Slavery is the blight of American history. It is irredeemable, and no mitigating factor can dilute its scourge. In any discussion of the antebellum South or the Civil War, slavery must play a central role, because it was a central cause of the war. A review of the several Southern states that issued “Declarations of Causes” to accompany their acts of secession makes this clear.[i] The declarations focus much on economics, but the economics are thoroughly and explicitly undergirded by slavery. The declarations of Mississippi and Texas are the most forthright in their admission that secession intended to preserve and perpetuate slavery. The Mississippi declaration crescendos, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.” The Texas declaration says, “[In 1845, Texas] was received as a commonwealth [by the United States] holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery—the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits—a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.” Whatever other contributing factors to which one may point with regard to the Civil War, the war was certainly about slavery, and as the first nation in the history of the world founded on the premise that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” we continue to struggle with its blight.
The Contemporary Struggle
Today, that struggle manifests itself in conversations about the removal of Confederate-related statues across the South. Some of these statues are of Southern generals such as Robert E. Lee. Others are memorials to Confederate soldiers who died in the war. In virtually every instance, the argument over whether statues should go or stay is fraught with urgency and emotion. In my own city of Houston in recent weeks, the furor has overflowed to envelop statues of such figures as Christopher Columbus, who died a century and a half prior to the Civil War, and Sam Houston, who vehemently opposed secession, spoke in favor of the gradual elimination of slavery, and was the nineteenth century’s greatest advocate of Native American rights. Regardless of one’s point of view regarding Civil War monuments, making weighty decisions in the heat of emotion almost always leads to unintended consequences. I write this essay in the hopes of offering a tempered perspective.
Why did they fight?
My son is named for my great, great, great grandfather, Ira Griffin Killough. Killough moved to LaGrange in Fayette County, Texas, in 1851 from Bolivar, Tennessee. He married a Texan woman. He became a landowner and a farmer. He established a hard but prosperous life.
Captain Ira Griffin Killough, Co. I, 5th Texas Mounted Volunteers
Before the war, Ira Griffin Killough owned no slaves. During the war, he served in the Confederate Army and took up arms against the United States. After the war, he served in the Texas legislature, and in 1876, he traveled north of the Mason-Dixon Line to attend the Philadelphia World’s Fair, where Alexander Graham Bell introduced the telephone. His life begs the question: Why did he fight?
In 1860, seventy percent of Southern Americans did not own slaves.[ii] Why did any of them fight?
Part of that answer is that, despite not owning slaves, Southern soldiers fought to perpetuate the Southern way of life, which was borne on the backs of slaves. Even for non-slave owners, slave society was, in the words of author Gordon Rhea, Southerners’ “foundation experience”:
“More than 4 million enslaved human beings lived in the south, and they touched every aspect of the region’s social, political, and economic life. Slaves did not just work on plantations. In cities such as Charleston, they cleaned the streets, toiled as bricklayers, carpenters, blacksmiths, bakers, and laborers. They worked as dockhands and stevedores, grew and sold produce, purchased goods and carted them back to their masters’ homes where they cooked the meals, cleaned, raised the children, and tended to the daily chores. ‘Charleston looks more like a Negro country than a country settled by white people,’ a visitor remarked.”[iii]
It is also worth noting, however, that in the first half of the nineteenth century, a time exceedingly different from our own, citizens identified much more closely with their various states than with the nation. Life was locality, and “the United States” was, for many, much more abstract than Texas, Fayette County, or LaGrange. Indeed, to an extent it was Abraham Lincoln’s soaring wartime rhetoric that birthed the conception of the nation that we hold dear today. To read such a conception backward into the antebellum worldview—especially in the South—is an anachronism. Only if we remember and grasp this can we understand a primary motivation for war of the majority of the Southern rank and file and, indeed, very many Southern officers: They fought to defend their homes—their states, their counties, their hometowns—from invading armies. Acknowledging this historic fact does not excuse slavery. Memorials to those who died, in the communities from which they hailed and for which, in part, they gave their lives, is common among both victors and vanquished in war[iv]. This ought, perhaps, to affect our consideration of some Southern Civil War memorials.
Memorials to the Common Soldier
And yet, there is an additional critical, complicating factor: The vast majority of Confederate monuments trace to the era of Jim Crow, after the end of Reconstruction and the passing of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 until the 1920s.[v] Jim Crow laws were Southern state and local governments’ de jure method of enforcing an underclass existence upon black Americans. Hand-in-hand with Jim Crow, communities across the South erected monuments to the “Lost Cause” as an emotional and psychological reminder to both white and black Americans who was superior and who was inferior. Some of these monuments were statues of Southern military leaders on horseback, while others were of the common soldiers.
The plaques on such monuments often include a simple dedicatory phrase, along with the date of installation, but when one digs into the origin of particular monuments, the intention behind their erection is revealed. The statue known as “Silent Sam” on the University of North Carolina campus is a good example. Silent Sam is a statue of a common soldier, installed on June 2, 1913, and the dedication speech was delivered by North Carolina industrialist and former Confederate soldier Julian Carr.[vi] Carr’s speech is long and florid,[vii] and he does, indeed, honor the memory of the common soldier. Yet, as he warms to his subject, Carr refers to the Daughters of the Confederacy, who paid for Silent Sam, and says, “God bless the noble women of my dear Southland, who are today as thoroughly convinced of the justice of [the Southern] cause.” He then defines that cause:
“The present generation, I am persuaded, scarcely takes note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war, when the facts are, that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South – When ‘the bottom rail was on top’ all over the Southern states, and today, as a consequence the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States – Praise God.”
