Removing History

In the past year, as a historian and author of books about Civil War monuments, I have been asked by friends and various people my opinion about the Civil War monuments being removed in communities across the country.  I admit I have a mixed reaction to these news stories. It is often because of how or why the monument is being removed and why the monument was erected in the first place. Over the years, I have come to love these monuments. I have come to appreciate the artwork, symbolism, the thoughts behind them and the stories of the people and why the monuments were created.

The past is not always easy to deal with. Especially parts of our past that are not pleasant and sometimes just down right horrible and ugly. I tell students that my American history survey class will be “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

Americans are struggling to deal with our past. American are struggling to tell their story in a way that is sensitive to our modern outlook and to tell the story of the past with truth and honor. Not an easy task.

The confederate monuments dotted across southern landscapes have come under fire in the past few years.  From the simple soldier at parade rest in front of a county courthouse to those large equestrian monuments of southern leaders erected in large parks are under scrutiny and many have been removed.

Monument to Wm. Bate’s Confederate Tn. Regiment at Shiloh.
Photo by Jane Beal- copyrighted by Jane Beal

It is easy to look at a monument to a Confederate regiment or leader and think-“how awful! This glorifies racism and slavery.” Often the entire history and story of that monument has not been told and often it is forgotten. For example, two years ago, I had the privilege to attend the dedication of a new state monument at Shiloh National Military Park. The last monument had been erected in 2006 and before that there had not been a monument erected since about 1917. The state of Tennessee and the state of Mississippi erected monuments on the battlefield in the late twentieth century. Their intention was to honor and recognize those soldiers who fought at the battle and those who died representing those states. It is easy to say this was to honor a bunch of slave holders and racists. One must remember that not everyone who lived in the South held slaves. Only a small percentage of the southern population were large slave holders. Not everyone fought for the idea of slavery. Many fought to defend their homeland and/or the idea of state’s rights. (yeah, now there is an issue that has plagued this country from the beginning- who has ultimate power the state or the federal government? I won’t go there in this post). The states are honoring those who were willing to fight in a horrible war that often split families apart.

I don’t agree with removal of the monuments. The first problem I have is that over time people have forgotten the true intention of those who erected the monument and the story behind those people. Why was the monument erected? To honor the common soldier who fought and often died for their cause? Many times, the monuments are erected to make sure their story is told through the ages. The majority of the monuments on the battlefields were erected by states with the prompting, push and work of the veterans. Having worked with World War II veterans and spent time researching the creation of the civil war monuments, the thing that stuck out to me was the intense desire to make sure their story was told and remembered through the ages. The veterans simply want people to remember what they had done, what they had sacrificed and why. Bate’s 2nd Tennessee Regiment monument at Shiloh National Park erected on a courthouse square might come under scrutiny today. This was a Confederate regiment, made up of young men primarily under the age of twenty-five, that is honored. I am sure some owned slaves, but chances are that not many did and were not fighting to keep slavery. However, the survivors of that regiment began working to erect a monument in 1902. It was not to glorify or even promote slavery or white supremacy. The regiment entered the battle of Shiloh with approximately 385 men. During the two days of fighting 235 men were wounded or killed. It was the loss of life that these veterans wanted to people to remember. They wanted visitors of the 21st century to see the monument and realized that these young men sacrificed their lives to defend their home state.  The quote on the monument is very telling of what they wanted us to know and remember, ‘Go stranger, and tell Tennesseans that here we died for her. Tennesseans can never mourn a more nobler band than fell this day in her 2nd regiment.”

Same is true for the Louisiana monument at Shiloh. It is another confederate monument erected to honor a regiment. Yves Lemonnier, a former private who erected it with his own funds, did not own slaves. Nor did he wish to glorify and commemorate the lost cause. Actually, he really had issue with the national veteran groups and politicians because they were so focused on the great leaders of the war and not the privates or common men who gave their lives. LeMonnier wanted people to remember the lives lost during the battle and even the war. He felt passionately that the state of Louisiana and the South in general needed to remember the men who answered her call to arms and were willing to give their lives. In both cases, these were men who wanted to a memorial and people to remember their comrades who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

The monuments reflect the attitudes and feelings of the time. Southerners had lost a war and the very nature of their society and economy changed. Sometimes that feeling of loss and the idea that their perspective was not being properly told often comes out in the creation of monuments. The Henry Wirz monument in Andersonville, Georgia is a prime example of this. Southerners erected it because they felt that they their story at Andersonville was given a biased presentation. As horrible as the story of Andersonville is, the Wirz monument reflects the deep divide and the hurt that the country struggled with for years after the war. Yes- those grainy black and white photos of veterans shaking hands is but a posed image and not the whole story.

I understand why many want the monuments removed. For many, it is not the civil war history that immediately comes to mind. Artifacts of history are often manipulated and used for other purposes. The “stars and bars’ battle flag was used by white supremacists groups as one of their symbols. The flag came to represent something more than a long-ago battle flag of a temporary country and a cause that is outdated and lost. It has come to represent the hate and violence of the twentieth century south. The monuments often were the scene of white supremacist rallies and gatherings. The original intent of the monument creators were often thrown out and a new interpretation was put upon it and new meaning to the monument was created. The symbols used for a different agenda than originally intended.

Wisconsin Monument at Shiloh

Many say this is why the monuments must go. I say they must stay. However, the entire story of the monument must be told. Not just snippets of the story and it must be unbiased. The monument’s history- good, bad and ugly must be told. How do we expect people to understand history if they don’t learn and see historical symbols and artifacts? We must convey the entire evolving story of these monuments to the public. Is it horrible they were often used by white supremacist groups? Absolutely! But anything can be removed from its original intent and used for bad. In the bible, ( Ephesians 6:5) the apostle Paul admonishes slaves to obey their masters. This was used by slave owners to control slaves and to justify slavery. Because slavery is in the bible and it was horrible, do we remove it from the bible?

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