Last Wednesday, I reported on a provision in the Department of the Interior’s 2021 spending bill that would, if approved by Congress and signed into law by the president, remove Confederate statues from national parks.
“It’s a top priority of us here in the House,” Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) told The Hill in an interview last Thursday, “House Democrats particularly, to make sure that the federal government is not involved … to promote people feeling uncomfortable [and] people feeling intimidated.”
Rep. McCollum misses the point, though. People should feel a little uncomfortable when they visit a battlefield.
After all, thousands of men died on those battlefields, and thousands upon thousands more were wounded there. Often, we forget what the scale of that kind of carnage really means. Those landscapes are so beautiful today, but they once literally ran red with blood. Lives were irrevocably changed, with ripples extending far, far beyond the battlefields themselves.
We can have a hard time seeing that. Battlefields are often used as green spaces for recreation or exploited as tourism opportunities—uses the Civil War veterans themselves promoted. The veterans set aside those first battlefields as places of remembrance, and then proceeded to use them for recreation, education, and commemoration. They also used them as spaces for reconciliation between north and south.
As David Blight so crucially pointed out in his seminal Race and Reunion, the postwar’s reconciliation narrative subsumed the narrative about emancipation. The urgency of remembering the very cause of the war, and the unfinished business started by emancipation, was all drowned out by the era of good feelings that blossomed between the former foes from north and south. Battlefields often commemorated the fight and the fighters without ever talking about the reason they were fighting in the first place.
Scholars and public historians alike have done much over the past two decades to try and correct this oversight, with mixed success. Critics have decried it as mere “political correctness,” but that’s really just the angry cry of the old narratives refusing to make room for newer ones. New stories and new information helps us to better contextualize what we already know (or think we know) and allows us to better see and understand a fuller picture. Thus, we better understand history through a process of addition, not subtraction.
By that same principle, it would be misguided to take down Confederate monuments from battlefields. Even if reconciliation did overshadow emancipation, reconciliation was nonetheless a real phenomenon, a real and important experience in the lives of the veterans and of the nation. The statues, monuments, and memorials that speak to that experience provided context for the history there were designed to commemorate; in turn, they themselves were contextualized by the national parks that preserved the battlefields. Over time, the statues, monuments, and memorials have developed histories of their own as artifacts of memory, however flawed that memory may or may not be.
Rather than remove monuments, add more of them to help tell a fuller story. Challenge the primacy of the old narratives. Draw attention to the plight of the enslaved. Laud the contributions of black men who served their country and played a part in the downfall of slavery. Highlight the role of women and other civilians, working behind the lines or caught up in the maelstrom. As historian Carol Reardon told me last spring, “When nations go to war, that means everybody: women, children, men. That means it’s part of all of our stories.”
Tell more of those stories—and tell them with an aim toward telling a fuller overall story.
Perhaps some of those new stories will make visitors feel uncomfortable. Good. War isn’t supposed to be comfortable. The real question is, if the battlefield makes you feel uncomfortable, what are you going to do about it?
Let’s not scrub our history or allow ourselves to be intimidated by it. Let’s engage it and grapple with it and learn from it. Let’s learn from the lessons of those—blue and gray, white and black—who came before us.
And let’s face it: as troubled as our times are right now, the spirit of reconciliation the veterans embraced serves as an example we could all benefit from.