Carr immediately follows his homage to the Anglo Saxon race with a personal story that reinforces for both the white and black communities the penalty for a black person forgetting her place, a place of which the memorial itself serves as a visual reminder:
“I trust I may be pardoned for one allusion, howbeit it is rather personal. One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison…”
So which one prevails in our consideration: The memorial to the common soldier, or the original intent of that memorial as a tool of societal oppression?
Memorials to Generals
Beyond monuments dedicated to common soldiers, we must also consider statues to Civil War leaders. There are more Southern statues to Robert E. Lee than any other Civil War figure. Who was Lee? He was a reluctant rebel who, like the soldiers who served under him, most closely identified with the state from which he hailed. Lee wrote to his sister on the eve of the war, “With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.”[viii]
After the war, Lee strove to reestablish the bonds of union. Lee wrote to Virginia Governor John Letcher, “The duty of its citizens, then, appears to me too plain to admit of doubt. All should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of the war and to restore the blessing of peace. They should remain, if possible, in the country; promote harmony and good feeling, qualify themselves to vote and elect to the State and general legislatures wise and patriotic men, who will devote their abilities to the interests of the country and the healing of all dissensions. I have invariably recommended this course since the cessation of hostilities, and have endeavored to practice it myself.”[ix]
General Robert E. Lee
In addition to his words, Lee dedicated the remaining years of his life in contribution to the commonweal, most notably serving as president of Washington College. He became a lay leader in his church and even paid the minister’s salary when collections proved insufficient.[x]
Robert E. Lee, like other Southern planters, owned slaves. He took up arms against the United States. He also fought to defend his home state. And at war’s end, he became a laudable, and even extraordinary, citizen. Again we must ask, which aspects of Lee’s history prevail in our consideration?[xi]
A Way Forward
I offer this: The National Park Service preserves and operates more than seventy parks related to the Civil War, many of these on the sites of Civil War battles. My family visited many such parks during my childhood, from Shiloh to Gettysburg. The Civil War parks are equal parts solemn and educational. At both the pristine Union cemeteries and the cannonball-marked Confederate mass graves, there is an air of introspection and prayer. A century and a half after the war, in these places the sense of grievous loss to our nation, and of the tragedy of brother killing brother, is palpable. These parks are our great national memorials to Civil War dead, both Northern and Southern. They should continue to be such, and they should be treated as hallowed ground. As education laboratories, they are also the most appropriate places for Civil War generals to have prominence, with the focus on military strategy and tactics.
Shiloh National Military Park
With regard to Civil War monuments in other public spaces, the time period in which they were erected, and the intention for their construction—often explicit and recorded—should be complicating factors. It is unreasonable, and perhaps unthinkable, to ask black Americans to acquiesce to the continued presence of monuments on public ground (i.e.—spaces that belong equally to black Americans) that honor the very people who fought for the overarching cause of keeping black Americans’ ancestors in bondage, and were erected a half-century later with the intention of declaring to black Americans that they are an underclass.
In the case of Civil War monuments that do not face these complicating factors, Confederate monuments should at very least be supplemented, side-by-side, with monuments to those who lived and died under the scourge of slavery, those who championed the freedom and rights of black Americans, and those who risked their lives helping slaves escape to freedom. If there is, indeed, a pantheon of Southern heroes, surely these deserve the places of greatest honor.
Harriet Tubman. “If there is, indeed, a pantheon of Southern heroes, surely these deserve the places of greatest honor.”
If, in the end, we are to look retrospectively to Robert E. Lee, perhaps we should evaluate Southern monuments taking our cues from the General himself. When asked his opinion about the creation of memorials to the war, Lee said in 1869, “I think it wiser…not to keep open the sores of war but to…obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”[xii]
It may be that only then can the specter of our national blight be exorcised.
[iv] This past June, I traveled to Germany. In the city of Worms, in a public park, I was surprised to find an enormous World War I statue memorializing local German soldiers who died in that horrific conflict. On one level, the First World War was history’s greatest folly to chauvinistic pride and military aggression, and in it the German Army utilized weapons so egregious that they were subsequently universally banned. I had not expected to see any German war monument from either world war. On another level, World War I included millions of young German men who fought and died to defend hearth and home. They served bravely for a local cause—the defense of their home communities such as Worms—which was itself subservient to a sinful cause, the aggression of the German Empire. I considered the memorial with detachment, since the First World War is a century past and I have no familial or cultural relationship to anyone who died in it, and I walked away from the monument concluding that yes, a monument to the local fallen is an appropriate expression of the community’s loss and that no, it does not excuse the sin of German militarism.
[vii] The Rev. Greg Jones pointed me to the Silent Sam monument. Greg also gave me the description of Carr’s speech as “florid.”
[xi] Occasionally, the question arises with regard to the appropriateness of monuments, school names, street names, etc. to other American historic figures, such as the Founding Fathers. Considering the sum total of a figure’s life seems to me a good means for evaluating these cases, too. In my opinion, outside of Civil War figures, the contributions to our nation and world by most other figures in our national pantheon almost always outweighs those figures’ vices, especially when their vices are pervasive of their historic context (such as racial attitudes). Judging past historic characters solely by our contemporary moral standards is fraught with pitfalls.