One Thing after Another has noticed over the last several months that national politics has crowded just about everything else out of the news. Stories about history’s contemporary relevance or impact are sometimes difficult to find these days. So if you weren’t paying attention, you might have missed the saga now taking place in New Orleans.
In July 2015, in the wake of the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, asked his city council to remove four monuments from the city. Five months later, after much public debate, the city council voted 6-1 to do so. Three of the monuments celebrated Confederate heroes: Jefferson Davis (president of the Confederacy), Robert E. Lee (commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia), and P.G.T. Beauregard (a prominent Confederate general born outside of New Orleans). The fourth, the Liberty Monument (erected in 1891), memorialized the so-called Battle of Liberty Place (1874). This armed struggle pitted the Crescent City White League, which sought to settle a disputed election by seating a Democratic governor by force, against the metropolitan police (along with elements of the state militia) which fought to defend a Republican regime associated with racial equality. An inscription added in 1932 explicitly celebrated the battle as a step in the direction of white supremacy.
On Monday, April 24, the Liberty Monument was disassembled. Over two weeks later, on Thursday, May 11, the statue of Davis was removed. The workers who took away the Davis statue wore flak jackets for protection and masks to conceal their identity. Such precautions should come as no surprise; the whole exercise has been incredibly controversial, and the statues have been the scenes of protests as well as counter-protests.
What position should one take on the removal of these statues? One Thing after Another believes that the following interview of Professor David Blight (an expert on the history of slavery and the American Civil War who teaches at Yale while directing the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery) in Slate contains a great deal of good sense:
Yes, One Thing after Another understands what its readers have come to expect—that this blog usually refers to articles only to criticize them. This case, however, is different. Blight makes a number of thoughtful points throughout his interview. Anybody who has read this blog’s discussion of Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic will be familiar with several of the ideas that emerge from this exchange. The three most important and relevant ones are as follows.
First, the Confederates fought valorously (much—if not all—of the time) but for a bad cause that was inextricably tied to slavery. One Thing after Another ought to remind readers that such is not merely the verdict of contemporary historians. This blog recalls Ulysses S. Grant’s verdict in his Memoirs (1885), which describes the preliminaries preceding Lee’s surrender at Appomattox:
What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.
Blight argues, then, that those inclined to defend the memorials ought to admit that the Confederate cause was “deeply flawed or terrible.” However, they ought to also realize that the contemporary South should feel neither shame nor pride for what Southerners did over 150 years ago. As Professor Randy Sparks (a scholar at Tulane University whom the interviewer refers to and with whom Blight agrees) asserts, Confederates were “men of their time and place.”
Second, people need to see, as Sparks argues, that now “is our time, and our place.” We cannot change what our ancestors did, but we can influence the world that our descendants inherit. Much of the controversy surrounding the removal of Confederate statues really has to do with contemporary issues (an argument that Horowitz also makes). For sure, a number of these issues are rooted in the legacies of slavery and the war (e.g the underprivileged position of African Americans today). Still, when people argue about, say, the Confederate battle flag, more often than not, they are projecting today’s concerns on the past. Such debates are often truly about present-day disputes concerning inequality, race, economic opportunity, identity, the basis of community, the limits of government authority, and so on. We ought to have conversations about these issues without making inapt, ahistorical, or anachronistic references to the Civil War.
Third, having recognized these points, we can’t and shouldn’t destroy every Confederate memorial. Attempting to stamp out such memorials would pose to communities questions that admit no easy solution (e.g. Is this or that a memorial? What does it commemorate?). Such a policy would also come to feel oppressive as localities fell under the shadow of a memorial police. As Blight points out, iconoclasm is dangerous because no one quite knows where it will lead. American history without Davis, Lee, and Beauregard would be incomplete, so we cannot erase them from the past. But we can, as Blight suggests, erect “tasteful, important, meaningful new memorials” that show how history has moved on from the Lost Cause fable. In this fashion, we can bring memory and history closer together, an achievement that would prove a public service. Blight refers to the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Massachusetts Memorial on the edge of Boston Common (a patinated plaster cast of which is pictured above) as a possible model for future monuments, and rightly so. If we are compelled to remember Confederate leaders like Davis, Lee and Beauregard, justice demands that we do a better job of representing the complexity of the American Iliad. That task involves publicizing the stories of those who have been pushed to the margins by traditional memorialization of the war (e.g. African Americans, poor Southern whites, and women) but who played such an important role in the conflict.