With faces masked, company logos covered and under the protection of police snipers, New Orleans has begun to tear down the confederate monuments of its past. The first to go? The Battle of Liberty Statue, commemorating an insurrection of white citizens angered by the mixed race Reconstructionists.
Back in September, we walked down Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. My son couldn’t fathom why these confederate monuments existed. In his black-and-white world, we were walking down a Mall of Traitors. My thoughts were more complicated. I could never quite decide how I felt about these towering memorials to an institution I despised, but recent events has me pondering them once more.
I’m a northern girl, through and through. President Lincoln is one of my personal heroes, even as I recognize his administration as the beginning of the federal overreach we wrestle against today. But there was a deeper evil in America than the violation of state’s rights. The seeds of our destruction were sown in our own Constitution as we decided it was possible to be 3/5ths of a man. And as millions of God’s people cried out to Him for their freedom, I think we are lucky He didn’t see fit to crush us all in their wake as he led them out of “Egypt.”
But my ancestors fought in the Civil War. All of the ones I know of fought for the confederacy. The willingness to fight and possibly die for land and liberty seems to run strong among the McIntires. We were killed in an Indian attack at Jamestown. We fought and were taken captive in the Revolutionary War. We fought in the Civil War, returned to our farms, and took up arms again for each of the World Wars. So far as I can tell, we never even owned slaves. But when Captain James fired the mortar on Fort Sumter, we had been farming the soil of Virginia for over 200 years.
I’m a northern girl, through and through. But I have never had that sense of being a Hoosier first, American second (much less a Nebraskan). There was more to the Civil War than slavery. In the end, the South was willing to free the slaves themselves in a last ditch effort to drum up troops to defend themselves from the North. There was something in the war they valued higher than their slaves. But it was too late . . . the slaves already knew they were freed.
So I stood at the feet of Stonewall Jackson, looking up at his larger-than-life figure. His presence was as impressive there in bronze and stone as it is through the pages of history. Recognized for his honesty and devout faith, he was an inspiration to his men. A war hero. A traitor.
Why is he standing here, on American soil, memorializing a defeated enemy?
The Civil War was like no other. Sure, there were political differences, social differences and philosophical differences. North and South had different economies, different interests and different cultures . . . without even throwing slavery into the discussion. Slavery was a part of each of those institutions, but it wasn’t the only part. And yet . . . we were still brothers. Brothers who had taken up arms against once another. A nation was divided. States were divided. Families were divided. Even Roger Pryor recognized the gravity of the moment and refused the offer to take that first shot that exploded over Fort Sumter.
When the war was over, Lincoln argued for amnesty and rebuilding the South. He desired to “bind up the nation’s wounds” and set a course for healing. His measures ultimately failed without his leadership, but as the South began memorializing its heros in statues and dedications, the North simply let them do it. The Union wanted to be a union, not a conquering force bent on the utter destruction of its enemy and the obliteration of all its institutions and symbols.
The South wanted to honor its heroes. And thumb its nose at the Union in the only way left to it.
So the statues were built. And in September, I walked down Monument Avenue, not sure what I thought of it all.
But art and statues and memorials do not exist solely to uphold a single, unified narrative of our history as we want it told. Mayor Landrieu’s idea that we are “correcting history” is as troubling to me as the existence of these monuments to our divided past. Of course, they never “reflected the totality of who we are.” Nothing ever does.
They do, however, reflect a part. A part that needs to be seen, pondered and discussed. A part that doesn’t go away simply by tearing down a few tons of bronze and concrete.
Perhaps instead of removing confederate monuments, we should consider adding something to them. Something like the “Fearless Girl” (minus the thinly veiled corporate marketing ploy). Something which contextualizes the history. Something that encourages us to walk away both reflective of the past and hopeful for the future.