A Consideration of the Confederate Statues

The question of how we honor our ancestors has always been a question fraught with risk. Cultural norms evolve with each new generation and even the most enlightened figures of the past can seem frighteningly retrograde when judged by contemporary standards. All the same, the yearning to look back upon those who came before is a powerful impulse and has inspired countless works of art. Many are created for private audiences but some of the most famous works of art, Mount Rushmore or the Sleeping Buddha, are created for a public audience. The Confederate statues definitely constitute the latter, controversial as they might be, but a growing backlash has convinced many municipalities and states to take down the monuments. Bentonville put up a Joseph Johnston statue less than a decade ago but the statue may not be long for this world if the Confederate statues do not regain their former luster. Defenders of the statue fall back on a number of arguments, some deny that Southern states seceded to preserve the institution of slavery whereas others contend the statue is homage to heritage rather than hatred, and do not lack for powerful allies; Donald Trump has come out firmly in favor of keeping Confederate statues in public spaces, along with a long list of historical foundations.

The residents of Bentonville may decide to keep the Johnston statue in its current location or vote to have it moved elsewhere, perhaps even destroyed, but I think we owe it to ourselves to have a frank discussion about the Confederates either way. The Confederacy does not lack for defenders but it cannot be denied that the Confederacy was founded to preserve slavery. One does not need to hold a Phd in history to recognize this basic truth: one need only consult the writings of the Confederates. After all, the secession statements of the individual states and the public speeches of high-ranking figures like Alexander Stephens do not leave much room for ambiguity. Even Robert E. Lee, so often held up as the respectable Confederate, was positively disposed toward the institution, writing that the “blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa… and the painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race.”  

Some will contend that it is important to judge Lee and his brethren by the standards of his time. This is of course true but it is worth noting that most of the Western world had already abolished chattel slavery by 1861. England abolished slavery in 1833, France abolished it in 1817, and Denmark abolished it in 1792. Even Russia, often a laggard when it comes to championing human rights, had already abolished serfdom by 1860.

To be fair, many countries around the world did still practice in the mid 1800s but my strong suspicion is that most of the Confederates did not feel they had a strong cultural affinity with countries in Southwest Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa. Keeping in mind that Canada and Mexico had already abolished slavery well before 1861, it is also difficult to argue that North America, as a region, was positively disposed toward the peculiar institution. Chances are they had the strongest affinity with their countrymen and while a great many states in the mid 1800s did permit slavery, a great many did not. So numerous were the free states that Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election, despite being viewed as hostile to the institution of slavery. Keeping in mind that the electorate at this time consisted only of white men, it is quite notable a man considered hostile to slavery could win the presidency. But America in 1860 was a country that often gave voice to abolitionists, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the best-sellers in all of 19th century America, and it doubtful this line of thinking was foreign to Lee or the secessionists considering that so many of the major Confederate generals received their education in the North.

In all fairness, we did think about race much differently in the 1800s than we do now. Nonetheless, the way we view treason has not changed much. It was a crime punishable by death in the 1800s, just as it is a crime punishable by death now. Jackson, Lee, and Longstreet all chose to swear an oath to the United States when they enlisted in the US military—and they all chose to violate that oath by then taking up arms against the United States. And while some did atone for their betrayal in later years, Longstreet for example, it would be irresponsible to suggest that all of them, or even most of them, followed his lead.

It goes without saying that many of the Confederates were gifted military tacticians. But if the statues were enacted simply to honor distinguished Civil War generals, one has to wonder why Grant and Sherman do not receive similar honors in Bentonville, or other cities that have put up Confederate monuments. Regardless of how one feels about the Union, no one can deny Grant and Sherman were brilliant military leaders. To be fair, neither Grant nor Sherman hailed from Bentonville and it would make sense if the city wanted to honor a local instead. But Joseph E. Johnston cannot be considered a local either, unless of course Virginia is now part of North Carolina.

Longstreet did, however, hail from North Carolina but one won’t find many statues of him in Bentonville. This might make sense if Longstreet were an undistinguished soldier but he was well known to contemporaries and ended up being one of the most accomplished generals of the entire war. Many of the Confederacy’s most important victories can be attributed to his military skills and the debacle that was Gettysburg could have been avoided had Lee simply heeded Longstreet’s advice. While it could be a simple oversight that the Daughters of the Confederacy did not raise funds for Longstreet statues with the same enthusiasm they did so for Lee or Jackson, it is more likely politics that played a role in the decision. Longstreet was detested by many of the Confederate sympathizers for his willingness to assist with Reconstruction efforts, so much so he was even taken hostage, and it would be strange indeed if that played no role whatsoever in the lack of Longstreet statues in his home state. 

Ultimately, the people of Bentonville will decide what happens with the Johnston statue, not to mention all the other Confederate statues in the city. But regardless of what these people decide, it is important all of us, no matter which side of the debate we fall on, to reject the mythology that puts a pretty face on the Confederacy and be honest with ourselves about what many of the Confederate statues really represent.