Confederate Statues Controversy: A Historian’s View

Very well thought out and written article, which I commend to all. mrossol

7/17/2020 National Review.  By Bruce Westrate

I was born in 1952, during the presidency of Harry Truman. Nine years later, this country began its centennial commemoration of the Civil War. I was completely swept up in it, writing letters to chambers of commerce all around the battle-affected states to solicit information on nearby battlefields, both decisive and inconsequential. A year later, my parents surprised me with a trip to Gettysburg in the family station wagon. The evening of August 29, 1963, I spent the night in the house used by Robert E. Lee as headquarters during that titanic battle. Upon returning home, I wrote a letter to Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Bruce Catton (A Stillness at Appomattox), gushing over the vistas I’d seen and the knowledge I’d gained. He was kind enough to respond, encouraging me to continue my historical studies.

Not surprisingly, I became a historian and teacher. I have visited battlefields all my life, captivated by the dramatic confrontations that bloodied those sites, as well as by the even-handed presentation provided by the national military parks. This, I have long assumed, owed its nature to the premium that had been placed on reconciliation after the war which might allow a deeply wounded nation to heal, however imperfectly. I have taken my kids to Gettysburg, Antietam, and Petersburg, as well as the Confederate White House in Richmond.

Now, unhappily, I find myself consigned by the media to the ranks of would-be Nazis, mysteriously and involuntarily coupled to the most detestable ideology imaginable (fascism/Nazism), simply because I’ve always enjoyed such venues, along with the commemorative Civil War art that abounds among them. For the son of World War II vets, this is an uncomfortable fate to accept. So, over the last few days, I’ve been forced to ask myself the uncomfortable query: “What’s going on here?” Why are so many young people, abetted by the feckless opportunism of politicians, turning to the likes of the Taliban for their example in ravaging parks and civic squares across the South, attempting to discredit Civil War heritage and to efface historical memory?

And what I’ve come up with is this: It’s all about safe spaces. For the last few years, bemused citizens of my vintage (67) have been treated to the spectacle of ideological self-segregation on some of America’s most elite college campuses, based largely on the proposition that, contrary to the reassuring rhyme we’d learned as children, words can indeed hurt you. Moreover, in the name of preempting “hate speech,” sticks and stones may well come in handy.

From the outset, this logic seemed preposterous to me. Words have objective meaning, after all, or at least they once did. And since the English language has more words than any other, our options in their use are virtually infinite. We write wills with words, enforce contracts through them, use them to power political, theological, and philosophic debates. Our civilization would be impossible without them. Therefore, in and of themselves, words possess not only concrete meaning, but the potential for absolute functional precision.

Yet, notwithstanding this treasured medium of language, we are now asked to believe that words have no inherent meaning at all that is independent of a recipient’s translation of them, and that there is no intrinsic truth in language that lies in the words alone. Whether a person has been offended, circa 2020, seems no longer to be a product just of the words themselves, but is instead a measure of the culture, race, or sensitivity of the person on the receiving end.


Likewise, with statues. Historical art reflects, and provides guideposts to, the culture that constructed it. There is value in that, in and of itself, irrespective of the monument in question. It provides tangible signposts on the road of our social and political evolution as a nation and a culture, a civilization.

Yet recent controversies seem to have handed the adjudication of our public taste, along with the preservation of our historical past, over to the mob: latter-day sans-culottes. Almost overnight, it seems, works of historically commemorative art, which have presided over squares and parks for a century or more, have been declared utterly and immediately intolerable, notwithstanding their provenance or antiquity.

All this would seem to suggest something other than an extemporaneous response to something real. Then again, mobs tend to specialize in faux spontaneity. So, at this point, perhaps it would be well to remember that the French Directory would have demolished Notre Dame Cathedral in 1799, but for Napoleon’s improbable rise to power. Indeed, its composite stones had already been auctioned off! Now billions are being raised for its reconstruction from last year’s fire.

It is hardly necessary then, to catalogue the number of offensive monuments that may also have long-ago reached that point of intolerability across the world. Shall we deconstruct Aztec pyramids, where so many Tlaxcalan hearts were yanked out? Shall the San Diego State football team stop calling itself Aztecs? Shall the FDR monument be removed to appease the descendants of interned Nisei Japanese or the victims of the Tokyo fire raids of 1945? Shall the Japanese imperial palace be dismantled in deference to the 17 million Chinese who perished in World War II? Whither the Colosseum? The Pyramids? Monticello? Mount Vernon? The White House? While time used to provide some (excuse the expression) “monumental” immunity, ISIS has given all of us pause with its destruction of Palmyra in Syria, as with the Taliban’s earlier obliteration (with artillery) of the colossal Buddhas carved into the cliffs at Bamyan in Afghanistan. “Who controls the past, controls the future, who controls the present controls the past,” as Orwell reminds us.

