I remember as a child riding through Southern towns with my parents, and always searching for the statue of the Confederate soldier. When I was very young, my father had pointed them out to me and told me on road trips to look out for them.
To me, the statue was a tangible and expected memorial to the history of the War of the Rebellion, the war my father studied in the books sitting the table beside his chair; a war my great-great grandfathers fought in. The statues, to my young imagination, were a representation of my great-great grandfathers, one of whom donated his arm at Vicksburg to the cause of liberty.
I craved the statues of soldiers rather than a plain obelisk bearing only names, because in the faces of those statues I saw the faces of the dead in the old photographs from my father’s books. I frequently would lie on the floor and look at those picture in the books and try to imagine the lives of the corpses scattered on the recent battlefield; I would try to imagine who they had been and what they had lost.
The South was thoroughly beaten in the war. Sherman cut a swath through Georgia and the Carolinas, destroying property the entire way. The Army of the Potomac, and not much less the Army of Northern Virginia, ravaged the Virginia countryside. Veterans returning home near the battlegrounds in Virginia easily got lost as they found themselves in a landscape that in no way resembled the homes they had left in 1861. The men felled entire forests in service to their respective armies. Towns and homes and farms – all the familiar landmarks – were leveled.
Nearly all the battles fought happened in the seceded Southern states. Gettysburg and Antietam being the primary exceptions, the biggest fighting of the war occurred in Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi.
Like any beaten nation, the states that comprised the Confederacy suffered long after life in the Northern states returned to normal.
The Southern states were occupied and governed, at least initially, in the way that any victor would occupy and govern the land of a beaten foe.
Many efforts were made for swift reconciliation, and for some, that swift reconciliation came. Many of the South’s leaders went on to occupy elected office in the states or even the federal government. Others commanded black troops in service to the United States government.
But deep wounds festered in the South.
Politically and economically the South would not recover for two generations or more. Much of the South suffered in poverty for decades after the war. The blame, or much of it, can be laid not at the feet of the conquering Yankees, but at the feet of the Southern politicians who discovered that their political power was sustained by a weak and poor population. But so long as the Southern black was poorer than the Southern white, Southern politicians could be guaranteed reelection. Deepening the divisions of race to deflect attention from the solidarity of poverty was good business for white politicians.
Of course, the boll weevil and store credit played no small part in rural Southern poverty, but economics has a multi-faceted nature.
As the Confederate veterans aged, it became proper that they – and those who did not age – would be memorialized.
It does not require a vivid imagination to understand the motivations. Men and women who lost friends, cousins, brothers, sought to honor them. The sons and daughters of the aging Confederate veterans took up collections to raise statues to their fathers.
They did not erect statues to honor nameless and faceless heroes of the past, but to honor the people they knew and the people they lost.
In some instances, surely, the statues went up at the expense of the taxpayer and likely as not these were cynical (and successful) appeals for votes. Undoubtedly these statues also were intended as a defiant gesture against the Yankee government when Southern Democrats regained political control. That the statues were also intended as a message to freed slaves and their sons and daughters should not be ignored. That very defiance to the Yankee government told another tale to Southern blacks, a Jim Crow tale, and a warning of continued political oppression.
And so the question we must ask ourselves is whether it is right to continue to honor these Confederate dead, knowing as we do that their memorials in public places were often erected with the dual intention of telegraphing a message of defiance and oppression.
As much as some might want these statues to be lasting symbols of heritage and culture, the sad fact is that for many of our neighbors and our fellow Southerners, these statues are a constant reminder that their heritage at one time was the oppression of a people who equaled under the law only three-fifths of a man.
I cannot help but reach the conclusion that these statues should be removed from public squares and parks. I hate this, because for me personally these statues represent a tangible connection to the not-so-distant past, a past that thoroughly obsesses me.
But knowing that the statues hold a very opposite meaning for so many of my fellow Southerners, and believing that their view of these statues cannot be reconciled with mine, I see no way forward where everyone can be made satisfied and these statues left in place.
But it should not be the work of angry mobs, nor of politicians craving to garner the same cynical votes they craved a century ago.
The solution should come from the very people who erected the statues in the first place.
The Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy, the ones to whom the statues represent heritage and culture, should be given first right of refusal to receive back the statues they bought. And they should then mount the statues in private parks, or in museums or donate them to the Civil War Trust to put on battlefields where it might make sense.
And in places where these statues were erected by governments and not by private organizations, paid for by taxpayers, the Civil War Trust should be given the statues to put in appropriate places.
Whatever else these statues might have been, they are now forever a part of our history, a history that is complicated and often means vastly different things at the same time. The statues themselves are a part of our history beyond just what they represent. And history should not be lost nor ignored. But the place these statues occupy in our present should not be the places they presently occupy.
Public places – government places – must be places of equal access, and having statues of Confederate soldiers standing guard at courthouses and town squares is an inappropriate use of public property.