On the Matter of Confederate Monuments

June 22, 2017 — Leave a comment

 

The removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces in several Southeast cities has sparked a vigorous debate. At its crux is the efficacy of paying homage to soldiers who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and with it the Confederacy’s association with slavery.

I will add my two-cents worth, but first a bit of disclosure: I’m a Southerner whose ancestors fought on the side of the Confederacy. I’m also an American who proudly served this nation as a United States Marine. And I’m a novelist whose latest book, That Deadly Space, A Civil War Novel, makes this debate especially interesting to me.

Several years ago there was a heated debate over the Confederate flag, and its image as part of the design of several state flags in the South, including Georgia, my own state. In historical terms, the Confederate flag was a battle flag, but in a more contemporary context it has often been used as a sign of defiance, an in-your-face symbol that can easily be understood to have racial overtones. I get that. I fully understand the need to remove such divisive symbols from state flags, and I was pleased to see Georgia remove the image of the Confederate flag from our state flag to its present form.

Monuments, on the other hand, were typically erected not in defiance, but as a way of honoring soldiers. And not just famous generals, but in many cases and in many town squares, honoring common soldiers—scared, homesick, brave young men who did their duty as best they could. The Civil War changed this country forever and established what we are as a nation, and what we are not. The Confederacy was defeated, slavery was abolished, and the Union was preserved. That is our history. So, if all of the monuments honoring Confederate soldiers are removed, then what has really been accomplished? Would it make us any less divided? How much bitterness would be mollified, how much created? And, importantly, where does it all end?

The Civil War period, both the good and the bad, was a chaotic, bloody four-year chapter in a young nation’s story. Pushing it out of sight does not change it. Attempting to re-write it likewise does not alter it. Failing to teach it, all of it, in the name of political correctness, is disgraceful. And removing monuments to soldiers 152 years after the last shots were fired seems of a piece with the efforts of some to rename buildings and dishonor other historical American figures with an assumption, I suppose, that in doing so, all perceived wrongs will be righted and paradise will suddenly break out.

Hundreds of thousands of people protested the Vietnam War as being oppressive or immoral or racist, even to a point of cursing at and spitting on returning veterans. Many of the protestors viewed the war as criminal. Will there therefore be a movement to have the Wall in Washington D.C. dismantled and the names of 58,000 American servicemembers tossed aside?

Good luck with that.

It would be impossible to learn the full span of American history if parts of that history are deemed by some as too toxic or too politically incorrect, and end up as either blank pages in history books or revised to represent a version that has little historical accuracy or context. That would not be helpful. Leave the monuments. Teach the history, all of it. Give the vast majority of the American people credit for being strong enough to see the full sweep of the nation’s history without becoming convulsive. This nation has survived a revolution, a civil war, a depression, world wars, regional wars, and 9/11. It can deal with Southern monuments to Southern soldiers.

 

Gerald Gillis

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