Persistent Petty Partisanship

Ah, partisanship — America’s new-millennium pie: sour, unpalatable, constantly in your face. Now enter the latest mud fight, over Confederate monuments.

No matter to those who would tear down these artifacts that many were erected to courage, not disunion; no matter that those before had kept any enmity rationally to themselves (for want of protesting worthy issues); to these 2017 partisans, the “symbols of racism” must go.

To demand total removal of Civil War monuments, as many of the sudden critics are doing, is at once to stereotype intent and demean history. In southern cities from Charlottesville to New Orleans and on to St. Louis, mayors and city council members still aching over Dylann Roof’s 2015 murder of nine African-Americans at a Charleston, SC church are using this white supremacist’s atrocity in a latest effort to ease Southern shame of the Treasonous War. The same movement that has demanded removal of the Confederate flag from public buildings is now demanding removal of Confederate monuments from public parks.

In New Orleans, workers donning bulletproof vests have already vanquished the city’s Robert E. Lee monument. To celebrate the Confederate General’s dismissal, Mayor Mitch Landrieu made a big poetic public speech in which he asked, “How can we expect to inspire a nation when our most prominent public spaces are dedicated to the reverence of the fight for bondage and supremacy?” Reverence? Hardly. The mayor continued: “There are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks.”

In such remarks, generalized and skewed, the speaker dismisses the Civil War’s useful lessons in favor merely of vilifying its transgressions. Considering Landrieu’s remark about slave blocks, slave ships, and African-American lynching, one efforts, without success, to conjure any democratic society that displays these kinds of memorials.

In Charlottesville, VA, city council members suddenly want the city to sell its hundred-year-old statue of Lee, because it was donated by a segregationist. (In deference to small-mindedness, the council’s demand makes no concession to Lee’s unimpeachable integrity, nor to what also to do, if anything, about the name of the park in which the monument stands: Lee Park.)

To compound this partisan nonsense, most of those calling for total removal of Civil War monuments from public view are suggesting that they be relocated to museums — you know, those institutions designed for public view. (What next? Insistence in relocating Jefferson Davis’s house to a museum? And what about World War II’s concentration camps? Why are they still around?)

There is consolation in the fact that Henry Shrady, who sculpted Charlottesville’s Lee (on his horse Traveller) had previously completed a comparable monument to Union General Ulysses Grant; proving that, in fairness to historical preservation (and scholarship), if the image of one man is preserved in bronze and stone, that of the other must likewise be.

At issue with the partisan rally cry against Confederate monuments is that it wholly rejects the contrasting viewpoint. An argument has been made in Memphis, TN to remove the statue of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (astride his horse King Phillip) from the city’s Health Sciences Park on grounds he was a prolific slave trader and first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Given such logic, who next should be toppled? Caesar, bully of the Gauls? Napoleon, propagandist and plunderer? Benedict Arnold, traitor, egotist?*

Regardless, one presumes no rational person would act as the mayor of St. Louis, MO, who, in keeping with the Joneses, suddenly insists on removal of the city’s Forest Park monument to young Confederate soldiers marching off to war — a gift of their mourning mothers and grandmothers (the Ladies’ Confederate Monument Association).

Mayor Landrieu’s speech about removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in New Orleans (and, by way of association, all Confederate statues) as a national moral imperative adds fuel to my millennial fear that America is losing her soul. The suddenness of this imperative and its ox-pull on a legion of Americans suggests that hysteria is usurping rationality and thoughtful sensibility.

My allegiance to preserving Civil War monuments where they stand has nothing to do with partisan zeal, but rather, wholly with a mature adult’s prudent sense of decency.

Yes, remove the Confederate flag from public spaces; it is the creation of a nation founded by white supremacists, a nation that neither exists within, nor along with, the United States. But honor the Civil War monuments.

Along with the written, illustrative, and photographic records of the Civil War, its monuments — masterly artworks and historical markers — should remain right where they are.

Meanwhile, a good start to dismantling the partisan bitterness may be for everyone to stop referring to them as monuments. Call them statues.

  • In Saratoga National Historical Park, Stillwater, NY, stands a monument to the Revolutionary War American traitor Benedict Arnold (nowhere upon this small stone artifice is Arnold’s name inscribed). The Boot Monument, as it is called, depicts a boot worn by the General during the Battle of Saratoga, during which his left foot and horse were shot almost simultaneously. The foot survived; the horse did not.