by Brian Matthew Jordan
With remarkable speed, Confederate monuments are vanishing from public spaces around the country. In New Orleans, an empty pedestal now caps the sixty-foot column that once supported a defiant Robert Edward Lee. A jackhammer took up the monument that the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected at the dawn of the twentieth century in Gainesville, Florida. In the space of just three and a half hours, in what the New York Times called an “overnight operation,” workers in Baltimore removed that city’s double equestrian of Lee and his trusted lieutenant, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. A mere a decade ago, few anticipated that Lee and Jackson would soon make one last ride—to an “undisclosed location”—on a flatbed truck.
Because the Lost Cause—the mythology that holds, in part, that Southerners did not wage a treasonous rebellion on behalf of slavery—dominated the public memory of the Civil War for well more than a century, this week’s events feel somewhat surreal. Ugly tremors of white supremacist terrorism, from an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston to the streets of Charlottesville, finally persuaded local officials around the nation that the removal of rebel monuments was not just appropriate, but necessary for the safety and wellbeing of their citizens. In rallying to the defense of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville with their lamentably familiar brand of bigotry and hate, neo-Confederates once again clarified what was at stake in the Civil War—and made painfully evident that the conflict’s charge of racial equality remains our nation’s “unfinished work.”
In the coming weeks, as communities across the country decide the fate of Confederate monuments, schools and streets named for southern commanders, and other residues of the rebellion, we would do well to recall that demands for the removal of rebel statues are nothing new. These arguments are hardly a break with history. Indeed, the men who fought to preserve the Union—and, along with it, the idea of democracy itself—registered their strident opposition to both postwar displays of the rebel battle flag and Confederate statuary.
“The flag of Rebellion is dead and its resurrection, which can serve no good purpose, is neither brave nor tolerable,” thundered Charles Addison Boutelle, the Maine congressman and veteran of the Battle of Mobile Bay, in a Memorial Day address at Arlington National Cemetery in 1890. “Any man might as reasonably claim the right to call the roll of his slaves in the streets of Richmond, as to claim the right to drag from its grave the flag that symbolized slavery; the flag that represented Andersonville; the flag that soaked the life-blood of three hundred thousand loyal men,” he told an audience teeming with Grand Army men. “Nowhere upon the soil of the great Nation that has been sanctified by the blood of its preservers,” he added, “can any pedestal be built broad enough of base to carry side by side statues erected in honor of loyalty and of treason.”
Six years later, after a rebel monument went up in New York City, Ivan Walker, the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic—the nation’s largest fraternal order for men who wore Union blue—refused a request to parade to the dedication ceremony alongside his former enemies. “The sooner the principles of the lost cause and the belief that the South was right cease to be cherished and repeated,” he insisted, “the better it will be for the whole country.”
While they believed in evidencing old Confederate battle lines (if only to demonstrate the stubborn odds they faced in countless engagements), many Union veterans stridently opposed the placement of monuments celebrating former rebels on “hallowed ground.” When the 2nd Maryland Infantry, a Confederate outfit, planted a regimental monument at Gettysburg, GAR posts tartly expressed their disapproval. “I can assure you,” wrote Pennsylvania Governor James Beaver, scarred by the wounds he received at Chancellorsville and Petersburg, “that no member of the [Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association] will consent to any individual rebel organization erecting monuments that bear inscriptions likely to follow treason and disloyalty within the grounds.” “I am and always will be,” he underscored, “opposed to any rebel organization erecting its own monuments.”
The construction of Confederate monuments, together with many white northerners’ abandonment of Reconstruction, left at least some Union veterans wondering if they had fought in vain. In 1886, John McElroy, an Andersonville survivor from Ohio, published a novel that meditated on the meaning of the Civil War. In a chapter-ending monologue, Daniel Bush, a Hoosier colonel, lamented both the fetishization of former rebels and the counterrevolution that white southerners waged after the war. “The idea that I gave my right arm away for a government that allows its citizens to be bulldozed and murdered merely for desiring to participate in the affairs of the republic. No, sir,” he began, tears welling in his eyes. “I fight no more until I know what I am fighting for, and also that we will sustain the principles for which we contended.”
At the same time, the arc of Reconstruction hardly surprised Bush. “Are we not apologizing every day for what we did?” he asked. “Do we not avoid speaking of the war in the North? ….Do we not find our flag despised nearly everywhere in the South? Do they not march under their state flags, instead of under the stars and stripes? Are not all their monuments to rebel leaders and generals?” Bush accurately anticipated that sterilizing the war, embracing an empty reconciliation, and deifying the men who led a bloody, treasonous rebellion against their nation would have only woeful consequences. It has taken over a century—a century rent by racism, lynching, and segregation, both de jure and de facto—but perhaps now we are finally ready to reckon with the war’s realities, discard its deluding myths, and heed the prescient advice of the men who battled to preserve our republic forever.
Sources: New York Times, August 16, 2017; Bangor Daily Whig and Courier, June 4, 1890; Bangor Daily Whig and Courier, March 3, 1896; Milwaukee Sentinel, March 22, 1886; Milwaukee Daily Journal, October 25, 1889.