And no case proves the rule more thoroughly than our current predicament. The breezy media conflation of the Confederacy with the Third Reich is so ahistorical and simple-minded that the connivance of our intelligentsia is laid bare by it. The Holocaust, while incontestably horrific, was hardly unprecedented in scale, given the grisly records of the Romans, the Mongols, the Spanish, the Soviets, the Communist Chinese, the Khmer Rouge, or the North Koreans. Yet Lenin’s statue stands unmolested in Seattle, and Karl Marx’s in Trier, Genghis Khan’s in Ulan Bator, Mao’s in Beijing, as do those of Francisco Pizzaro in Lima, and Hernan Cortes in Mexico City. And, unless I am misremembering history, did not Alexander the Great own slaves? Caesar? The Medici? No less an icon than Aristotle posited that slavery was part of the natural order of things. What are we to do with him? And while it has been fashionable over the past decade to deplore the study of history as “written by the winners,” now we find an exception in the Confederacy. After all, we are now asked, “Why should losers have monuments?”

Well, there is a very good answer to the question, offered 20 years ago by Shelby Foote, author of the three-volume Random House narrative history of the American Civil War. Put simply, he speaks of a great compromise that evolved after the Civil War that was critical to speeding reconciliation and obviating a massive northern military occupation of the South. Grudgingly perhaps, Southerners publicly renounced the institution of slavery for which they had fought. In return, the North acknowledged the heroism of Confederate soldiers and the distinction of such fabled commanders as Lee and Jackson. As imperfect, indeed iniquitous, as the South became following the Reconstruction era, at least the geographic sections healed in political union. And when one contemplates the ferocity and interminability of most civil wars in history, that was no mean feat.

What is going on before our eyes, I think, is a concerted attempt to infantilize history by confecting a narrative so facile, so riven with the blithe dispensation of “virtue” and “evil,” that all complexity is lost, and context is rendered subservient to a cleansing, anodyne, apologetic narrative. And while making war on the dead through the prism of the present may provide abundant opportunities for moral preening, it renders meaningful reflection impossible, and a truer understanding of history forever beyond our reach. Future generations will be condemned to “processed” history, and the betrayal that fraud always leaves in its wake. For the facts of history are not intrinsically “good” or “bad”: They just are. And our adjudication of the past should not rest on our present-day assessment of “good” and “evil,” but on truth, at least to the extent we can determine and analyze truth objectively.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade was a horrific blot on the history of humankind, less for the uniqueness of its cruelty than for its peculiar nature: the heartless commodification of millions of human beings over three centuries. It was an atrocity largely driven especially by the profitability of sugar cultivation, which is why most captives ended up in either Brazil or the Caribbean rather than the future United States. Make no mistake: This was a holocaust. Over two million captives perished in the hideous “Middle Passage” from West Africa across the Atlantic, along with perhaps 30 percent of the arrivals dying soon after that, depending on their destination. But it is also important to realize that slavery was a worldwide, institutionalized fact of life in the mid 19th century that, moreover, could not have occurred without the enthusiastic participation of many Africans themselves. Slavery had arrived with Islam in West Africa, and the depredations of slave catchers and slaving states in Africa (such as the Ashanti) to procure this human commodity, according to many scholars, may have carried away even more lives than the toll among those who subsequently died at sea or in western hemispheric captivity. No less a scholar than Henry Louis Gates, chair of Africana Studies at Harvard, put it this way in a New York Times op-ed: “90 percent of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders . . . black people were just as complicit in the slave trade as whites.”

Gulled by the misrepresentation of the Roots TV series back in the 1970s, Americans have never really understood how slaves were acquired on the other side of the Atlantic. And while the trans-Atlantic trade had been largely suppressed by the Royal Navy before our Civil War, an even more vicious Arab trade in captives continued to scar most of East Africa for the rest of the century, killing over 80,000 a year, according to the renowned explorer David Livingstone. In all, perhaps 17 million Africans were enslaved by the Arabs in East Africa and the Nile Valley during the 19th century. And this tale of woe was replicated almost everywhere. Whether Russian serfs, Ottoman slaves, Chinese peasants, Indian untouchables; all were utterly at the mercy of their “superiors.” Slavery, it must be understood, was less a black, white, brown, or yellow crime than a hideously broad-based human atrocity stretching back to far antiquity. I make this point not to absolve any civilization of responsibility for the nightmare of slavery, but to include all mankind within the indictment.

