A Monumental Question: Confederate Statues in the Public Sphere

A Monumental Question: Confederate Statues in the Public Sphere

by Nathan Richendollar '19

Unlike most students at Washington and Lee, I wasn’t raised in the South, the urban Northeast, or the West Coast. I grew up in rural and suburban environments in Michigan, a place where we have plenty of deer hunters and bass fishermen in camouflage but no southern drawls and fewer evangelical Protestant churches than “party stores” (our colloquial name for liquor stores). Quite obviously, we have no grandiose monuments to Confederate soldiers in the Great Lakes State, where voters in 1860 gave the “late, great” Abraham Lincoln a resounding victory, unlike the nail-biters in Illinois and New York that put him over the top. All my ancestors who fought at the time of the Civil War did so in blue uniforms for infantry and light artillery divisions organized in Indiana, Ohio, and the newly-formed state of West Virginia, which split off from Virginia because it had very few slaves and no interest in fighting for the continuation of chattel bondage. But despite my upbringing and commitment to ensuring equal protection before the law for all citizens of this great republic, I still see the value in preserving history and southern heritage, both in the Confederate flag and monuments. Confederate flags and monuments are not invitations for white supremacists to make Woodrow Wilson’s favorite movie, Birth of a Nation, a reality, nor are they meant to be icons for racists. Some fringe wingnuts (David Duke, looking at you) may use them as a symbol of intimidation and the antebellum order, but that should not prevent the vast majority of us from enjoying the monuments and absorbing the history they convey.

            Let’s start with flags. There seem to be two opinions of what the Confederate flag stands for: southern heritage, or racism. I used to lean toward the latter explanation, but travelling around and living in the South, it’s become apparent to me that the former is more common. On a vacation through the Sandhills of North Carolina this past Washington break, I saw at least four black men flying Confederate flags on the back of their pickup trucks. At the time, I was stunned. Are they signaling racism against themselves? Doubtful. But if we view the Confederate flag as a signal of southern pride and heritage, it makes perfect sense. The average Southerner flying a Confederate flag isn’t trying to display their political affiliation with the late CSA, but a sense of regional pride. Limiting their display seems to concede an important point to white supremacists: that the flag can only be interpreted as a symbol of hate and a fight for slavery’s continuation. By stigmatizing the flag, we legitimize its use by white supremacists and de-legitimize its use by everyone else. However, Confederate flags should not be allowed to fly at official government buildings, especially state capitols. Bluntly, that’s ridiculous. However we interpret the Confederate flag, it was the battle flag of a rebellion against the United States government. Since my ancestors came out the victors, thus preserving the Union, private citizens and battlefield sites should be allowed to fly the flag, but not the same state capitols that voted to secede in the winter of 1860-61. If southern states seek to commemorate the men from their state who fought and died in the Civil War without stirring up a conflagration, they might simply fly the state flags that were in use in 1861, which aren’t symbols of rebellion and which, in some cases, date back to the Founding. But at the moment, the bulk of the controversy stems from statues commemorating Confederate officers.

            Statues do not necessarily convey infallibility in the person’s character, but historical significance and a modicum of honor. Monuments are erected to preserve a part of history, sometimes admirable, sometimes not, and most often, a complex mix of the two. Slavery was a gross wrong, and some Confederates fought directly to preserve the institution. But a great many, perhaps most, did not. Over half of white southerners at the outbreak of the Civil War did not own slaves, and many of those who did fought not to preserve the institution, but because their state governments had seceded and they owed loyalty (or felt they owed loyalty) to their states and home lands (The affluent leaders of the state governments, however, decided to secede very specifically to enshrine slavery in a new constitution, as shown by the speeches of so-called, ‘secession commissioners’ and the Confederate constitution itself). Among the men who didn’t fight for slavery, but for their home turf, included James Longstreet, known as “Pete” to his friends and referred to as Lee’s “old war horse.” Longstreet oversaw the infamous Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg and commanded an entire corps of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia throughout the war. Yet, upon the conflict’s end, General Longstreet supported Republicans like U.S. Grant, Reconstruction, equal suffrage for blacks, and bitterly opposed the KKK’s influence in the new South. In fact, Longstreet was known to regularly fraternize with blacks, a highly unorthodox practice for a nineteenth-century Southerner.

Robert E. Lee, though not an abolitionist by any stretch, took up arms against the Union out of loyalty to his home state of Virginia after the commonwealth seceded, not a deeply-grounded faith in secession or slavery. Lee did hold some very perverse views about the peculiar institution (namely that slavery was a civilizing force on blacks and that God would determine when the institution would end), but he didn’t hold the popular southern view that racial slavery would be and should be permanent. In fact, after the Civil War, Lee commented, “I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished.” While no saint, Lee wasn’t a rabid advocate of slavery or a patron saint of the KKK, like Woodrow Wilson was.

