29 December 2017

Who's Winning the Confederate Monument Debate? Part 2

As I discussed in Part 1 of this topic, we've witnessed a multitude of Confederate monuments and statues disappear from the public landscape this past year. There are a few history and Civil War bloggers that celebrate this on a regular basis as they can barely contain their glee with each announcement of a monument removed or vandalized. 

But others seem to be having buyer's remorse after joining the Confederate bashing frenzy over the last few years. As I pointed out in the previous post on this subject, an overwhelming majority of Americans do NOT favor removal of Confederate monuments. Debating and arguing about the Civil War, its repercussions and why soldiers fought is one thing, but most folks think removing these monuments is simply going too far and that something important is being lost. Many also see that (as I and so many others predicted), this is the proverbial slippery slope and no figure in American history is pure enough to gain the approval of the new Puritans. (If Lee must go, then so too must Washington.) An anecdotal sampling of professional historians in the October issue of Civil War Times revealed the same overwhelming opinion--Confederate monuments and statues should not be removed. While the concerns being expressed by those advocating for removal should be addressed in some way, most do not believe removing Confederate monuments from public spaces is the right thing to do. 

In addition to the fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans oppose removing these monuments, the largest battlefield preservationist organization in the country (The Civil War Trust) recently sent a survey to members and others wanting to know how that organization should respond to the removal of Civil War monuments. The heading of the survey itself included the following in bold text: "OUR HISTORY: EMBRACE IT - DON'T ERASE IT!"

In an announcement posted in September of this year, CWT President O. James Lighthizer alluded to this same position:
As a general rule, we believe monuments should remain where they were erected. Taking a historic resource out of its proper, historic context is rarely an advisable course of action. But in the case of moving monuments to battlefields, our imperative is to ensure their integrity in perpetuity – so future visitors can fully experience the landscapes the soldiers once saw. Aside from the immense costs in moving and maintaining such monuments, the Civil War Trust would not want to facilitate the loss of pristine battlefield landscapes by placing monuments where they were never intended. [Emphasis mine.]
This public announcement is a big deal to me. In some ways, I'm a bit surprised that I've not seen this mentioned on other Civil War blogs and websites. Are these other bloggers and historians unaware or do they prefer not to point out that their cheerleading for monument removal is apparently being challenged by some rather formidable forces? 

I recently contacted an official with CWT to inquire about the results of the survey. I was informed that the CWT expects to release those results sometime early next year. The official I contacted via email sent a response back to me stating, in part:
I can say with confidence that most members seem to agree with you, that the monuments should stay where they are with some additional interpretation if needed . . . [Emphasis mine.]
This approach seems to be the most popular "middle of the road" response to the call for removal of Confederate (and other) monuments. Frankly, I think "additional interpretation" is simply pandering, condescending and patronizing. Americans interested in the context can figure that out on their own. Adding a couple of paragraphs of "additional interpretation" is rather silly in my opinion. Besides, there will be even more backlash with that as well with one side or the other saying the "additional interpretation" is itself biased. I maintain the best solution is simply to add more monuments and statues which will reflect other perspectives and tell a more complete story.

Of course, the CWT is not the only preservationist organization that is taking this position. As I pointed out in an earlier post, the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation came out very strong in opposition to monument removal. Their bold stance prompted me to immediately contribute and become a member. Their position statement includes the following:
The monument policy states that the “SVBF is opposed to the wholesale eradication or removal of plaques, statues, monuments, place names, and other public honors associated with the history and heritage of the United States.”
As well as . . .
“Rather than taking down Confederate monuments, we should be adding additional monuments that address the subjects of slavery, the Underground Railroad, self-emancipation, U.S.C.T. service, the 13th through 15th amendments, reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, and the Civil Rights Acts. Existing monuments should be kept intact, but can often be complemented with interpretative signage that provides context and reflects a broader history than the monument itself evidences.”
This is, in my opinion, a much more reasonable approach and one that closest matches my own position. This is a way to preserve the existing monuments while, at the same time, addressing the concerns over aspects of the war that have not been as publicly recognized and remembered. I cannot figure out why such an approach isn't being advocated by more public historians and academics unless, of course, they have other agendas.

And while one would expect the Sons of Confederate Veterans to be vocal about opposing the removal of Confederate monuments, the Sons of Union Veterans have also issued a strong statement in opposition to removing ANY Civil War monuments. A policy statement issued in August of 2017 states, in part, the following:
WHEREAS, we the  members of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War strongly condemn the removal, defacement or destruction of any Civil War Veterans Monument or tablet, whether Union or confederate.
Self-serving politicians, progressive historians and activists motivated by emotion and other agendas seem to be getting all the attention while reasonable voices opposing the removal of Confederate (and other) monuments are either being ignored or are shouted down. If those voices opposing the removal of monuments could unite and persevere, we might see a more positive approach to this issue going forward. I certainly hope so.

Regardless, I believe that given how the vast majority of Americans feel about Confederate monuments and the fact preservationist organizations are, albeit late, arguing against removal, the debate about what happens going forward isn't over.


Mark Snell said...

"Americans interested in the context can figure that out on their own." You have more faith in the general public than I do. Check out any given episode of "Watters's World" (or any other talk show where a correspondent queries Americans about the simplest facts of American history)and you will understand. Happy New Year, Richard, and I hope you find that elusive Confederate accoutrement plate in the coming year.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

The folks on "Watters's World" generally aren't the type of folks paying attention to monuments anyway. They're too busy with snapchat and Facebook. ;-) Let's put it this way, I have more faith in a random sampling of Americans than I do of most experts. At 60, I've had enough experience with both to come to that conclusion.

Happy New Year to you as well my friend. May you find 2 elusive Confederate plates!

TheVirginiaHistorian said...

I come down on the keep or relocate side; to spare the community expense of relocation to a museum for “context” I prefer the contextualization plaque which amounts to the same thing. In localities where the “move” side prevails, some martial statues might be relocated to appropriate battlefields, some memorials to Confederate dead might be relocated to Confederate cemeteries.

I particularly like the idea of "keep" and having “counter” memorials added to adjacent public spaces to create an enlarged open air narrative. The public spaces of memorials in each locality might be extended to include local personages who were not Confederate, whether Unionists (George Thomas) or Abolitionists (John Mercer Langston), etc. In no circumstance should the Confederate monuments be removed so as to be hidden from public view.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

That's very reasonable and not far from my position. I maintain "interpretative" plaques are problematic due to reasons I already stated. Thanks for reading and commenting.