Our Constitution institutionalized slavery in its fundamental law, e.g. the notorious 3/5 compromise. That was why the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to slaves under Union control. Lincoln had chosen to employ a war measure under his brief as commander-in-chief. Passage of the 13th amendment was not completed until after the war’s conclusion. Slavery was America’s original sin. However, neither it nor Western Civilization created the institution of slavery.

Great Britain, however, should at least be credited with the eventual impulse toward abolition of the trade in the 19th century, after what was perhaps the first successful instance of popular activism the world had ever known, led by the likes of Wilberforce, Clarkson, Newton, and Equiano. Further, what particularly distinguishes the United States in this story, far beyond the besmirching reality of the Confederacy, is its prosecution of a war in which the abolition of the not-so-peculiar institution became an avowed, pronounced war aim. Nearly 350,000 Union soldiers gave their lives to that end, 40,000 of them African-American.

Robert E. Lee seems a particularly curious target for the vitriol of the mob. Lee was a lifelong soldier, hero of the Mexican War, superintendent of West Point. In 1861, it was to him that Abraham Lincoln initially offered command of the entire Union Army. Lee was arguably the most brilliant tactician this nation has ever produced. His victories at Chancellorsville and Second Manassas are still studied today. Fatefully, he chose his state over his country, not to protect slavery, which he had denounced as a moral evil, but to defend his home. If not a commendable impulse in hindsight, it is perhaps an understandable one.

Yet Lee’s greatest service to our country may well have come at the end of the War, at Appomattox. One word from “Marse Robert” likely would have been enough to have sent thousands of Confederate soldiers scurrying into the hills to carry on guerrilla warfare against occupying Union forces for decades to come. Most civil wars do not end as “civilly” as ours did. Instead, Robert E. Lee told his men to go home and become citizens again. And this is the man whose image we choose to deface? This is not just censorship; it is iconoclasm.

Drew Gilpin Faust has observed dramatically in This Republic of Suffering that the American South suffered more per capita war trauma than any other region on earth, except for the fabled “bloodlands” situated between Germany and Russia in the 1940s. “The American Civil War,” she observes, “produced a carnage that has often been thought reserved for the combination of technological proficiency and inhumanity characteristic of a later time.”

And while the erection of commemorative statues unfortunately coincided with the emergence of the “Jim Crow” South, there are more understandable motivations that, I would argue, took precedence. These were martial creations, after all, intended to commemorate battlefield feats. Historians have long observed that veterans typically (and understandably) avoid public remembrance and consecration of battlefield combat until decades after the event. The erection of these statues coincides with the dedication of most of the larger American battlefield parks and cemeteries. So, they were aimed less at betrayed freedmen then at kindling popular remembrance of the slain, along with the suffering wounded Confederate veterans had endured.

Was it so unnatural, then, for a society composed largely of traumatized ex-Confederates (which the southern population incontestably was after the Civil War) to commemorate those virtues which had not been completely obliterated by the misbegotten cause for which they fought: heroism, sacrifice, comradery, triumph (however ephemeral), as well as tragedy? These are universal impulses, which have been lauded by many other peoples, in many other places, in many other times. The sin of slavery is ineradicable in the public mind. So too must be our memorial ties to the past. That is how a civilization disavows its mistakes, reaffirms its achievements, and matures over time. It is that strand of cultural continuity connecting the past to the present and, ultimately, to posterity which, as Edmund Burke pointed out in responding to the horror of the French Revolution, allows a civilization to endure.

Saddest of all, perhaps, is the failure of so many people to reflect on the fact that many of these monuments were erected simply to honor the dead. Lots of dead. Among Confederate soldiers, only 6 percent owned any slaves. Most were dirt-poor farmers answering the call, however wrongheadedly we may construe it now, to defend their homes from outsiders.

As for all those boys in blue, without whom the institution of slavery would have lived on? Strange isn’t it, how few in the hysterical mob seem to recall them at all. A pity, that.


Leave a Reply