Lo How the Mighty have Fallen
The mighty are falling. All around the world, statues to historical figures are being toppled as the scales of justice shift to weigh their actions in the light of white supremacy. It is no longer enough to single-handedly defy the Nazi conquest of Europe as Winston Churchill did in the early days of World War II or to work yourself to death in the name of global peace as Woodrow Wilson did after World War I. If you are an imperialist or a racist (they were) that is now the sole measure of your worth.
The move to remove memorials to men of worth who held unsavory racial biases has gained momentum in recent weeks as anger boils over against police brutality and the long chain of undeserved Black deaths at the hands of police officers. Police violence against Blacks cannot be justified any more than can the systemic racism condoned and perpetuated in this country since earliest Colonial days. It is way past time for us to put away prejudices and self-interest and to allow all races to enjoy true equality.
That’s the easy part for me to define. I have no ambiguity about my belief in equal rights for all people. But, as a history buff and an amateur artist who admires beauty in design, I find myself less sure when I consider removing or destroying the iconography of the past.
There is in every issue a central core of immutable truth. But it is equally true that in virtually every instance, people perceive that truth from different perspectives. Thus, if you read histories of Robert E. Lee, you find descriptions of him as a despotic racist alongside other text that excuse him as a reluctant rebel who descried slavery as “a moral & political evil in any country.”
Historians have traditionally given Lee a pass on treason, noting that 19th-century Americans viewed the United States as a loose confederation, not a single country. So, when Lee, a veteran U.S. Army officer and son of “Light-horse” Harry Lee, one of the most flamboyant and successful of Revolutionary War cavalry officers, said he could not raise his sword against his country, he referred to Virginia, not the Union.
Lee, a complex, contradictory man in his attitudes and his actions, has, like Lincoln, been almost obscured by those who project their own animus or admiration on him. In the political backwash of the South’s loss, promulgators of “The Lost Cause” turned him into “The Marble Man,” their symbol of a lost culture while at the same time ignoring the real, conflicted human being. Throughout the South, statues were erected to him, most significantly perhaps on the stately, 92-foot-wide Boulevard in Richmond VA—now ironically renamed Arthur Ashe Boulevard.
Lee sat stoically in the center of the tree-lined Boulevard for 130 years, mounted on his favorite warhorse, Traveler. Virginia installed a second sculpture of Lee at Gettysburg 27 years later, a 41-foot-high testimonial to the state’s greatest commander and the 19,000 men from Virginia who fought in that battle.
But Lee has now lost his place astride the pinnacle of a remembered Southern culture that was never as glamorous or benign as that depicted in Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s apologia for the South of her ancestors. His statue no longer graces the Boulevard and his image has been eradicated from other Southern cities in recent years.
It has been difficult for me, raised in the midst of white privilege in an era when the Civil Rights movement was something happening far away from my childhood home, to understand the anguish and the unfairness visited on Black citizens of this country. A few years ago, though, I listened to the audiobook, The Warmth of Other Suns, The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. It is the story of Black families escaping the Jim Crow South to carve out new lives in northern and western cities that were nearly as unwelcoming as their home states. By the time the book ended, I was profoundly ashamed and baffled as to how white society could ever make amends.
Perhaps removing Confederate statues is a very small movement in that direction. If they bring distress to African-Americans who must see them every day, then they should go. But I dislike sweeping assertions about others’ motivations and I listen askance to historians who today assert that the memorials were erected by Southerners solely to intimidate and subjugate African-Americans in the aftermath of the war.
There was surely enough racial hatred in post-Civil War America to poison the air but a statue seems a rather rarified form of suppression when Blacks were—and are—faced daily with economic deprivation, racial slurs and physical violence.
Rather, I think many of these monuments grew out of a longing for a past when Southern families were still intact, when fortunes had not yet been destroyed, when the future of whites seemed secure and unsullied. Katrina Dunn Johnson, curator at South Carolina’s Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, has stated that “some historians forget that they are studying real people with real emotions. The wartime death of a son, brother or husband provoked the same emotional reactions as a death would today—sorrow, anger, questioning and the desire for closure. These Americans were coping with genuine loss. ... (T)housands of families throughout the country were unable to reclaim their soldier’s remains—many never learned their loved ones’ exact fate on the battlefield or within the prison camps. The psychological impact of such a devastating loss cannot be underestimated when attempting to understand the primary motivations behind Southern memorialization.”
We can observe the same impulse today to perpetuate the memory of those we have lost. The Vietnam war was intensely unpopular a half-century ago, tearing the country apart with the same rancor antebellum Americans felt a century before. But today we largely set aside those differences to honor American veterans who answered their country’s call, carving their names in marble and casting their images in bronze.
So, if we decree that Confederate statues are symbolic of white supremacy, where do we stop? What about the federal battlefields—very much public land. Do we remove all the memorials at Gettysburg, Shiloh, the Wilderness and dozens of other Civil War battlefields that refer to Confederates?
Do we take George Washington off the dollar bill, raze the Washington Memorial and turn Mount Vernon into condos because our first president was a slave owner. I’ve never liked Thomas Jefferson because of his hypocrisy and self-indulgence but should we rip his statue from the monument overlooking the Tidal Basin in the Capitol.
Should we strike Woodrow Wilson from the history books because he was a racist and a suppressor of women’s rights? And what about Lincoln, long deified as the savior of the Blacks, but now more realistically portrayed as a man groping toward a greater humanity than his rough Southern childhood would have predicted. Should his place in history be sullied?
Somehow Americans must come to terms with the nation’s past, to accept its failures, to repair wrongs done as much as possible and to seize future opportunities to live up to our potential. Perhaps Lee, who declined to take part in the dedication of Confederate monuments, to write his memoirs or to give speeches before Southern patriotic groups had the right idea after all. “I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war,” he wrote in declining an invitation, “but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it has engendered.”
Historian Michael Fellman interpreted Lee's letter as being against all monuments, not just Confederate: "Lee would have plowed the battlefields over rather than convert them to shrines others would make of them....the Civil War had been so disastrous...that no one should make monuments to it."