I have been conflicted over the idea of removing Confederate Statues, and as such, have been reading up on the pros and cons, the history of the times, and the idea behind erecting statues in the first place.
It seems logical that we erect statues to honor those people we admire, for their service, or courage, or achievements. Statues to those people we can look up to, and perhaps from whom we can learn how to best fulfill our own potential.
They also provide touchstones of history, commemorating events and places that changed the course of that history. Generally statues are not erected to failed projects, cowards or lost wars. There might be some, but the bulk of statues goes to the winners.
In Germany, Nazi statues were torn down after WWII and the Nazi salute and the Swastika were forbidden. Just this month in Dresden a drunken American received a punch in the mouth for giving the Nazi salute. Statues of Lenin and Stalin were erected and torn down as politics ebbed and flowed in Europe.
But in the US, the Southern states erected some 1,500 statues to Confederate heroes, most of them after about 1900, as Jim Crow laws gained traction and white politicians succeeded in disenfranchising most of the black population.
Most of the Confederate statues and monuments, as University of North Carolina Charlotte historian Karen L. Cox wrote in The Post, were built between 1895 and World War I at the behest of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
“They were part of a campaign to paint the Southern cause in the Civil War as just and slavery as a benevolent institution,” she wrote, “and their installation came against a backdrop of Jim Crow violence and oppression of African Americans. The monuments were put up as explicit symbols of white supremacy.”
It is interesting that the most famous of the southern generals, Robert E. Lee, was not in favor of statues commemorating the Civil War. In answer to a query in December of 1865, about a year and a half after his surrender at Appomattox Court House, he wrote:
“As regards 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; & of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour. All I think that can now be done, is to aid our noble & generous women in their efforts to protect the graves & mark the last resting places of those who have fallen, & wait for better times.”
Some point to this quote to justify tearing down Confederate statues. It is certainly a disapproval of erecting statues in the first place, but it’s hard to tell from that quote how he might feel about tearing down existing statues. Lee seemed inclined to want the country to put the whole thing behind it and move on.
In 1869, about a year before he died, when asked to attend a remembrance at Gettysburg, Lee wrote:
“My engagements will not permit me to be present. I believe if there, I could not add anything material to the information existing on the subject. I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered. Very respectfully,
Your obedient servant,
R. E. Lee.”
At least one newspaper at the time, the New York Herald agreed with him; "Another big fuss at Gettysburg. A lot of officers are there for the purpose of fixing definitely the positions occupied by the troops on the first day's battle. Better take Gen. Lee's advise and let the darned thing die out of remembrance."
The point can be taken that statues commemorating the Civil War in general, are not helpful in putting that past behind us. As the ‘victors’ in the bloodiest conflict ever waged by American forces, it is a cultural and historical custom to erect statues to those Northern heroes who aided that victory.
What is not clear is whether those statues erected by either side in a civil war serve to heal “the sores of war,” or help “obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”
In the South those feelings were never committed to oblivion, and came to the surface with violence and fury during the civil rights confrontations in the 1960s and 70s. The residue from that violence lingers still.
As do the statues, North and South, poking up through the “sores of war.”