Just because the Confederate Battle Flag no longer flies on the grounds of the South Carolina state house does not mean that the debate over the display of Confederate flags, icons, and symbols is over … including monuments to Confederate leaders and soldiers. Today we consider the last category.
Monuments are creatures of the place and time when they are erected (and where) just as much as they are ways of paying tribute to a person, event, cause, soldiers … whatever the subject of the monument. They tell us as much about the people who erected those monuments as they do about the subject of the monument. One need only recall the history of the major monuments in Washington, DC, as well as the debates over more recent monuments placed in the nation’s capital to understand this point. Even ugly monuments (see here) have their own special message, although in some cases I believe the monument may actually mock or denigrate its subject (see there).
Moreover, what goes up at times comes down or moves elsewhere … or is changed. Anyone familiar with the Gettysburg battlefield can tell you that monuments change and are relocated. Such was the case with the monument to the 23rd Pennsylvania on Culp’s Hill, for example (given that an ancestor of mine served in that unit, it is of especial interest to me). The top of the monument was changed and the monument itself was relocated. I think the final result is appropriate and appealing, but I didn’t erect the monument or indicate its original location. American (and world) history is filled with stories of monuments being pulled down (see New York during the American Revolution or, more recently, Baghdad, April 9, 2003). Just this spring South Africans removed a statue of Cecil Rhodes from the grounds of Cape Town University (this article sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?). Some monuments ought to be moved, I think, because they are in poor locations. Such is the case with a recently-erected statue of Robert E. Lee at Antietam, which is actually located within Union lines just west of Middle Bridge.
That said, I would oppose removing altogether any Confederate monuments currently on public land set aside as a battlefield park (Gettysburg is the most visible example). In those cases, signage may be educational (look at the monuments erected by the former Confederate states at Gettysburg, and you’ll understand that explication can lead to an enriched understanding … the same goes for monuments for the loyal states). But the monuments themselves should stay.
What about other Confederate monuments that dot the southern landscape? Take for example, Charlottesville, where equestrian statues of Lee and Jackson stand a few blocks from another statue to Albemarle County’s Confederate veterans? Let them stay, I say … although I’m perfectly willing to admit that it’s not my opinion, but the opinion of the people in Charlottesville and Albemarle County that counts for more.
What about the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis? Let’s set aside the discussion over the proposed return of the Forrests’ bodies to where they were originally interred. Should that happen, it’s up to the folks in Memphis what to do, although they should think about it (I think the statue should remain in Memphis, but, again, my opinion may not count for very much). Maybe it could be moved to Nashville to displace that rather unseemly representation of Forrest.
In short, I don’t think the widespread or wholesale removal of Confederate monuments is a good idea. I would not remove the one in Arlington National Cemetery, for example, although that monument begs for explication and contextualization. I think it would be better to look at ways of commemorating other people and events (and establishing counter narratives) to place these monuments in a better and richer context. (For example, I would oppose the removal of the monument to Confederates or the statue of Wade Hampton on the state grounds in Columbia). Sometimes, there exist provisions for change (the case of Statuary Hall comes to mind … if states choose to commemorate different people, well, that’s an exercise of a state’s prerogative, and I thought the Confederacy was all about that).
But you may feel differently. So here’s a poll giving you the chance to express your position, and if you need to clarify or elaborate on it, there’s always the comments section. Please spend more time elaborating or clarifying than offering the usual whining about “you should have asked this question” … let’s see you get your own blog and do better. 🙂