History is Not Erased When Statues Fall

Over the weekend of August 12, the so-called “alt-right” descended on Charlottesville, Virginia. This group, made up primarily of white supremacists and neo-nazis, had come to Charlottesville to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee monument. As the weekend progressed, the president made a lukewarm denunciation of the racist demonstrations that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer. Her death, as well as the deaths of two state troopers who perished when their helicopter surveying the protests crashed, are horrible casualties of this event. There are many different aspects of this weekend and the underlying causes that deserve full pieces, but I want to focus on the reason the “alt-right” claimed they were there; removing Confederate memorial statues. The topic is complex and filled with gray areas, unlike the issue of white supremacists and neo-nazis.

It does not take an act of heroism to denounce white supremacists. Condemning these individuals simply means you have a spine. But when it comes to taking down monuments of men who stood on the wrong side of history, many individuals are less willing to throw their hats in the ring. The common response is that removing these statues erases history, as is seen in this story.

The notion that removing these statues and monuments erases the history of the Civil War is nearsighted. Certainly, if anyone wants to forget why the Confederacy truly left the Union, it is the southern states. To be sure, the Confederacy fought the Civil War over slavery, as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens made clear in 1861 with his Cornerstone Address. If that is not enough, here are the secession declarations of Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia, and Texas each detailing slavery as a primary point of secession. The Union did not initially fight the Civil War over slavery, they fought to preserve the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation was not set forth until January of 1863, and only affected states under rebel control. That meant slaves in Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri, slave states that had remained in the Union, were still held in bondage. They were not freed until the 13th Amendment passed in late 1865.

Part of the reason you may believe the Civil War was fought over States’ Rights is because of the Lost Cause Myth. The myth draws focus away from the centrality of slavery to the Southern Cause. It chooses to focus on love of country, duty, and bravery in the face of overwhelming odds. It glorifies the antebellum south. This myth began to take hold after Union troops pulled out of the South at the end of the Reconstruction Era. During the Reconstruction Era, black men were able to vote for the first time in their lives; and they held office. As Reconstruction ended in 1877, (Democrat Samuel Tilden ceded the presidency to Republicans in exchange for Union Troops leaving the South), southern white men began to takeover their states once more. Jim Crow Laws began to appear on the books in states across the South in the 1880s as white men came to overwhelming power for the first time since the war ended. For nearly a century, these laws would separate individuals based on color. These laws relied on the legal doctrine of Separate but Equal. Separate bathrooms, bus sections, restaurants, you name it. It legalized and institutionalized racism across the south until Brown v. Board of Education overturned Plessy v. Ferguson in 1956.

As the white state governments regained control across the south, they chose to honor and glorify the men of the Confederacy with memorials and statues. A majority of these statues were erected between 1880 and 1930. They did not put up these statues in the spirit of “never again.” These statues were put in place in the spirit of “these men are heroes and deserve to be honored.”

Confederate Monument on the grounds of Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock, Arkansas. Erected 1913.
Confederate Monument in Charlotte, North Carolina, erected 1977.
Confederate Monument at Madison County Courthouse in Alabama, erected 1905.

Reading these statues gives one the sense that the soldiers of the Confederacy fought the noblest of causes and died for them, when in reality this is not the truth. In a way, these statues have already erased the history they claim to protect. They do not acknowledge the horrible cause of white supremacy these men defended, they glorify the principles of the Confederacy. These purported principles are a facade of self-government and independence masking the true desire of the Confederacy: holding slaves with impunity, free of the constant fear that their “peculiar institution” will be stamped out by Northerners possessing a mildly stronger moral compass.

These men lost their lives for something they believed in, which is a tragedy regardless of cause. Just as every Wehrmacht soldier in World War Two was not a member of the Nazi party, not every Confederate soldier held slaves. That does not make either cause more honorable. Mourn the dead, but not their cause. No one is going to forget the Civil War overnight because these statues are gone. The atrocious cause of the Civil War is not going to be forgotten. If anything these statues falling represents the righting of nearly a century of historical whitewashing.

In the words of Robert E. Lee himself on statues, “…the erection of such a monument as is contemplated, my conviction is, that however grateful it would be to the feelings of the South, the attempt in the present condition of the Country, would have the effect of retarding, instead of accelerating its accomplishment; [and] of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour.” These statues provide a rallying point for those who still believe in the abhorrent guiding principle of the Confederacy: white supremacy. The men who fought for this cause 150 years ago can at least be thought of as products of their time (Few white people, north or south, thought of African Americans as equals in the 19th century, subscribing to scientific racism). Neo-nazis and white supremacists in 2017 deserve no such quarter.

Ask yourself if you know the names of three Confederate generals; name three Civil War battles; do you know what year the Civil War started? What year it ended? What is it that you do know about the Civil War? Then ask yourself if you know any of that because monuments stand in a park in Charlottesville, or New Orleans, or Little Rock, or your hometown. Statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and other military leaders of the Confederacy belong on National Battlefields like Gettysburg National Military Park, Fredericksburg National Military Park, Shiloh National Military Park, and many like them. Memorials to the men who died fighting for these causes belong in these military parks as well, and in Confederate Cemeteries. The Civil War is an undeniably monumental event in American history, and its battles need to be remembered. But a statue of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, or J.E.B. Stuart publicly placed nowhere near a battlefield, museum, cemetery, or heritage site begs the question, why is this here?

For too long America has turned a blind eye to monuments and statues which glorify a war fought for the right to keep slaves. America is not choosing to erase her history by taking these statues down, she is confronting it.