On this day in 1776, an angry mob, incited by a public reading of the Declaration of Independence, pulled down a statue of King George III in Bowling Green Park in New York City. Its lead was melted down and molded into musket balls.
This image seemed appropriate as the furor continues over whether we should tear down monuments to Confederates. (Examples: should bikers even ride down Monument Avenue in Richmond? Are Confederate statues a “public nuisance” in New Orleans?) I agree with the blogger who argues that a recent piece in Slate magazine—Watch as 13,000 Civil War Monuments Fill the U.S. Map, and Read the Chilling Inscriptions—too easily conflates monuments and markers and doesn’t actually offer up any examples of “chilling inscriptions.”
What about Confederate statues in cemeteries? Are we going to desecrate those gravesites by pulling those down?
Well, as it happens … Memphis plans on moving the remains of Nathan Bedford Forrest from a park where there stands a big equestrian statue of the former slave trader, Confederate general, and KKK member—although perhaps, in this instance, it’s a win-win.
Whatever the case, a member of the Charlottesville city council said recently:
It was a shameful period in our history. [I]s that still the narrative that we want to convey in the 21st century?
The problem, though, is that it’s not clear which period in our history she’s talking about. When you have a statue of Robert E. Lee in town, does it represent the war years or the time in which it was erected? And what if we don’t actually know too much about that latter period? After all, this same council member swears she sees white-robed KKK members in a photograph of the statue’s dedication when, in fact, according to a local historian, those are just members of the local militia. (Here’s a picture of the unveiling of the Stonewall Jackson monument, also in Charlottesville.)
What if we’re just seeing what we assume to have been there, rather than what is actually there?
That’s always a danger with history. And I think that, in our often well-intentioned desire to acknowledge a racist and violent past, we risk losing, even erasing, an important part of our history.
Back to the original question: What narrative do we—as a community, as a state, as a nation—want to convey? Not one, I hope, where we shy away from difficult truths. One of these is the way in which, in the decades after the Civil War, the idea of the Lost Cause took hold, north and south. By venerating men like Lee and the heroism of the common Confederate soldier, by deciding that slavery really had nothing to do with any of it and that, in the end, the Confederacy was only defeated by sheer, overwhelming numbers, white people in America moved past the hatreds that led to war.
Lasalle Corbell Pickett, the famous Confederate general’s widow, made a career out of this, traveling to Yankee strongholds like Boston and bringing down the house with her feel-good lectures on Pickett’s Charge. It was the “first time in history,” one person wrote in 1910 after hearing her speak, “[that] more than 2,000 Bostonians ever stood up when the band played ‘Dixie.'”
Of course, I’ll bet none of them were African American. Black folks were left out of this particular reconciliation, left to their own devices as they lost the vote in Virginia and sometimes their lives.
Is this the narrative we want to convey? Well … yeah, assuming that we aren’t propagandists and don’t want to only tell the comforting, inspiring stories. And one way to make sure we remember this period in our history, and the often deadly and immoral compromises we as a nation made, would be to keep the monuments and better educate ourselves about what they meant and what they mean now.
If we get rid of them, won’t it just be that much easier to forget?
IMAGE: Pulling Down the Statue of George III; published by John C. McRae (1845), after a painting by Johannes A. Oertel (ca. 1800)