Editor’s Note: Twenty years ago, I wrote an article recommending that the states of the old Confederacy take down their Confederate battle flags. They’re still everywhere. Since we now have a president who’s also a white supremacist, the issue has become statues of rebel war heroes, and military bases named for southerners who once fought against the U.S. in the Civil War.
Prior to July 4th, a statue of Confederate hero, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was removed from Richmond’s Monument Avenue. This resulted from the mayor’s order that Confederate figures be eliminated from city land. A memorial to fellow Virginia icon, Robert E. Lee, the largest on Monument Avenue, has also been scheduled for removal, following a decree from Virginia’s governor.
Many conservatives — some of whom, I suspect, feel the wrong side won the Civil War — believe all such monuments should be retained. They often cite their “educational value,” but it’s hard to see how much can be learned by merely looking at a statue. They’d be better off reading a history book, watching a Ken Burns documentary or going to a museum, which is where most of these sculptures (and Confederate flags) belong.
General Lee was responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other foe in U.S. history. We don’t erect statues of Field Marshal Rommel or Admiral Yamamoto, yet conservatives seem to treasure monuments to men like Lee and Jackson, who betrayed our country. Many southerners see this as a “heritage” issue; however, if the aim is to honor past war heroes, then why not George Patton or “Blackjack” Pershing, who fought against America’s enemies, rather than rebel officers, like Lee and Jackson, who were America’s enemies.
Despite biographies depicting him as a cruel, brutal slaveowner and a battlefield butcher, many Americans still embrace the myth of General Lee as a courtly southern gentleman and a Christian, although others (myself included) believe he and Jefferson Davis should have been hanged for treason, rather than venerated. This is even more true of soldiers such as rebel cavalry genius and war criminal, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who also founded the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction and was its first Grand Dragon.
If the goal is educational, then we should debate the relative merits of Civil War combatants, rather than just tear their monuments down. The statues of the worst of them could be destroyed, and the less odious could be moved to Confederate cemeteries and historic battle sites. The decision-making process would be a learning experience.
There’s also a move afoot to rename some military bases that immortalize Confederate generals. Nostalgia for treasonous losers and for the “Lost Cause” — which General U.S. Grant, an actual American hero, called “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse” — resulted in Fort Hood in Texas being named for rebel general John Bell Hood. His poor battlefield tactics lost Atlanta to General Sherman in 1864, and later that year caused his Army of Tennessee to be routed, then annihilated in the battles of Franklin and Nashville, respectively.
Fort Bragg is named for Confederate general Braxton Bragg. Described by Wikipedia as “among the worst generals of the Civil War,” he lost Chattanooga to Grant in 1863, before being removed from field command. I wouldn’t mind seeing both bases called something else, because America’s enemies don’t deserve to have forts named for them.
However, just because many of our Founding Fathers, including Washington and Jefferson, were on the wrong side of the slavery issue doesn’t mean we should remove their memorials. Instead, we need to weigh their immense contributions to the nation, while taking into account the times in which they lived. Slavery has been practiced for millennia, and the three Abrahamic religions, based on the pro-slavery Old Testament, have devoutly supported it for nearly all of recorded history. And neither Washington, nor Jefferson killed American soldiers in order to preserve slavery.
Although he was a heinous human being, Christopher Columbus is of monumental significance. Do we really want to start tearing down statues and renaming parks and cities that bear his name? As Winston Churchill, who is revered in this country, but despised in places like India and Ireland, put it, “Great and good are seldom the same man.” One could easily make the case that Sir Isaac Newton was the greatest man who ever lived, but he was also a contemptible human being. Once we’ve purged ourselves of all images of imperfect icons, such as Andrew Jackson (a nasty, genocidal racist) or Woodrow Wilson (also a racist), who’d remain on the slippery slope that would ensue?
Should one of our major car companies rename itself because Henry Ford was openly anti-Semitic? Should Lutherans rebrand their denomination because Martin Luther, a notorious Jew-hater, exhorted Christians to “set fire to their synagogues or schools” and urged that “their houses also be razed”? Should we boycott the movie “Apocalypse Now” until “The Ride of the Valkyries” — written by Hitler’s favorite composer and rabid anti-Semite Richard Wagner — is expunged from the soundtrack?
Political correctness is even leaking into the names of sports mascots. It’s easy to see how “Washington Redskins” might offend native Americans, just as “Harlem Blackskins” would offend African-Americans, but how are the “Atlanta Braves” offensive? When did the word “brave” become a pejorative? I have to wonder whether many of the affronted might be woke white liberals looking for something to be angry about.
Where do we draw the line? When we’ve run out of statues to topple and nicknames to change, will the calendar be next? July was named for Julius Caesar, a genocidal monster who boasted in his “Commentaries” of slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocent Gauls to depopulate wide swaths of Europe. His massacres rival the Armenian Holocaust carried out by the Turks, and Pol Pot’s killing fields in Cambodia. And August is named for his heir, the emperor Augustus, not exactly a paragon of kindness either.
We can all hope for a time when the monuments left standing will immortalize men who fought for, rather than against, freedom, justice and decency, but we will never run short of both the powerful and the deplorable, and some are destined to be celebrated as well.
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