Yet, Longstreet and Lee both took up arms against the United States, so if the crime for which we seek to tear down statues of Lee and Jackson is treason, then why should Longstreet be commemorated anywhere but a museum? If it be owning slaves, Longstreet’s family owned slaves, although it’s obvious from his actions and statements that he opposed the institution. His statue should be torn down by the logos of the progressives who seek to remove Confederate statues. Trying to parse which figures from our history can have statues and which cannot is a dangerous, convoluted game, one that will encourage ignorance of some sins if they be perpetrated by the left’s favorites, like Wilson, and one that will eventually demand the erasure of nearly all public history. How long after Lee is taken down will the left tolerate having Longstreet around? They both fought for the South, after all.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the greatest freedom document the world has ever known, and spoke out against slavery and the slave trade plenty in his day. Yet, he owned slaves, even siring illegitimate children by one of his female slaves, named Sally Hemings. Should statues of Jefferson be taken down?

Many on the left would say, “yes.” Those on the left who say “no” find themselves in a difficult situation if they oppose having statues of Lee and Longstreet sitting around. They both owned slaves, and Jefferson supported the institution more zealously than Lee near the end of his life. Lee’s statue does not rest on our campus because he was a perfect human being, or even necessarily a good one before 1865. It rests “recumbent” because Lee is buried here, because he was the president of our university from 1865-1870, because he remade the university, and because his transformation after the war mirrors the nation’s overall trajectory. After 1865, Lee went from a citizen of Virginia clinging to the old Antebellum order to a citizen of the restored American republic under the Constitution, loyal to the nation. As a monumental figure in American history, Robert E. Lee deserves a few monuments, especially at his burial location. Lee, while he fought for a government pursuing a repugnant cause, was no zealous advocate of secession, and after the war, famously said, “During and before the War Between the States, I was a Virginian. After the war, I became an American.” That’s more than we can say about Patrick Henry, who both owned slaves and vociferously opposed the new Constitution, famously refusing to be a delegate to the convention because he “smelled a rat.”

Should Patrick Henry college be renamed? All statues of him be taken down? The wilier proponents of statue and flag removal assure us that they will stop at the Confederacy’s leaders, that the Founding Fathers are not on their wish list of people to be scrubbed from the public memory, and that any conservative objections to the contrary are merely “slippery slope” fallacious arguments. But how can such an objection be fallacious when most liberals are already well down-slope of the Confederate monuments, attacking Jefferson, Washington, and in my home city of Detroit, Christopher Columbus (even if we discount that the entire history of progressivism has been one long, muddy slope—1% taxes to pay for the Johnstown flood, anyone?). It logically follows that if we want to take down statues of people who owned slaves, or had opinions no longer in the mainstream, then Jefferson, Washington, Patrick Henry, John Randolph, George Mason, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and arguably Lincoln, should come down.  

The madness and emotional fervor that grievance politicians put into tearing down Confederate monuments leads us down a path of erasing all public figures that don’t fit the modern liberal mold of worshipping equality, even at the expense of constitutional freedom (a standard I wouldn’t even fit). We’re paving the way for teaching that the Western heteronormative male is responsible for all the world’s ills, that we should be ashamed of our Western society, starting by removing marks of our internal conflict, our momentous struggle to purge ourselves of slavery, unique in world history, from the public eye. Think I’m exaggerating? Then why have Columbus statues been vandalized? Why are we re-opening the sores healed for a hundred and fifty years since the Civil War? Because the left thinks the first Civil War didn’t take their vision of Jacobin equality far enough. Equality before God and the law isn’t good enough. We need economic equality, equality of the genders in all things social, and most importantly, “social justice,” an anathema to equality before the law in and of itself. As Thomas Sowell said, “When you’ve been treated preferentially for thirty years, equal treatment seems like discrimination.” And the traditions of the West, the “traditions of all dead generations weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” as Marx would say, traditions like reverence for the past, rule of law, measured change, belief in transcendent moral authority, and universal truth, stand in the way of the utopian vision. So, the memory of the dead generations must be torn down, according to this new-age theology, starting with Confederate monuments, then Founders who owned slaves, like Jefferson and Washington, then Founders who didn’t own slaves but made offensive remarks about race or gender, then everyone who doesn’t agree with the presuppositions of modern society, like James Damore, the Google employee who got fired for suggesting that males and females might just be inherently different. Heresy!

While most liberals involved in protesting Confederate statues aren’t thinking this way, the path that they are advocating logically leads to an intellectually totalitarian world, one where free thought and remembrance of history are disallowed. This is the very hallowed ground where Robert E. Lee is buried, where my ancestors fought to end slavery in the Shenandoah Valley and the whole American nation, where Stonewall Jackson’s forces were organized and Lee became an “American,” after being a “Virginian” for so long. Here of all places, we cannot allow our history, so accessible to all as it stands now, to be relegated to museums and university lecture halls, for only the intelligentsia to see and touch, to debate and discuss. How many flaggers from rural Augusta or Franklin County are going to visit the museums where our well-meaning liberal friends want the statues deposited (where they might be archived anyway)? Very few. As it stands, these folks can come to Washington and Lee to see monuments and engage in learned discussion about the South’s motivation in the war and the nature of the struggle with our faculty and students. The same would not happen if these statues got locked away in a museum. The Civil War is public history, and the monuments that commemorate those who fought on both sides, the right side and the wrong side, should remain standing in public as a testament to America’s deadliest war, the one that broke chattel slavery forever. They should stand as reminders of our flawed and complex past, of the people who led forces in America’s biggest conflict, but also the path of divine providence the Almighty guided our country down to repay the “blood drawn with the lash with blood drawn by the sword” and finally make us a free nation.

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