Archives For 19th century history
Confederate soldiers, sailors and marines, that fought in the civil war, were made U.S. Veterans by an act of Congress in 1957, U.S. Public law 85-425 sec 410 approved 23 May 1958. This made all confederate Army, Navy, Marine veterans equal to U.S. Veterans, additionally, under U.S. Public law 810 approved by the 17th congress on 26 February 1929, the war department was directed to erect headstones and recognize confederate grave sites as U.S. War grave sites. So in essence, when you remove or desecrate a confederate statue, monument, or headstone, you are in fact desecrating or removing a statue, monument, or headstone of a U.S. veteran. And I highly doubt people would be similarly apathetic to the desecration of Revolutionary War or Vietnam War memorial sites.
Secondarily lets look at the time frames most of these monuments were erected. Most of these civil war memorials were constructed around the times of two particular anniversaries them being the 50th (1915) and 100th (1965). Moreover most Civil War veterans were coming to the end of their lives around the early 1900s with the oldest one living until 1958. To me at least it seems a bit foolish to equate a statue dedicated to war veterans with hostility or white supremacy simply by existing. Why would they take the time and money to build statues and memorials to display something that didn’t need to be displayed? They had no reason to display their feelings of white superiority since that was standard belief nationwide in the early 20th century.
I can understand the calls for public removal of them but I fear this to be a far more serious movement. I cannot in good faith believe that these activists who demand their removal will cease their actions if all the statues are removed from public grounds. Nor do I think these activists even have a firm grasp on US History in general for that matter. I think we are experiencing a problem with our modern interpretation of historical events, in particular our wars. Wars often times lead toward magnanimity directed at enemies, which included admiration for their bravery, the purity of their motives, and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for a cause. There is often, moreover, a brotherhood of sorts among veterans, for they shared a common experience of walking through the valley of the shadow of death. This doesn’t just apply to civil war vets but the shared experiences between German and American soldiers or the Japanese. This sort of understanding seems completely lost in today’s discourse. People often don’t grasp that the South after the Civil War was completely destroyed. Thousands of young men were killed and defeated with nothing being accomplished. This is where the romantic movement during that late 19th century period started and why it was more pervasive in the South and not the North. The victors didn’t have to explain their motivations or come to grips with defeat.
Holmes had definite moral views, but his sensibilities about war required magnanimity toward enemies, which included admiration for their bravery, the purity of their motives, and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for a cause. There was, moreover, a brotherhood of sorts among veterans, for they shared a common experience of walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
The great age of Civil War commemoration came as men like Holmes aged. In that time, Romanticism made lost causes into things of beauty. Isaiah Berlin has this to say about the Romantics: “You would have found that they believed that minorities were more holy than majorities, that failure was nobler than success, which had something shoddy and something vulgar about it.” We look upon the Southern cause with moral horror, for its purpose was to preserve slavery. A Romantic can be anti-slavery, but to him the “lost cause” is sublime, tragic, and heartbreaking, which is why the Alamo was not memorialized as a shameful defeat. We fail in our responsibility to history when we do not permit ourselves to see Civil War memorials from a Romantic point of view, and when we fail to recognize the phrase “lost cause” as a shorthand for a morally complex, tragic understanding of the South’s defeat.