent for 234. And “we” have only been here for 410. In comparison to many other countries, we’re toddlers. In light of the impact we have had on the world, we’re all grown up. And that contrast is telling – in fact, I would say that the speed with which we developed into what we have become is the single greatest factor informing how we see ourselves and our place in the world.

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Americans are an ahistorical people. We are also inwards looking because we have the enormous privilege of being able to get away with it. We are proud of our history, but we look at it within a vacuum – and that is mostly how it is taught. If you consider, then, that most people aren’t particularly interested in history and don’t study it past high school, you are left with a remarkably inconsistent sense of what happened versus what is happening.

In our telling of history we are always the main character and we’re simultaneously confounded by the idea that others see us as part of a cast and flummoxed by the idea that other countries don’t see themselves the same way. The Revolutionary War was a triumph of liberty, George III was a tyrant and the British have a bizarre, outdated thing called an aristocracy. World War II was about good versus evil, but don’t worry, we stepped in and saved the day – Churchill was there too, we suppose. As for the Civil War in-between, well, that one’s trickier because who is “them”?

That depends on where you live, which may seem obvious, except for the horrifying fact that how you are taught about the Civil War depends on where you grew up. There is no national, unifying story about our war because we haven’t really come to terms with it – not completely and not as one.

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Which brings us to the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy, a narrative that first appeared in the War’s aftermath and took shape in the 20th century, decades after it ended. Here, the fight wasn’t really about slavery. It was about the scrappy underdogs standing up for the unalienable American rights of freedom and the pursuit of happiness – in other words, a way of life. Americans love that – that feels like “us” to us and it allows us to sidestep that thing we don’t really like to talk about. Distilling this war down to states’ rights up against the federal government makes us all a little more comfortable, if for no other reason than we’re still having that argument today – we get it, it’s familiar.

But “states’ rights” in this context is a literal white-washing of history. It blatantly ignores the rhetoric of politicians, preachers and community leaders in the 1840s, 1850s and the presidential campaign of 1860. A state’s right to build their economy on the back of slavery is still about slavery. A state’s right to reject a mandate from the federal government to free slaves is still about slavery. And you can argue until you’re blue in the face about whether those “rights” were borne out of racism or economic necessity or political ideology – the fact of the matter is, it’s still about slavery.

We don’t really know how to talk about slavery. We don’t know how to reconcile it with our sense of ourselves, so we prefer to think of it as tragedy that is over and wholly separate from the conversation we are having today. It isn’t, though slavery and racism are not one and the same. The South wasn’t uniquely racist – the North was racist too. For that matter, the countries denouncing us as barbarians for still holding slaves weren’t immune to racism. Take the British, for example, who benefited enormously from the slave trade and bought our cotton. Or the very notion of Britain, which encompasses English behavior in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Take their behavior in India decades after the Civil War. Or their behavior in Africa. For that matter, consider Western Europe in Africa. Or all of Europe and the Jewish. That’s only taking the time to briefly skim the West.

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As a world, we’ve been pretty damn racist; we still are today. And sometimes that is about ethnicity, sometimes it is xenophobia and other times it’s straight up socioeconomic anxiety. We’re kidding ourselves if we think there aren’t hints of it in how we talk about patriotism or human rights or religion. Almost always it’s arrogance borne out of ignorance, and the more developed you are, the more likely you are to see a very fragmented view of the world around you. That is all acknowledging privilege is about.

In the United States, our culture was first built on Puritanism and our economy on slaves. We like to think we have grown into something else – and we have, in a sense – but growth, by the very nature of the word, has to encompass our roots. Which brings us to the Confederate statues. The defense of them, ironically, sounds very similar to what I’ve just said. Acknowledging our history, allowing for a messier understanding of how we became what we are. It’s about education, maybe, preserving what relics of the past we have in a relatively young country.

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Except, statues aren’t history. They’re a form of idolatry. Memorials don’t “acknowledge,” they “honor.” They make the statement that you, who are viewing the statue, should take a moment and feel grateful for work or sacrifice. That means something very specific when we talk about war, which is the loss of human life. That means something trickier when we talk about civil war, for how do you reconcile a losing cause in a country’s history? What do you do with those people?

Well, in this case, you make the war about something other than slavery. You make it about the little guy standing up to the big guy. You make it a celebration of all the quirks and qualities that differentiate the southern states from the rest of the country. And you are honoring something or someone – the Confederate soldiers who you believe died defending a state that they loved – its land, its customs and its freedoms. When you phrase it like that, it doesn’t sound so bad, but it also doesn’t make it valid.

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The American south has a tradition of myth, of mysticism. Hell, there is a whole category of literature called “Southern Gothic” for a reason. Its history, of which it is very proud, has an otherworldly quality. Its culture has more in common with certain parts of Europe than the rest of the United States. Now, let’s put that another way: Most rural, less-developed regions of countries with less-diversified economies and more geographic distance from political and cultural capitols hold on tightly to traditions from which the rest of the world has moved on.

