The Silent Messages of Monuments

Monuments and statues do more than memorialize a person. They send a silent message about what is important to us as a society.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam recently announced the state’s intent to remove the iconic statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the city of Richmond. The news sparked a court injunction and reignited last year’s debate over similar monuments throughout the former Confederacy.

As debate over monuments rages, let’s examine the cause those monuments represent and the people they memorialize.

We should consider with some skepticism the purpose of monuments honoring Confederate leaders. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and similar organizations put many of these monuments in place during the Jim Crow era or during the civil rights movement. The UDC’s portrayal of the Confederacy, and its sponsorship of monuments honoring the KKK, have led many historians to believe these monuments were placed only to provoke social tensions and harass an entire race.

“I think it wiser to not keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered,” Robert E. Lee himself once said. He opposed Confederate monuments. He never gave his support for any monuments, including one for his second in command, Stonewall Jackson, believing such monuments and other signs of conflict slowed a nation’s recovery from civil war. And he refused to allow the Confederate flag to fly above Washington College, where he was president after the war. The longer a symbol lasts, the longer division lasts.

"Virginia Memorial" by Tennessee Wanderer is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
General Robert E. Lee (“Virginia Memorial” by Tennessee Wanderer is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

Every historical figure in American history—including George Washington himself—had flaws. We should not be blind to their humanity. Celebrating their triumphs and accomplishments at the risk of ignoring their mistakes and failings is irresponsible. The Confederacy’s leaders were complex people, many of whom were brilliant, devoutly religious, and yet astonishingly racist. When honoring a person also offends an entire race and opens the divisions among us, it is right for us to question whether that honor is justified.

I admire Stonewall Jackson for his tenacity and drive. Many consider him the most brilliant military commander on either side of the Civil War, and the south might have won had he survived the early years of the war. I admire Robert E. Lee for his discipline and his dignity. But let us not forget they were also slaveholders who never renounced slavery though given every opportunity to do so. In fact, they risked their lives to preserve it. Perhaps their statues, and others like them, are best suited for Civil War museums, where we can preserve their memory without celebrating their cause.

The Confederacy is an American legacy that should never be forgotten or celebrated. It is part of our American story, and it is an ironic thread of the fabric that binds our union. Yet it is a dark time in our history when so many Americans died in an attempt to preserve something most of us today find unquestionably abhorrent. The fact the United States avoided tearing itself apart and eventually ended almost 200 years of institutional racism to correct the most glaring errors in its Constitution, are two of the great triumphs of American ideals. Let us build monuments to that.

"August 31, 2017" by osseous is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Martin Luther King Memorial (“August 31, 2017” by osseous is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

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