This article crossed my feed. “A millennial friend of mine, touring the Gettysburg battlefield with me, asked, ‘Why are there all these memorials glorifying people who fought for such a terrible cause?’ It was a question I had never considered despite many visits to the battlefield.” Why, indeed? Not only did they fight for a terrible cause, but thankfully they also were losers.
The article continues, “Yes, Gettysburg is a historical site. Yes, the statues and memorials mark where generals actually stood and watched the battle, where particular battalions fought, and what contribution they made to the course of the battle. Some of the Confederate monuments, such as the North Carolina monument designed by Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, have artistic merit in themselves. But some are cringeworthy. The inscription on the Mississippi monument, for example: ‘On this ground our brave sires fought for their righteous cause; In glory they sleep who give to it their lives’ Who can read this today without gritting their teeth? ‘I read that most of these Confederate monuments were put up in the ’30s at the height of the Jim Crow era, funded by the Daughters of the Confederacy,’ my millennial continued. ‘What kind of euphemistic name is that? If they called themselves ‘Daughters of Slaveholders,’ would they have been allowed to put up monuments in a national park? Does Germany put up battlefield monuments funded by Daughters of Nazis?’ “This millennial asks good questions. They should also do deeper research into the UDC and check out its support of the KKK and other white supremacist activities.
The article also says, “My millennial friend went on to wonder: ‘Why is the statue of General Lee the largest on the battlefield? He was supposed to have been such a great strategist, yet he sent his army to attack a stronger force in a fortified position uphill. I’m told the professors at West Point use this as a textbook example of what not to do strategically.’ My friend continued: ‘Why does he get a giant statue when he basically did what Tennyson condemned in ‘Charge of the Light Brigade,’ sending his forces into withering artillery fire in the Valley of Death? Only there were a lot more than 600 who died for his hubris. And Longstreet – the only general who had the guts to stand up to Lee and tell him the charge was a bad idea – he only gets a 1/4 life-size statue hidden away from the street in a thicket.’ I tried to answer. ‘Lee was supposed to be the best general in the Army at the time. He was offered the leadership of the Union Army and agonized over turning it down. His uncle signed the Declaration of Independence. He symbolized the terrible choice between loyalty to his Country and to his State.’ ” Lee was actually a very good general. If we look at what he knew at the time and the context of his decision to make the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge, we can see it was a reasonable choice to make.
As the article tells us, ” “’Yes, I know he graduated at the top of his class from West Point,’ countered my millennial. ‘But what did he learn, except to believe his own hype? He betrayed the oath he took at West Point when he defected to the Secessionists. OK, he was descended from Revolutionary War aristocracy. But he was a still a slaveholder, and one who defended slavery.’ ” Here the millennial again flubs the military aspect, but he’s right that Lee betrayed his oath, was a slave owner, and defended slavery.
According to the article, “My millennial friend went on to ask: ‘Why set aside all this land to commemorate warfare and dying? The National Military Cemetery and the monument to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address up on Cemetery Ridge say everything you’d want to say about the men and boys who died to eliminate slavery in the U.S. and to keep the country together. The cemetery is what Lincoln called ‘hallowed ground,’ not the battlefield. These Matthew Brady photos of dead soldiers at Devil’s Den, and the informative signs about the Bloody Angle and the Slaughter Pen – it’s like a theme park for carnage.’ ” This is reminiscent of John Christian Spielvogel’s book, Interpreting Sacred Ground: The Rhetoric of National Civil War Parks and Battlefields. See here, here, here, here, here, and here. National military parks exist as outdoor classrooms allowing military personnel to learn from what was done before. Secondarily, it gives the rest of the population lessons in history to understand these conflicts, what caused them, how they were fought, and what happened as a result.
The millennial’s questions are good ones and hopefully the millennial is motivated to find the answers to those questions through more research and learning. I suggest starting with this book: