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News

Statues Then and Now

  • Statue of Lee by Leo Lentill
    Statue of Lee by Leo Lentill
October 22, 2017

Symbols of the Confederate States of America have emerged as contemporary political targets, and the word “target” in this case has at least two meanings – a topic of intense debate, and the focus of despicable violence. In Charlottesville Virginia, the local council voted to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a public park. Opponents of the decision went to court and secured a six-month delay in the move.

            The standoff has made the particular monument a symbol for both supporters and opponents of the political-social activist goal of taking down statues honoring Confederate leaders. As usual, the mass media guarantee national and international attention to what began as a local event, feeding as well as highlighting developments.

On August 12 in Charlottesville, a car drove into a crowd protesting a pro-statue rally that included white nationalists and other fringe groups. The driver killed young civil rights activist Heather Heyer and injured nineteen others, some seriously. Violence has punctuated the ongoing opposing demonstrations in Charlottesville and elsewhere.

            This is a controversy rooted in history, though there is precious little calm and serious discussion of the genesis in today’s dangerous conflict, or even of the creation of the Confederate statues. In our contemporary environment of nonstop “news” and associated speculative talk, driven relentlessly by profit concerns, serious analysis is more important than ever.

This is particularly the case since the historical issues are profound, including first and foremost the issue of slavery. Distinguished Princeton University historian James McPherson has spent his career studying, researching and insightfully writing about the Civil War. Years ago, he wrote an essay on the causes of the terrible war, the most costly for Americans in our history, which took over 600,000 lives. “Southern Comfort” appeared in “The New York Review of Books” April 12, 2001. The anchor of the essay is a review of three new books on the causes and circumstances that led to the war.

McPherson begins by quoting President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in early 1865, which included the statement that slavery “was, somehow, the cause of the war.” At this point, the South was clearly losing the war. A Union army under General William Sherman had taken Atlanta, devastated the rich agricultural economy of Georgia, and was heading north through the Carolinas. General Ulysses Grant had Lee’s army tied down and slowly bleeding to death in trenches south of Richmond.

When the war began, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Vice President Alexander Stephens and other secession leaders had publicly declared maintaining slavery was paramount among incentives, but after the war, this changed. The rights and sovereignty of individual states, a main sticking point for the framers of the U.S. Constitution, suddenly became central reasons for trying to leave the Union.

As McPherson describes, mythical alternative history termed “The Lost Cause” took hold in the South and to a degree the North. During this period, statues honoring the Confederacy emerged. The Charlottesville statue of Lee appeared in 1924.

Ironically, Lee strongly opposed such monuments. As Chris Boyette of CNN and others point out, he felt the symbols “keep open the sores of war.”

Even more important, Lee was crucial in ending the Civil War. When Federal cavalry trapped his retreating army, there was strong sentiment for disbanding and carrying on a guerrilla war. That would have maintained fighting for many years, conceivably into our own time.

Lee rejected the option as dishonorable.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact acyr@carthage.edu