By Jasper Boers '18
“Truth crushed to earth is truth still and will rise again.” -Jefferson Davis
Confederate memorials. Why memorials? Because these so-called “monuments”, which have become both a hijacked symbol for white supremacy and a flashpoint for racial tensions in America, are not monuments. They are memorials. That’s important to remember. Southerners do not worship Lee, Jackson, Stuart, Bragg, Forrest, Pickett, and Anderson for killing thousands of Union soldiers and slaves, but instead memorialize them for their values of chivalry, for their knowledge of battlefield strategy, for their well-earned place in the pantheon of the greatest American military commanders, and for their allegiance to the South, an allegiance which many Southerners today still cling to as a symbol of Southern identity and pride.
Patton, Grant, Eisenhower, Washington, MacArthur. These are some of America’s greatest generals. They (except MacArthur) are beloved by America for their undying patriotism, for their military prowess, and for their crusades against evil. While these generals are all universal in their recognition, we often exclude the most popular Southern generals from the group above. Due to their exclusion, Southern culture has developed a near-sainthood status for Confederate war heroes, not because of their attachment to slavery, but because of their loyalty to the South. Robert E. Lee once said, “I have fought against the people of the North because I believed they were seeking to wrest from the South its dearest rights. But I have never cherished toward them bitter or vindictive feelings, and I have never seen the day when I did not pray for them.” After all, Lee believed he was fighting for the rights of the South. His allegiance, not to slavery, but to the South, is seen today as it was during Reconstruction and during the 1920s: as a value to be honored and remembered.
History is emotional, bloody, and hateful. Wherever it presents a controversial topic that may provoke debate, it should be eliminated. This is the rationale of most activists who seek either the removal or destruction of Confederate memorials in public spaces around the country. While this thinking is easy to side with, it is also lethal to the virtues America was built upon.
Jews today are extremely active in portraying the holocaust as an essential element to understanding Jewish history. There is no shying away from museums, memorials, and even concentration camps. It is self-evident to most Jews that the holocaust and the Nazis must never be forgotten. Why do we not treat the Civil War the same way? To remove symbols of the Confederacy from public spaces is destructive to the legacy of the Civil War and to the history of slavery as a moral evil. Elie Wiesel, the holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate, said in a 1999 speech in the White House that “Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred.” The indifference of those who wish to remove Confederate memorials from the public eye is an indifference to American history. It is a willingness to accept the divisions of America today and avoid looking to the past for an explanation and a solution. It is an unwillingness to accept our past and to understand it and to hold on to it. Absolutely, the Civil War was fought over slavery. That does not mean that we should bury its legacy beneath the present.
A common belief surrounding the issue of Confederate statues is that most of the memorials were built during the 1920s, when racial tensions ran high and the KKK became a resurgent force in America. Some statues, including Charlottesville’s statue of Lee, were constructed in the 1920s. While some statues were motivated by racial tensions, the majority were built 30 to 40 years after the end of the Civil War. Under federal occupation, it is no question that Southerners would not have been allowed to build statues honoring their generals. And in 1877, most of these generals were still living. Only thirty to forty years later, in the twentieth century, did it become apparent that these men were symbols of Southern culture and deserved to be memorialized.
Another common belief, held primarily by neo-Nazis and white supremacists, is that the generals of the Confederacy are martyrs of white supremacy and Nazism. This disgusting reversal of facts is also in complete ignorance of American history and reveals that indifference to the past is a dangerous and violent ideology.
The Confederate statue, “Appomattox,” by Caspar Burbel in Alexandria. Created in 1889. Note that the soldier is unnamed, resides in the center of Old Town, and has a sullen yet pensive gaze, clearly aware of the Confederacy’s loss. A September 2016 vote to remove the statue failed.
There is a statue in Alexandria named “Appomattox.” The statue depicts a lone Confederate soldier—unarmed, unnamed, his arms crossed and his gaze downcast. It is clear he has realized the Confederacy has lost the war, and his appearance is contemplative. Memorials like these are truly representative of America’s history. They serve as reminders of the past, not symbols of hatred. And yet, despite the massive importance of the Civil War era as a lens through which to view the political and cultural tensions of today, there are still those who would seek the removal of such a memorial as “Appomattox.”