Understanding History Through Addition, Not Subtraction, on Civil War Battlefields

Confederate Memorial 02Last 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.

Gettysburg Eternal Light Peace Memorial

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18 Responses to Understanding History Through Addition, Not Subtraction, on Civil War Battlefields

  1. Donald Smith says:

    Excellent post.

    I understand that ECW wants to keep politics out of this matter. But, after what Rep. McCollum said, how can we? ““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.”

  2. Gilbert Sullivan says:

    More would be fine but taking down confederate statues and markers would make me no longer support battlefield preservation with my money to appease the woke leftists. I had confederate ancestors that fought on those battlefields

  3. billhenck says:

    The last sentence in your post says it all. I hope we can all learn from that spirit of reconciliation.

  4. Sir says:

    Blah blah, blah…….the Maoists are in charge, or soon will be. Eunuchs thought they would stop at generic Confederate memorials at county courthouses, or the really “bad” confederates. Let it burn, let it all burn! They tear down (literal) saints and founding fathers. We pee ourselves and ask for mercy. You do not honor your ancestors. You play their game and you will lose. It is all coming down; governors and mayors are unwilling to protect our heritage. “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” BLM. Oh, please just some, but not all monuments……the moron says to the anarchists and the iconoclasts. We’ve seen this before….even Robespierre ends up getting devoured by the revolution, but that is after how many innocent deaths?

  5. The very nature of the request belies its troubling motivation; pandering to an artificial and exaggerated perception of feelings, Are we in the business of monitoring whether people feel uncomfortable or intimidated? Who determines the nature, reality, extent or even the very existence of these emotions? Chris, your recommendations are valid within the context they are framed but fail to address the very artificial and unquantifiable nature of the motivation of Rep. Betty McCollum’s (D-MN) request. We will chasing phantom emotions forever. Should we now seek to console the families of Confederate soldiers obliterated by Union Artillery in front the Copse of Trees or those family members of Confederate soldiers who died in the questionable conditions of the Union POW camp in Elmira, NY

    No, we should not nor should we pander to the questionable demands of others under the unquantifiable condition of “feelings.” The reconciliation was essential for a terribly wounded Nation’s survival and those past, citizen warriors recognized it and we should honor their decision as the blood, smoke and death was still fresh in their real, combat, emotions and they knew as did Lee that reconciliation was absolutely essential for survival and it worked. If the Reconstruction process was not fully successful then address the previous failure of the Federal Government with substantial mea culpas on its part. But do not under any circumstances choose the easy solution of pandering to ephemeral emotions, chasing unquantifiable feelings and removing key elements of the battle fields’ essence; the memory of the good soldiers North and South who fought and perished there. They deserve better.

    And we must also consider the spurious motivation too demean this very Nation as a whole by those whose agenda is much more devious that the simple removal old statues and monuments.
    Their’s is a destructive agenda aimed at our National respect and identify that is even more abhorrent to the memory of all soldiers both North and South and most of all, to the very heart of this wonderful Nation.

    • Curt Thomasco says:

      Very well said and something that has crossed my mind alot lately. You put your finger on something very valid. Lately everyone talks about how horrifically awful the Lost Cause narrative was after the Civil War and the short shrift it gave to Emancipation. Also mentioned is how we have to completely dismantle all aspects of it as a racist, attempt to whitewash the past or at the very least contextualize it.

      All true BUT as you note the reconciliation narrative born out of the Lost Cause served a purpose and a very significant purpose. It was essential for the Nation’s survival and keeping us together. If we are seeking to undo every shred of this narrative than we are attempting to undo what has helped keep us together as a nation after the most traumatic experience the nation has gone through to date . As you note the unfinished business of Reconstruction’s is the Federal Government’s failure and should be addressed at this level.

      The current attempt to make Lee into American History’s greatest villian that ever existed has caused me to really examine what I respect about Lee and why I feel a statue honoring him should remain.

      It is this. Lee knew that when he surrendered all subsequent Confederate Armies in the field would quickly follow. He could have gone rouge and continued the Civil War as a guerilla war but chose not to. He realized it was in the best interest of the South and the Nation to admit defeat and to come together again as one nation.

      He promoted reconciliation after the Civil War (maybe not enough as some would have liked and he could have been more vocal) but he did attempt to persuade his fellow Southerners that they should dedicated themselves to becoming Americans again.

      Powerful stuff and why Lee should be viewed in totality as a great American not merely as a racist slave holder.

