A Monumental Discussion: An Introduction

Introduction to a Series

I was accosted at the office this week by one of my wife’s employees. “Hank,” as I’ll call him, is a sixty-something good ol’ boy with a mane of white hair and a shock of moustache that, in older times, might have earned him the honorific title “Colonel.” I could see he had his dander up.

“What do you think about everything going on down there in Charlottesville?” he asked. The besieged city was just an hour and ten minutes away, so events felt close to home.

I could tell Hank already knew the answer he wanted to hear, but I instead said, “Well, there’s no easy answer—” 

“Leave them alone!” he bellowed, cutting me off. “That’s the easy answer. There’d never have been any protests down there in the first place if the city council hadn’t decided to take those monuments down. Just leave them alone! Everything would be fine!”

To Hank, there was no “other side” to the story, plain and simple. The reasons why the council wanted to move the monuments in the first place didn’t matter. Local control of the city’s own monuments didn’t matter. The symbolic meanings of the statue didn’t matter—other than the meaning Hank, as a native son of Virginia, understood and embraced.

This has, unfortunately, been the tenor of much of the discussion we’ve seen about Confederate monuments over the past week: lots of exclamation points, lots of CAPITAL LETTERS, lots of shouting, lots of 140-character zings on Twitter and Facebook (and a lot of corresponding “unfriending”). Misinformation and disinformation muddy the waters, and lack of context and historical literacy cloud the air.

As an alternative, I want to call your attention to the most recent issue of Civil War Times. The cover story, which now seems prescient in its urgency, addresses the topic of Confederate monumentation brilliantly. Fifteen historians offer their thoughts on the topic, which combine to create a really thought-provoking conversation. It’s a worthwhile read, and I highly encourage you to check it out.

Over the past few months—and especially over the last few days—we’ve received a dozens of emails here at Emerging Civil War about that same topic. “Why have not folks like you stepped forward in a positive and articulate manner to address these issues of Civil War historical memorials, that have been part and parcel of such history almost since the end of the War?” one reader asked last month as a typical example.

But that same writer illustrated the exact reason why we’ve not really touched on the topic. His email used the term “professional leftist wackos” to refer to people who advocate monument removal and/or relocation.

In other words, the name-calling started before a conversation could even begin.

That’s no context for any kind of meaningful conversation.

The vitriol comes from both extremes, too. The “Left” and “Right” toss bombs back and forth at each other with equal vigor. I, personally, have been called everything from a “libtard” to a “right-wing nutjob sympathizer.” I’m one of the few people on this blog who has written about the relationship between Confederate heritage and race (see herehere, here, and here, for example), and I think I tend to walk a pretty middle path, and yet both sides have accused me of being in the other camp.

It’s little wonder that most historians I know don’t want to walk any path in that conversation. It can be a road to nowhere. “It’s lose-lose,” one colleague said. No one wants the headaches.

But as the national discussion has erupted first into violence and then into tragedy, many of us have felt a professional obligation to speak up even if the conversation proves to be difficult. The extremes have been controlling the discourse, shouting in shrill, angry voices that shut-down dialogue because they don’t like to listen to points of view they disagree with—which is too bad, because there are meaningful, productive conversations to be had about history and heritage and our long, complicated relationship with race, and there’s a large percentage of the population in the middle of the two extremes interested in having those conversations.

I applaud Civil War Times for tackling the conversation head on, with particular kudos to editor Dana Shoaf for his leadership. We’ll be hearing more from Dana on this very topic here at ECW in the following days.

I also want to call attention to the work of historian Sean Michael Chick, situated in the heart of New Orleans, one of the hottest beds of monument controversy lately. Sean has been using these months of controversy to move the conversation forward in a constructive way. Take a look at his work at New Orleans Defender.

But I think a forum like Emerging Civil War is particularly suited to these sorts of complex, wide-ranging discussions because we have space and we have immediacy. Most importantly, we have some fantastic historians who have a wide variety of opinions. “Remember,” one of my colleagues reminded me, “not all of us support their removal and not all of us think they should have been allowed to be put up in the first place.”

There is a lot to be learned from a discussion that reflects such wide-ranging opinions.

Over the next few days, several of my colleagues and I will offer our thoughts on current events. I have asked them to frame their thoughts around the following question:

As the conversation about Confederate monuments continues, what bit of insight would you like to share that might better illuminate the discussion?

