Friday, July 3, 2015

Confederate Symbols, a Call to Moderation, and a Respect for History

I guess it was folly for me to think I could avoid writing a post on the recent controversy over Confederate symbols. I usually try to steer clear of these fights. However, as an amateur historian (or whatever you want to call me!), the recent turn of events is very troubling. We now find ourselves in a battle of extremes. On the one end, there are those who would just as soon tear down and erase every trace of the Confederacy on American soil; on the other, those who deny that slavery had anything at all to do with the Civil War or the Confederacy and assert that the Confederate flag is just "heritage."

The flag of the 28th Virginia Infantry, captured by the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg, was on display at the Minnesota Historical Society for the 150th of the battle. (courtesy of MPR)

If you follow me on social media, you generally know where I come out on these issues. But I thought I'd use this post to break it down into a few key points:

1) As a boy, I grew up admiring the South, and the Confederate generals. (See this post.) I even had a few Confederate flags in my bedroom. I didn't really make the slavery connection back then. So the flag to me meant the Civil War and Lee and Jackson. Only later, as an adult, did I come to understand and appreciate the multiple meanings behind it, including the fact that it represents a political entity whose main purpose was the preservation and perpetuation of human bondage. That said, when I see the flag I still think first of battles and generals and my boyhood interest in the war -- despite my better instincts.

2) I think the Confederate flag, in any iteration, should not fly from state houses, town halls, and other government buildings. It wasn't flying there right after the war, and in many instances, it only went up again to protest the civil rights laws and desegragationist court decisions of the 1950s and 60s. Although it may represent the sacrifices and bravery of Confederate ancestors, it also represents slavery and treason to many others. And let's not forget to mention those who actually want the flag to fly there in the name of white supremacy. Gotta go.

3) Some people are now calling for the removal or elimination of Confederate monuments and memorials that dot town squares and other public places across the South. I can see little good in such actions. In most cases, these statues and other monuments were erected by the Confederate veterans themselves, or their immediate offspring. These memorials tell us a lot about how Southerners in the 19th and early 20th century chose to commemorate and remember the war. Sure, they may be associated with a cause we find distasteful (and should), but that doesn't give us a license to destroy our past. If we were to erase these memorials, we'd be no better than Soviet propagandists or ISIS radicals. Instead, as I have noted before on this blog, we should maintain these memorials, and place them in the proper context if necessary. This could include adding markers to explain the meaning of the monuments and what they represent. (The Atlantic published a thoughtful piece on this idea here. I also wrote previously about this issue with respect to Alexandria's Confederate monument here.) Some bloggers and professional historians, like Kevin Levin in this post, are unfortunately opening the door to a slippery slope. Whatever our personal views on the Confederacy, we shouldn't be providing people with a rationale for dismantling the past in our public spaces.

4) The placement of the Confederate flags at museums and historic sites seems like a no-brainer. Where better to interpret the flag and display it than in its historical context? If visitors can't view original regimental Confederate Battle Flags at battlefield museums, for example, then they are missing the chance to connect with tangible and meaningful artifacts. However, the recent move by the National Park Service (NPS) at Ft. Sumter is troubling. (Check out Craig's excellent post here on the subject.) Hopefully others won't go the same way, and Ft. Sumter will reverse its decision.

5) Reenactments and living history demonstrations are another appropriate place to show the flag. Again, however, we see a step backwards when the Gettysburg Seminary bans the display of the flag in a way that adversely impacts living history events held on campus. Far from being a "courageous stand," the action represents nothing more than caving in to public pressure. "Courageous" would have been a position that allowed display of the colors by reenactment groups.

6) Another part of the debate involves what I dub "the bottom of the barrel." Some folks are now just overreaching and looking for excuses to do a complete purge. The debate has focused on removing all vestiges of the Confederacy from gift shops, on-line stores, military bases, street names, and even TV programming. Some of this is downright silly. I mean, is the Duke boys' car really hurting anyone? One of the most ridiculous and foolish proposals I have seen calls for the re-naming of a U.S. Navy vessel because it carries the name of a Confederate victory, Chancellorsville! As for sales of the flag, private enterprises have the right to sell what they want, but they may just be hurting their bottom line, and their capitulation speaks more to their inability to stand up to the current witch hunt than anything. Street, school, and base names have at times been controversial, but I am sure that most people haven't thought twice about them as they go about their daily lives. How many are actually offended by a street or school named after a Confederate icon? That said, if a community wishes to rename public places and streets through the democratic process, then be my guest. Again, however, that just seems like overkill.

7) So how do we get out of this mess? A solution calls for mutual understanding and moderation, as well as a healthy dose of respect for preserving our history. America needs to stop the wholesale rush to dismantle or reshape the past,  and instead engage in a thoughtful discussion about the Confederacy. (For example,see Robert's post here.) We also can't ignore the hard truths about the causes of the Civil War.

I am a bit saddened that we did not use the Sesquicentennial to address our history in this way. Instead, extreme passions in the wake of the tragedy in Charleston have driven the agenda just as we are wrapping up the commemoration of our bloodiest war. One possible step in the right direction involves building, rather than tearing down. We should take action to remember slavery and the role of African-Americans in the war. I'd love to work on historical signage to commemorate Northern Virginia's contraband camps. I am sure there are many such opportunities across our country. As we celebrate the Fourth of July, let's strive to heal the divisions that have developed and come together as a country to shape a commemorative landscape that works for all.

