Well Meaning But Wrong

I came across this story in the Washington Post.

The Civil War Trust, with 55,000 members, has a petition to protect monuments in the United States. They are claiming there is a movement to “erase history” and “erase” monuments. See the headline and story at their website here. Moving a monument isn’t erasing history. Even if a monument was demolished, it wouldn’t erase history. You see, there’s this invention known as “books.” Books are these things that have paper pages in them. The pages have words printed on them. The words in history books give us history facts and interpretations. People who get their history from books will never have their history erased if a monument is moved or demolished. Those who get their history from monuments deserve to have it erased, because monuments are not history books and don’t usually engage the tough facts of history.

Let’s look at the petition itself. It claims, “However, we must remember that such freedoms come at a tremendous cost, paid for in the blood of brave Americans in uniform who sacrificed all to forge the country we are today. We owe these men and women a debt that can never be repaid.” I agree with that statement, but it doesn’t apply to confederate monuments. Confederate soldiers weren’t fighting for freedom. The entity for which they fought was dedicated to preserving slavery, therefore no matter what their personal motivations were, and personal motivations varied with each soldier, because they fought for the confederacy whose goal was preservation of slavery, all confederate soldiers fought to preserve slavery. That would be the end result of their victory. I will stipulate that many confederate soldiers did not consciously enlist for the purpose of preserving slavery. Their personal motivations for fighting may have had nothing to do with slavery. But never confuse a soldier’s personal motivations with the goals of the entity for which they fight, and the entity for which they fight is what ultimately determines what the soldiers as a whole were fighting for. James M. McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University, tells us, in his book For Cause and Comrades, that confederate soldiers knew that slavery was one of the things for which they were fighting and accepted that fact.

The petition also claims, “It is important to remember that many of these memorials are historic in their own right some more than 200 years old. In countless instances, these monuments were erected by the veterans themselves, who wanted to remember their leaders, their units and their fallen comrades. Many of these memorials were also paid for not with public money but through small dollar donations made by survivors and local citizens, determined to give of their limited means to honor the military.” So what about monuments that were not erected by veterans, and monuments that were erected after 1960? None of those fit this claim.

And isn’t moving a monument into a museum or to another location still preserving it? Is there a movement to destroy monuments instead of simply moving them?

Now, I’m against destroying monuments. I prefer interpreting monuments and providing context so we can learn not only the history that’s being commemorated but also learn the history of those who put up the monuments and the time in which the monument was erected. So I think this petition is well intentioned, and I have nothing against the Civil War Trust itself. In fact, I think they’re a terrific organization doing a great deal to educate the nation on its history and preserving our battlefields. However, ultimately the petition is wrong because it uses a broad brush for all monuments and ends up giving people bad history as a result.

Kevin Levin is all over this.

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3 comments

  1. Nice piece. A current student of mine is writing a paper on commemoration at Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery in Columbus, and made use of this quote from Kirk Savage’s *Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves*: “Public Monuments were meant to yield resolution and consensus, not to prolong conflict. The impulse behind the public monument was an impulse to mold history into its rightful pattern. And history was supposed to be a chronicle of heroic accomplishments, not a series of messy disputes with unresolved outcomes.” So many of these monuments were acts of rewriting history, and many of those who charge that removing them is “erasing” history refuse to recognize this. I am not advocating a removal of all monuments, but I’d like to see those who are defending keeping them in place offer a more nuanced argument for that position.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I agree completely.

  2. […] murders. They came out with a petition defending the monuments, about which Kevin Levin and Al Mackey have already written. I think deserves examination, even if I tread over some of the same ground […]

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