Over the past two weeks, I have had many conversations with visitors and co-workers about whether Confederate monuments should be removed from public spaces. I must say that I have mixed emotions on this subject, first of all because the Civil War monuments of both Union and Confederate soldiers triggered my interest in the Civil War. The first two were at the Fredericksburg: the Fifth Corps and General Andrew A. Humphreys monuments in the National Cemetery. I was also awed when I saw hundreds of Union and Confederate monuments on my first trip to Gettysburg. So I love seeing Civil War monuments wherever they are.
I believe that all Civil War monuments and statues give people an attraction and invitation to learn about the war that changed this country, then put it on a path to being the country it is today. I often tell visitors that because of the Civil War, we now say the United States “is” and not the United States “are.” The war changed the country from a coalition of states to a single country made up of different states. Too many Americans no longer know the history of the Civil War; the monuments make us remember it.
I honestly think that Confederate monuments belong in various Civil War battlefields and museums. There, interpreters can put them into their proper context in our history. Historians can use them to tell the stories of the soldiers, regiments, and the armies. We can use them to tell of the sacrifices, misfortunes, heroism, and honors of the people who fought the war. We cannot change the history of our country, but it can be put into a narrative that Americans can understand. Most historians can be objective and narrate the facts, using the actual letters and documents of the war.
I have had people ask me if we were going to remove the Confederate monuments from the National Park Service Civil War battlefields. I try to assure them that we are committed to preserving all memorials and simultaneously educating visitors about the actions, motivations, and causes of the soldiers and states they represent. The Civil War battlefields are where these monuments belong, and they are in their proper context on the fields where the armies fought. In fact, many of the monuments and statues on these battlefields were put there by the veterans who actually fought in the war. That is a most important fact to remember.
I can say that I still enjoy riding down Monument Avenue in Richmond and seeing the majestic statues there. Of course, I know a lot about the history. I do realize that there may be many people who are intimidated by them.
I do question why Confederate statues and monuments would be in front of court houses and other government buildings, especially in the Northern states. I remember going to jury duty in Virginia and seeing a huge portrait of General Robert E. Lee and smaller portraits of other Confederate generals in the courtroom. I did not think that was appropriate.
I would love to see all of the Confederate statues that are removed being sent to Civil War museums and battlefields. While some historians do not like battlefields with many monuments, I have talked with many visitors who want to see those monuments. I have talked with many descendants of the soldiers asking about why there are no markers or memorials to the units on the grounds where they fought. Distributing monuments to the many Civil War battlefields, especially ones that are state and county owned, would draw more visitors to those battlefields. This will also give historians more educational opportunities with those visitors.
The ones that remain in public spaces should have historical documentation explaining the history of the Civil War in close proximity to the memorial.
I feel that the problems of looking at these monuments today is because some people still espouse the feelings that caused the war. This was evidenced by the rally in Charlottesville. That cause was defeated in the Civil War. Many Americans feel the Confederates were traitors to the United States and should not be honored. There are many Americans descended from these men and women. Many have ancestors from both sides. Our country is unique because we give the right of free speech to all Americans, so each group can communicate their feelings. I often have compassion for people when they mention their ancestors, replying that we are not responsible for what our ancestors have done. We live in a much different world than they did.
I am an African American, but I am also a man who loves Civil War history. I can admire the men and women of both sides for what they went through for their beliefs, deeds, and writings. But I can also look at their faults because they were all human beings. If it is about heritage, then we can celebrate our heritage by memorializing our ancestors on the fields were they fought. Because of what they did, we have a much better country today. Because of what they did, we can have a dialogue and debate what we do going forward with the monuments—we do not have to physically assault anyone about them. We must sit down and talk and make rational decisions about our Civil War monuments.