8 comments:

Vince said...

Some good thoughts, but I believe the banning of Confederate flags from the Gettysburg Seminary campus more accurately represents the response of people who feel sickened by events. The murderer was connected to a Lutheran church. Among the victims were graduates of a Lutheran seminary closely connected to Gettysburg. There are many historical connections between Pennsylvania and Charleston Lutherans.

Speaking as a Lutheran: Due to the immense sin in which this whole situation is drenched and the suffering caused by and incurred by members of our church family (Church Militant and Church Triumphant), it's disgusting to see the Confederate flag flying on the campus. Feeling anything less would reflect hubris in our personal ability to be above sin and callousness to the communion of saints. If living history events are adversely affected, too bad. I'd probably question their appropriateness on Seminary grounds anyway.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Vince,

Thanks for your comment, and for offering your perspective. This type of dialogue is what I am talking about. I can see that the Lutheran community at Gettysburg and more broadly feels very closely connected to and affected by the tragedy that just happened in S.C. I think the more appropriate response may in fact be to discontinue living history there altogether, rather than trying to control what the reenactors display in the name of historical accuracy. However, apart from living history and in the museum, I obviously see no need to allow the display of the flag on Seminary grounds.

Todd Berkoff said...

Great post, Ron. I have one quibble though. I don't think the notion of re-naming the USS Chancellorsville is such an absurd idea. Think about it. It is a US Navy ship named after one of the worst defeats that the US military ever suffered. Sure, one can make the argument that the ship honors the soldiers from both sides who were killed in the battle, but it still seems like an odd name for a US Navy ship. Like the article asks, "Whose Navy is it?"

Similarly, I never understood why US Army bases in the South are named after traitors and rebels who fought against the US military -- places like Fort Hood, Fort Lee, Fort Bragg, to name a few. Makes no sense. The US military in the wake of the Civil War would have never named US military facilities after rebel generals. The bases named after Confederate generals were given these names in the early/mid 20th century--during WWI and WWII--in part to soothe a bruised South's ego who could never stomach a military base in their state named after a Sherman or Sheridan or a Hancock. In fact, Fort McPherson outside of Atlanta is only named after a Union general because it was established there during Reconstruction and it kept the name ever since, which is pretty remarkable.

This sounds cliche, but the South lost the war and needs to get over it, and the Federal government needs to stop pandering to these 150 year-old sensitivities.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Todd,

Thanks for your comment and for your compliment on the post. It's also great to hear from you.

In general, I don't care much for the notion of re-naming things, particularly in the current climate. The names were chosen at a time and place for a particular reason, and in many cases have become intimately associated with them and an integral part of their own history. The person for whom the place was named almost fades into the background. Fort Bragg, for example, comes to mind. (Although why they chose Bragg to begin with is a mystery to me!) When most people hear that they think of the Airborne, not the Confederacy.

The Chancellorsville was commissioned in 1989, and I have no idea why at such a late date they chose to name the ship after a battle that was a resounding success for the Confederacy. Of course, it was fought by two of the greatest generals that America produced, albeit they fought for the wrong cause. Here is a little on the ship: http://www.chancellorsville.navy.mil/ Check out the "About Us" tab in particular. I would note, however, that many now have served honorably aboard that ship, and they have pride attached to that vessel and its name. Perhaps we need to ask the veterans and current sailors what they think about the name. Incidentally, the ship was just presented with the sword of a Union officer who was killed at Chancellorsville!

Kevin Levin said...

With all due respect, how is providing a bit of historical context risking a slippery slope to anything? Isn't this what people with an interest in history and memory should be doing?

Ron Baumgarten said...

Kevin,

Thanks for your comment. I don't take issue with historical context, but it's what you do with it and how you interpret it. In your case, you note that you tend to favor maintaining the monuments, but then say the following:

"I am not suggesting that this story sets a precedent for tearing down any Confederate monuments. Perceptions of the first Calhoun monument proved to be a sufficient justification for its removal in 1887. My point for now is that we at least need to move beyond viewing these monuments as timeless. The meaning of these structures are constantly evolving.

"These decisions will be made by the residents of each community as to whether these monuments are to be torn down or moved to a different location. Ultimately, the debate will be about whether these monuments, and the sites on which they rest, do or can be made to reflect the current values of each community."

By using such language to hedge, you open the door to actions to dismantle the very monuments you claim to protect. Moreover, your use of the Calhoun example seems misplaced. The monument was taken down and put up again by the very people/generation who placed it, unlike today, where the monuments would be removed by those who were not involved in putting them up in the first place. You similarly rely on examples of old Soviet monuments in Eastern Europe. But the historical context there is also not analogous to what is happening with Confederate monuments. And by relying on these historical examples to suggest that communities should set their own course on Confederate monuments, and can rationalize their actions using past examples, you do indeed open the door to a slippery slope.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Very thoughtful and well-written. But this is just the beginning. We're now seeing nods of approval from "historians" regarding vandalism of Confederate monuments framing such acts as "civil disobedience." So, yes, it is a slippery slope but I believe some are intentionally providing the grease to make it even more so. It's intellectually shallow, juvenile and highly irresponsible.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Richard. I couldn't agree more. Some of the same people opening the door to the slippery slope have already gone way down it by suggesting vandalism is excusable. I don't get that, and never will. The times in which we live! (By the way, nice post on this topic. Readers can find it here: http://oldvirginiablog.blogspot.com/2015/08/legitamizing-vandalism.html)