So, let’s go back to our original questions: What was the intention of these statues? I think we can all wrap our heads around the basic concept of wanting to remember Americans who died in service of a cause in which they believed. I think most of us can understand the pure messiness of loving and preserving what was closest to you in the face of what felt foreign. These ideas, by themselves, are not “bad.” Confederate soldiers should not be distilled down into simple figureheads of racism. That is a gross truncation of historical reality. But then, let’s take a moment to consider historical reality and the actual logistics of erecting a statue. Today, we are not fighting over whether battleground should be preserved. We are arguing over masses of minerals that were brought in after the fact. That is not history; that is propaganda.

Again, in reality, consider the presence of those raw materials. They’re not made of cotton or produce; they’re made out of stone and metals that were usually shipped in from the North – in other words, the very industrialization that helped the Yankees win. A considerable amount of those statues were mass-produced in the North, a whole market built in the wake Reconstruction that dropped southern money into northern pockets to, crassly put, take advantage of southern grief. In some cases, they’re mirror images of statues north of the Mason Dixon honoring Union soldiers.

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Or then there’s this: The United States of America was not comprised of 50 states by 1865 and yet some of these statues litter states that were not, in fact, states during the war. What do they mean there?

More reality: what exactly do we think was going on in the South after the War? It wasn’t, in fact, gone with the wind. There was Reconstruction and after that there were generations that grew up only knowing Reconstruction. And within that word is the excruciating reckoning that the entire country went through, but more specifically the South. To “lose” barely begins to scratch the surface of the carnage – an entire generation of men decimated, an entire class of people impoverished, the land on which an entire society had been built a literal war zone. How does it feel to be an “American” when you’ve been forced into it? I don’t know, but maybe they could have asked their nominally emancipated slaves.

We talk about the War more than we talk about Reconstruction, and yet it’s the latter that has had more bearing on the country and the people we have become. Southern grief wasn’t all widows, mothers and daughters, it was also humiliated and angry men in an aggressively patriarchal society. More broadly, humiliated and angry white people who may have been brought to heel by the North, but were damn sure going to keep their former slaves under their own. The “Lost Cause” revisionists – and that’s what they are, revisionists – like to talk about slavery like an economic exercise, separate and apart from the racism that drove it. That’s impossible during and after Reconstruction and if you think that the investment in these statues wasn’t both a middle finger to the North and a class of people they weren’t going to let become their equals, then you’ve lost your grip of reality.

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Maybe this conversation would look and feel differently if these statues were all built by 1875, but they weren’t. They peaked at the turn of the 20th century and the decade that followed, the men in power then the children of Reconstruction. And lest we think there was some societal trend towards historical appreciation, may I instead point you towards the Jim Crow laws, the continued terror of the KKK and doubling down on the “Lost Cause” myth.

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But whatever the motivation, they’re still here. What does that mean? This is where it gets tricky, because again, we’re an ahistorical people. Some of us have turned them into something else entirely – a pretty memento that honors what was once the nerve center to the place they call home. They have appropriated them the same way we have collectively appropriated Scarlett O’Hara – a beloved fictional character, no matter what she stood for. That might not be maliciously racist, but it sure is ignorant.

“We,” the collective America, took pains to give the South a way back into the Union, but let’s not forget for one moment that the Civil War was premised by secession and treason. Within that conciliation, room was created that allowed an anomaly to take shape – losers re-wrote history. It has been as damaging as it has been inaccurate.

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Then there is the fact that these statues have been appropriated in a far more sinister way – Confederate monuments and flag made symbols of white supremacy, racism and neo-Nazism. There’s no defense of this a decent person can make. All that matters here is, should these relics be separated out from how they’ve been twisted?

On the one hand, you can come down on this however you want. But as someone that makes their living in communications and obviously writes with regularity, a good rule of thumb I live by is, if you have been misunderstood then you bear some responsibility. Ignorance is not a defense. Benign intentions don’t eradicate consequences. And the company you keep – or rather, don’t separate yourself from – speaks volumes.

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You may have the enormous privilege of looking at a Confederate statue and seeing nothing but a relic of a history long past. But who are you to say your reaction is more important than those who see shame, inhumanity and violence? Seriously, who do you think you are?

These statues should come down for the same reason symbols of oppression have been brought down throughout history around the world. That’s what progress looks like. That’s what freedom looks like. Symbols aren’t history, but they do have meaning – if they didn’t then none of this would matter. And if you want history, go to a battlefield. Better yet, open a book.

4 thoughts on “A Word on History, Statues & the American Civil War

  1. Brown, Stephen

    You may have changed my mind with this. Very well written and balanced. The chart from Southern Law Poverty Center was very interesting to see.

    Sent from my iPhone

    Like

  2. Joe Reedholm

    In your research, have you run across a photo of the Johnny Reb statue like the one on the Georgetown, TX courthouse entrance showing the drinking fountains. In a rapidly growing bedroom community north of Austin, the SCV chapter is preventing contextualization. One of their many distractions is that our 1916 statue ordered from Georgia never had colored fountains. Locals remember better, but we have no photo.

    Like

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