Another Lost Cause

Thoughts on the Memorials at Gettysburg

I will begin by stating the obvious. When Fascists decide to support something, there is already good reason to oppose it.

A national conversation about the most statuesque among us is now thick with reason and its opposite, historical fact and histrionic fiction, prayerful prostration and Sieg Heil! salutation. One supposes that the nattering nabobs of Nazi nationalism (tip ‘o the hat to William Safire) did not think the matter through when they descended upon Charlottesville like a swarm of loathsome insects. All over the southland, Marble Monuments To Malevolent Men are suddenly sliding into a bear market downslope that is nothing if not supremely slippery. Say what you will about the neo-Nazis; above everything else, they’re just as dumb as a rock.

I spent my childhood just north of the Mason-Dixon line in one of the most statuesque towns in all of Christendom: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Gettysburg, now a thriving tourist metropolis, is historically significant as the high water mark of the Confederacy, and the single bloodiest battle of the Civil War. It is also home to Gettysburg National Military Park, which houses in excess of 1,300 monuments, markers and memorials. As far as I know, not one of them honors an African American.

No one in their right mind celebrates war, let alone fetishizes it. But where Charlottesville and its ilk sport the occasional Man-On-A-Horse, Gettysburg literally inundates with stoic statuary on every other rolling hill, and every third thoroughfare, and in every second of the sweltering summer. Businesses brandish Confederate flags with casual abandon; building plaques certify Civil-War-This and Important-Person-That, and the meditative mindset that should naturally arise from contemplative history is annihilated by craven commercialism and the Almighty American Dollar. At Gettysburg, the Confederacy lost the war, but it has obviously won the peace. Stars and bars are a cottage industry, the General Store has an entirely different meaning, and it may be the only small town in America where big box homogeneity offers psychological respite.

By contrast, Gettysburg National Military Park is a beautiful, meticulously-groomed monument to the ugliest chapter of American history, and in this, as in all such enterprises, it is inherently contradictory. It is one thing to honor the dead, but entirely another to honor the dying, and the distinction between the two is naturally obfuscated by Marble Monuments To Malevolent Men and the Almighty American Dollar. Having made that distinction, the fact remains that each of these can be, and are frequently expressed in ways that dishonor everyone.

Before proceeding, I want to offer a mea culpa, which here serves as the animating principle that informs this essay. Gettysburg National Military Park was part and parcel of the landscape of my youth; a vast, beautiful playground for discovery, and exercise, and adolescent exploration. I thought myself privileged to be surrounded with the grandeur of history, amplified as it was by twenty-foot equestrian statues, and hundred-foot observation towers, and the saturated patina of great American significance. I was not wrong in this assessment, but it did not occur to me at the time, nor has it until recently, to actually question my assumptions. This is inexcusable, and I am filled with more than a little shame about the matter. We are all of us susceptible to the ordinary, and it sometimes requires the Issac Newtons among us to call our attention to gravity. No Nazi on Earth is comparable to Newton, of course, but the better angels at Charlottesville have stirred me from my somnambulance, and, as the old saying goes, better late than to butcher an idiom. Something like that.

First, the matter of the dying. Standing on Seminary Ridge, looking east across the Emmitsburg Pike, one can begin to absorb the magnitude — the sheer unbridled lunacy — of Pickett’s Charge, an infantry assault ordered by General Robert E. Lee against Major General George Meade’s Union positions on July 3, 1863. Twelve thousand men marched in lockstep over a mile of open farmland in a suicidal effort to breach the Union lines. The mid-afternoon assault lasted little more than an hour, and in that time, more than half of the Confederate soldiers were lost, with heavy casualties in the Union ranks as well. Pickett’s Charge gives the lie to General Lee’s alleged strategic military prowess, and it eventually cost him, and the Antebellum South, the entire war.

One hundred and fifty years hence, one is invited to consider the mindset of the infantrymen on that day, who surely knew what they were facing — the merciless heat; the weary fog of battle butchery; the rancid stench of unbathed bodies and fecund horse manure. One notes the saw in the medic’s bag, and the shortage of chloroform, and the surfeit of dysentery. Perhaps one gazes on the shimmering wheat fields and pauses, as if in solidarity, to warble and weep. At length, this is the only point in the Park worth making: it is all to weep.

In honoring the dying, we wish to acknowledge the bravery of those who there gave their last full measure of devotion. We do not honor the animating principles that informed them. This is a military park, after all, and these soldiers were driven by forces far beyond anyone’s poor power to add or detract — forces that no sane person should ever wish to duplicate. Yet, duplicate them we do. This is the inherent contradiction that such places inevitably sire from the darkest recesses of the human breast: our power to add is not so poor after all.

To wit: every year in early July, Gettysburg hosts tens of thousands of participants and spectators in a reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg. Authenticity is prized, with costuming and period munitions in full regalia, and overseen by more than one makeshift Man-On-A-Horse. Men and muskets belch their smoke and rattle their sabers in service to memorializing abject horror. Back in 1863, Pickett’s Charge concluded three days of carnage at Gettysburg, which deprived the world of more than fifty-one thousand souls. Next year’s version will last four days, and will deprive you of $150 for the bleacher seating package. Group discounts are available.