The thoughts we’ll offer are expressly our own as individual historians and do not represent the views of anybody’s employers, nor do they represent ECW’s, which is serving as a forum for this discussion in the spirit of its educational mission. The nature of ECW’s collaborative environment prohibits an official stand precisely because of our diverse individual opinions.

As you read the varying perspectives, please be respectful with any responses you might offer, especially if you disagree. We are trying to promote civil dialogue, which has been hard to come by during much of this week. Please do not add to the problem.

Follow us here at Emerging Civil War throughout the day and throughout the weekend for more from some of my colleagues as we try to offer our on this this monumental discussion.

16 Responses to A Monumental Discussion: An Introduction

  1. Good post. Since I’m known in my area for CW history interests I get tapped all the time with similar questions, usually by folks not interested in my opinion unless it confirms their beliefs. And that’s what’s being lost in this country – a bigger interest in having what one believes confirmed rather than a rational discussion with someone who might disagree with you. In fact even if you show a willingness to listen to a disagreement you’re believed to be in the wrong, to even consider compromise is anathema. People seem to forget our government was designed in such a way by the Founding Fathers precisely to force discussion and compromise. So my advice to those people who seek you – and me – out hoping to either get their beliefs confirmed or simply to pick a fight should read their country’s history. I served 30 years defending those principles (in two wars) and had friends get killed doing the same, so I have little patience for those who simply want to argue rather than to think.

  2. Firstly, I’ve always thought that if you making folks angry on both extremes you are probably close to being right.

    Secondly, I’m grateful for your thoughtful opinion, and look forward to the discussion here. I’m glad there is actually some national discussion around the ACW, but much of it is ill-informed and uncharitable.

  3. This is an overly simplified, and hence shortened, observation that I offer here. There’s that adage that states “To the victor goes the spoils”. The North, or Union, certainly had elements within it that wanted to treat the South harshly after the war. Lincoln didn’t want that. What the Union ultimately did was the same thing the USA did with the Japanese in WWII. The Japanese were allowed to keep their Emperor. That was THE most important thing to the Japanese, and it was something they were all united behind. By giving them the Emperor, any real opposition to occupying Japan was defused, and that country was allowed to rebuild. The North let the South keep their heroes. Certainly the South was punished after Lincoln was killed. But they did let them keep their heroes legacies, real and imagined. As Deconstruction passed, the governments of the South became emboldened under the banner of ‘states rights’ to start openly and publicly celebrating those heroes. In the process, IMHO, there was certainly a fair amount of “Up yours” directed at the North. And many of these statues and monuments are part of that. I do not believe that any of them were erected for the sole purpose of ‘targeting blacks’ or celebrating the vestiges of slavery, Jim Crow, etc. I truly believe that if they represent any other purpose besides merely celebrating the individuals involved, it is a bit of continued rebellion against the North! I’m personally OK with all that!

    A follow up here. With all that has transpired in the South since the CW, and given that these statues and monuments have been allowed to be erected and to stand, in an odd way the Confederacy has been ‘officially’ recognized as a sovereign nation. After all, the South has been permitted to keep their own history about that. Weird how things sometimes work out!

  4. Good and respectful conversation. Let’s keep it going. Unfortunately for those of those who view many of these statues simply as memorials to war dead, nothing more and nothing less, the statues have become proxies in our increasingly polarized political society. Let’s face it. Very few in the racial hate groups in Charlottesville (or in the shrill voices on the left) have read a Civil War book (especially a biography of Lee or Jackson) or even care to do so. I leave here in Baltimore just a few miles from where the Lee-Jackson, Confederate Women, and Confederate Soldiers/Sailors statues were removed 2 days ago. As sad as I am to see them removed, I am happy that the shrill voices on both sides cannot longer use/blame the existence of these statues to further their points of view. Now, the hard work starts….

    1. You touch on an interesting point John. For those who make this all about race and ‘justice’, and who believe the removal of statues will somehow improve their lot in life, they are no doubt in for a rude awakening when they find that high murder rates in their neighborhoods will not be changed, that unemployment rates will not be affected, and income disparities will not be reduced. I personally believe that a lot of these folks are being ‘played’. Sad but true.

  5. I picked a doozey of a week to be away from my computer and the ECW blog! Just beginning this series. Well stated introduction, Chris. I am grateful that you and your editors are taking on the complex and thorny issues related to Confederate monuments. I look forward to reading through the articles in chronological order, and their responses, and maybe responding to some myself. Once again I give thanks to ECW for hosting forum opportunities like this.

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