      He and the later mythology of him played a large part in the reconciliation that was absolutely essential to our Nation’s survival.

  6. Mike Maxwell says:

    If we are going to preserve American History, it must by taught. For the teacher to stand in front of her class and announce: “This morning we will cover the Civil War. It was about slavery. The two major generals were Grant for the Union and Lee for the Confederates; and these two generals fought against each other at every major battle except Gettysburg…”
    “Excuse me, Teacher,” interrupts little Mike, with his hand raised. “Didn’t you tell us last week that the Constitution was created and ratified to replace the too weak Articles of Confederation?”
    “Yes, but…”
    “Then why did the rebels call themselves Confederates?”
    “It was a different war…”
    “So, there was no slavery during the Revolution?”
    “There was,” admits the teacher, “but it wasn’t an issue.”
    “Then why did slavery become an issue that led to war?”
    The Teacher scans her Lesson Plan: there is nothing listed relating to this question. “Mike,” she says. “I am on a tight schedule: I have to cover the First World War tomorrow…”
    Ignoring the student’s amazed expression, she replies: “Class, do we want Mike to hold us up again? Or do you want me to tell you what you need to know for the Test?”
    “Test… Test…” answers the group.

  7. Douglas Pauly says:

    I thought the battlefields are where these statues and monuments are SUPPOSED to be? Do you know who said that? The very Democrats who wanted them removed from various city streets, and are now demanding that they be removed and destroyed from EVERYWHERE. They make people ‘uncomfortable’? Which people are those? Do they include the same animals who are terrorizing the streets using Confederate statues as their excuse to go on yet more free shopping sprees via the looting they engage in? Geezz, if you want ‘uncomfortable’, go to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC! If you have any humanity in you at all you will be far more than merely ‘uncomfortable’. I’ve always thought true history displays and/or explains EVERYTHING, the good, the bad, and all that is in between or beyond those terms. Obviously the revisionist versions that are being rammed down our collective throat won’t allow for that.

    One thing I DO take SOME heart in. I think some of these elected twits are just throwing out bombs for their own publicity-generating, and those same twits believe the only way they can get any attention is by being even more outrageous than others in their party are trying to be. No one was outraged over statues until the DNC put out their orders for people to be that. This is what happens when your political party has no real ideas for the betterment of our country. I truly believe the tyranny our Second Amendment is in place to defend against is manifesting itself.

  8. Michael Turnbull says:

    I hope it’s just a tempest in a teapot but it’s good that you take it seriously, Chris. As a Minnesotan I’ve seen Rep. McCollum and others pander for votes before with nothing coming of it. The pandering (and trolling) happens on both sides.

    Let us keep ourselves accurately informed on this matter.

  9. scott s. says:

    I’m not sure I see the point of removing just Confederate monuments in the battle fields. It would seem kind of strange just to have all those union unit / commander monuments there by themselves. The battlefield itself tells one story, the monuments another. I’m not sure today how many people “get” the monuments. When I visited battlefields, it wasn’t to see monuments. On a trip to France, I got an impression that Verdun was very much a French Gettysburg. The way they memorialize it is a bit different from us. I suppose they didn’t feel the need to reconcile with Germany as far as I know. I don’t know if Germans visit Verdun or how they feel about it. At the time I was there it would have been children and grandchildren (mostly) of veterans so I assume a closer historical connection.

  10. DLH says:

    Write your representative in Congress. Tell them where they went wrong. They want attention…we should give it to them

  11. nygiant1952 says:

    If we are preserve American History, then let the truth be taught with facts, and not a false narrative.

  12. Rob Orrison says:

    Well written and thanks to those in ECW who supported the stated comment about preservation. Supporting the current law and supporting what the NPS has said recently (just last week in interviews with the media no less), should not be controversial. We used to say battlefields are where monuments should be…then they come for them and we say “well, the land is their monument” then what happens when preservation isnt funded because Confederates fought there? May sound silly now…but this all would have sounded silly to us a few years ago. There needs to be more historians standing up to the tidal wave. No, not all will agree on the intent of each monument, but as preservationists we should be worried about this slippery slope.

  13. Debra Page says:

    There is no way to tell the full story of a battle or its implications if one side is silenced because it makes someone ‘uncomfortable’.

    But, using Rep. Mccollum’s argument, can I, as a Catholic, get rid of abortion clinics because they make me ‘uncomfortable’?

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