It should be unnecessary to point out that this is certifiably insane.

Now, the matter of honoring the dead. In principle, this is entirely appropriate, and among the scores of monuments at Gettysburg, many — perhaps most — are in some fashion deserving. But as Charlottesville has recently reminded us, not every Man-On-A-Horse can withstand serious historical scrutiny, and for many, their mere existence is capable of — and is in fact intended to — give aid and comfort to the least statuesque among us.

How, then, are we to distinguish between the two? In considering the value of a monument, we must assess the the esthetic, the honoree, and the context. Failure to withstand scrutiny in any one of these areas may be grounds for removal. Failure in more than one is almost certainly fatal.

First, the esthetic, because it is the easiest to deal with. If the monument in question is in-artfully ugly, it probably should be removed. Statuary need not be sublime, but the public square is no place for revulsion, and art of any kind that inspires flagrantly negative emotions is better left to galleries and museums. From Atlas Obscura:

In 1898, the people of Elberton, Georgia — like those of many Southern towns a few decades after the Civil War — commissioned a granite statue to honor those local men who had fought for the Confederate army. Two years later, late one night, those same people took their own monument down. Public opinion of the war hadn’t shifted much: the statue was just ugly, with bug eyes, and what looked suspiciously like a Union-style overcoat. The citizens had nicknamed it Dutchy, because it resembled, one said, “a cross between a Pennsylvania Dutchman and a hippopotamus.”

Now, the Pennsylvania Dutch are perfectly honorable people. I know of no monument on the Gettysburg battlefield that fails the hippopotamus test, and the equestrian statues in Charlottesville are perfectly mundane. I do not think that the sculptors had this in mind, but whatever. Elberton aside, esthetics are rarely the issue.

Next, the we must scrutinize the men and (to a far lesser extent) women involved. General Robert E. Lee is the Malevolent Man in question these days, and he is as fine a foil as any. It doesn’t take much in the way of southern sleuthing to determine that not only does he not warrant statuary of any stripe, but that, to the contrary, he is among the grittiest candidates that you might dredge up from the nether regions of southern-fried shame. Lee was a principle architect of history’s largest insurrection against the United States, a traitor, a proud and brutal slave owner, a white supremacist, and a staunch anti-abolitionist. Several recent biographies of Lee point out that he was also a remarkably poor military strategist. Not exactly the stuff of statuary.

This all runs counter to the revisionist orthodoxy crafted by propaganda organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who sought to substantiate what has become known as The Lost Cause at the beginning of the twentieth century by erecting monuments all over the southland (as well as at Gettysburg). Lee is only one example of many entirely undeserving figures who have been temporarily immortalized — an oxymoron if ever there was one — in white bronze — a substance, incidentally, which is neither white, nor bronze, but that suits its subject matter perfectly.

This leads us to the matter at hand—the context in which these monuments were created, and in which they stand today. Absent proper context, historical significance alone is nowhere near sufficient to warrant even the white bronze treatment, let alone the real stuff. In a military park, the context is, or should be, military. Brigades marching hither and yon; Generals gesturing this-a-way and that-a-way; a Man-On-a-Horse looking regal, or horsey. One of those. A granite homage to spectacular bravery or improbable insight; snipers and medics and middle-aged metal detectors in search of musket balls. Memorials like those at Gettysburg are less about the personalities and more about the purpose; less about the reasoning and more about the remonstration. It is arguably about learning from history so that we might avoid repetition, and that, presumably, is all to the good. Statues that don’t pass the sniff test in Charlottesville might work in a military park; at best, it’s a judgment call. Honestly, Gettysburg can hardly avoid a statue of of General Lee and be taken seriously; not with all those stars and bars.

Other contexts are an entirely different matter. As has been widely reported elsewhere, most of the postbellum war commemorations in question were erected long after the Civil War as integral to The Lost Cause in an attempt to whitewash history and celebrate the racist brutality of the Jim Crow era. Most were intended as explicit, virulent symbols of white supremacy, and were purposefully erected on the grounds of state and local courthouses. The message was as unsubtle as it was cultural: Around here, white men run the show, boy.

It should be unnecessary to point out that this is also, if not insane, then at least certifiable.

When Fascists decide to support something, there is already good reason to oppose it. Racial intolerance is not an American value, and we’ve got the war to prove it. The statuesque among us that claim otherwise — that even imply otherwise — have no good reason to exist, save in a historical context that is intended to educate, rather than intimidate. Even then, it’s a judgment call. Personally, I’d like to see anything made of white bronze and emblazoned with the United Daughters of the Confederacy dispatched into the trash heap of history. They’re not really white, they’re not really bronze, and they’re definitely not Stainless. What they are, verily, is a lost cause, and they dishonor everyone.

- B.