A word on Confederate monuments

There is an important difference between remembering and honoring.

With great hesitation I am submitting my thoughts on the primary motivation for a recent gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville: the removal of a  statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

My hesitation stems from a desire not to get caught up in any of the hateful arguments I witness on social media, but I am moved to write because I hope to see the hate eventually cease.

I know many good people who will disagree with me, and that’s alright.  The point of writing is to spread understanding of a point of view, not to forcefully coerce others into agreement.

First, some perspective on where I come from.  I’m a 35-year-old Protestant white male born and raised in the South (northern Florida).

Nearly every branch of my family stretches back at least 200 years in the United States, and several go back well beyond that.

The founder of the University of Virginia, where the protests occurred, Thomas Jefferson, was a third cousin (nine times removed).

George Washington was a second cousin (ten times removed).

Our most influential Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall was a fourth cousin (eight times removed).

Robert E. Lee himself was a fifth cousin (seven times removed).

Several of my great grandfathers fought in the Revolutionary War.

My great-great-great grandfather Jeremiah Rust was a private in the Virginia Reserves 6th Battalion during the Civil War.

My great-great-great grandfather Richard Spires was a private in the 10th Florida Infantry Regiment.

My great-great-great grandfather William Jackson Boothe was a private in the 2nd Florida Infantry Regiment and later the 2nd Florida Calvary Regiment.

My great-great grandfather John Stinard Secord was a corporal in the 6th New York Heavy Artillery Regiment, where he was part of Grant’s Army of the Potomac from 1863 until the end of the war.  He fought in the battles of Manassas Gap, Mine Run, the Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Cedar Creek, the Siege of Petersburg, and was injured at Spotsylvania Courthouse.

By pedigree, I’m about as stereotypically white American as one can get, with heavy family history in both the North and South.

So when I think about the debate going on about all these Confederate monuments, many of them that commemorate the Confederate dead are commemorating several of my great grandfathers and other family members.

With that in mind, I say without hesitation that these monuments need to come down from public places.

There is an important difference between remembering and honoring.

I remember my great grandfathers and, for those aligned with the Confederacy, acknowledge they fought for a cause they likely believed in.  But I can not honor that cause because it was intimately connected with evil.

Removing monuments does not equate to forgetting history, to forgetting my grandfathers.  It simply means we refuse to honor certain aspects of history.  I’m fairly certain we aren’t in danger of forgetting the Civil War.

Here’s the kicker for me: the majority of these Southern Civil War monuments were erected in two periods of time, one around the turn of the 20th Century and the other in the 1950s / 1960s.  The flying of the Confederate battle flag did not make a reappearance until the 1960s, either.  It’s awfully suspicious that these periods coincide with the immediate after effects of Plessy v. Ferguson (legitimizing state segregation laws) and the subsequent drastic increase in segregation laws and during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, respectively.

These monuments are thus not neutral.  They don’t exist simply to honor the men they’re supposed to.  They also often carry an implicit and not-so-subtle message to those who would not be very happy with their existence: guess who’s still in charge?

Think about it.  If you’re white, imagine you’re an African American walking past a giant statue of Robert E. Lee every day.  How does that make you feel?

How is that different in kind from making a Jewish person walk past a statue of a German soldier from World War II?  Not every German was directly complicit in the evils of the Nazis regime, but that’s beside the point, isn’t it?  I’d hope all of us have a hard time imagining how it would possibly be appropriate to subject a Jewish person to something like that – yet we have no problem subjecting millions of our African American brothers and sisters to living around glorified symbols of their enslavement.

And let’s clear up something historical here, as I’m a lover of history and take it very seriously: the Civil War was, indeed, about slavery.

Sure, there were of course other important factors at play.  Yes, a root issue was whether the Federal government had the right to impose its will on the State(s), but the reason that issue was in play was due to slavery.

The Union certainly didn’t have clean hands, including its own treatment of African Americans.  I also don’t buy the logic that Southerners were treasonous by leaving the Union – technically, they had the legal right as there is nothing binding any State to remain in the Union, and if we’re going to call Southerners traitors, we have to call all American Patriots during the Revolution traitors for rebelling against their legitimate government.

None of that, however, changes that at the end of the day, the South chose to do what it did because it feared the Federal government abolishing slavery and thus destroying their economy and way of life.  To quote a post I wrote two years ago:

It’s disingenuous to throw random snippets of quotes around from a specific era to prove a point (lots of people said lots of different things at any given time, as evident then as it is today), but when reading white Southern history it’s humbling to see how central slavery was to every aspect of society: economics, religion, politics, anthropology.

White supremacy was deeply imbedded in a very large portion of Southern thinking and living.

So by all means, let’s remember the Civil War and continue to learn from it.  There are incredibly important aspects to continue to study, analyze and dissect.  We have history books, museums, and historical societies to ensure we don’t forget.

But there is an important difference between remembering and honoring.

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