A Monumental Discussion: Brian Matthew Jordan

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.

13 Responses to A Monumental Discussion: Brian Matthew Jordan

  1. I guess I’ll be deleting this site. Anything published by the NY TIMES is flawed and not researched well. Alluding to why all the monuments being destroyed is a political move.  And the Southern soldiers are traitors??? Read the Constitution there is a clause saying that connection to the Union if felt that union was tyrannical, yes a resolution can resolve said union. Our country was in it’s infancy.  There would be growing pains, but being strong armed, destroyed and left with nothing so the powerful northern states could control commerce.  Did they really free anyone? If so then why are we still 150 years later having the same discussion? Why were the African Americans fighting for the Stars and Stripes in segregated units and barracks during WWI and WWII?  The conversation has been shifted…in the 1960s a Southern Democrat president  turned the conversation to “look what Uncle Sam can do for You. So how far have we come? If the Southern Stateswere traitors them let’s see what California will be labeled.

    Sent from my Sprint Samsung Galaxy S8.

    1. Thank you, teachandwritemp, for your voice of reason. It appears, regretfully, that I, too, will be deleting this site. I have enjoyed learning about the various battles; and, I have learned a lot about our country — including the lessons of the War (that there were rights and wrongs on both sides); and, there were heroes (and “non-heroes”) on both sides. There was much loss on both sides, by numerous races, men and women, children and infirm. And, it was Americans on both sides. Both sides needed to memorialize their losses—and those rights were respected by the survivors (even if not in agreement). It is remarkable that actual veterans and victims of the War were able to “reach across the aisle” and heal our nation—after such massive maiming and loss of lives. It’s unfortunate that it appears their descendants (us!) are literally undoing all the grace and forgiveness they had the character to put forward for the good of us (the descendants of all). (You will notice that I refer to us—not the Union. The Union is not a living, breathing being. It is our agreement on how we will work and live together as a people. It is the people—all of them—that is important.) All of this contention is shameful! We have inherited this country as a result of much sacrifice and bloodshed. Not “just” in the ‘Civil” War; but, before and after, all over the world. Why are we tearing it down because some of us are offended by a memorial to someone we disagree with, or who is not our particular hero? What about the people who are offended by statues of Sherman, or Sheridan, or Custer, etc.? Should those people go tear down those memorials?! Of course not! Where do we expect this to end?! (Answer: It won’t. It will just keep ramping up!) Let’s try to be as mature, and of as good character, as those who actually lived through it. Let’s stop this madness!

  2. The nazis, stalanist, fascist also erased history…..just what is happening here. When the police are told to stand down and let violence take over from the left or right, this country is finished.

  3. Cherry picked viewpoints of Union veterans to support an opinion. Should’ve been more balanced in your interpretation as many Union veterans worked with Confederate veterans to place monuments (please see Manassass in 1911 and the Alexandria monument)

  4. Glad to see this. If the words of the men who fought the war for Union are not reason enough, I’m not sure what else but removal of the memorials will do. I can accept the reconciliation that common soldiers on both sides sought with the tributes offered on various battlefields, though those are located in the main on southern fields, Shiloh, Manassas etc. Again it must be remembered that many of these public tributes were erected to deconstruct Reconstruction. Everyone wondered where CW study and interest would turn following the 150th of the conflict and Reconstruction seemed to be the answer. Well evidently we have it.

  5. Lee, Jackson, etc. were fine generals. But the two main causes for which they fought were despicable – the destruction of the United States of America and the continuation and expansion of slavery. Why on earth should we honor these guys with statues in public parks. Confine these monuments to battlefields, museums and Confederate cemeteries.

    1. I found the detailed statement by Jackson’s two direct descendants to be a good, thoughtful analysis. They drew a distinction between honoring family and honoring a cause.

  6. Hopefully some of the monuments will survive. They are artifacts of the Lost Cause; the monuments are history themselves. Hundreds of years from now Americans will hopefully be able to view some of them in their original context and learn from them.

    I also think monuments to Jefferson are in trouble. Like Davis and Lee, Jefferson chose slavery. Without Jefferson and other white southerners choosing slavery there wouldn’t have been anything to fight over. After all, the civil war was fought over slavery.

    1. Some might point out that Jefferson never took up arms against the United States in an effort to save the “institution”. You fail to distinguish between monuments which honor fallible individuals and monuments which also honor a cause. To the extent the Jefferson Memorial or Monticello honor a cause, it’s the Declaration of Independence.

      1. Jefferson didn’t have to take up arms, because the Revolution guaranteed him the right to decide what to do with his slaves. Like R.E. Lee, Jefferson decided in favor of slavery.

        I can’t disagree with you that we honor Jefferson for writing the DoI or other reasons.

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