On Thursday morning, as the President of the United States tweeted his tacit support of the Confederacy, three different friends sent me messages. Each was struggling with the same thing: how do we convince our friends and families that statues of former Confederates need to come down? One friend had spent the previous evening in tears after an interaction with a loved one turned from conversation to argument.
I won’t spend time trying to explain why the statues must come down — Civil War historians with far more clout have been doing the brave work of talking to reporters about these issues since last week. Instead, I want to make one argument for why these conversations are so hard: we love the Civil War too much.
Recently, I wrote about Judith Giesberg’s Sex and the Civil War for Nursing Clio. In my review, I said that out of all the incredibly fascinating material in that book, the thing that stood out most to me was an argument that appears at the end where Giesberg suggests that perhaps writing about the war is, in a sense, pornographic.1 We’re drawn to its obscenity, its insatiable and entrancing violence. Similarly, Drew Gilpin Faust has suggested that the war is seductive because of its horrors, and that in obsessing over it, we may be reinforcing the allure of war itself.2
Many white Americans love the Civil War. They’re drawn to the drama and tragedy, the inspiring characters and compelling action, but most of all, they’re drawn in by the sense that the war was transcendent. Men, they believe, fought for righteous causes – hearth and home, preservation of a way of life, the rejection of tyranny. But that love is built on a very particular historical memory that oversimplifies, mythologizes, and deifies. It focuses on the battlefield and ignores the plantation; honors the soldier and ignores ideology; clings to the glories and struggles to accept the bitter and unseemly. I know this because I love the Civil War. But unlike many Civil War enthusiasts, I went on to become a professional historian, and my childhood love matured, tempered, and broadened with deep reading and study that helped me to see all the problematic complexities.
There are various reasons why many Americans do not want to see those monuments to white supremacy come down, but I want to offer one more. We love the Civil War so much that when we are presented with the truth of what those monuments mean, we refuse to accept that what we love was actually a violent struggle in which the inhumanity of Black Americans was at the center. Facing the real history of these monuments means confronting the fact that loving Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson means loving white supremacy — that’s why those conversations with our friends and family members become bizarrely personal and painful. We don’t want to give up what we love. We do not want to admit that in some sense, those of us who love this war are complicit.
I’m not sure how this helps us move forward, except to say that it’s not enough to love the past. We need to probe it, question it, and condemn it when necessary. Maybe what we need is a kind of tough love, one that looks unflinchingly at the flaws and acknowledges them, one that requires a higher standard. And maybe, when it comes to the bronze symbols of the Confederacy, we need a love that knows when it’s time to break up and move on.
- Judith Giesberg, Sex and the Civil War:Soldiers, Pornography, and the Making of American Morality (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 106-108. Return to text.
- Drew Gilpin Faust, “‘We Should Grow Too Fond of It:’ Why We Love the Civil War,” Civil War History 4 (2004), 382. Return to text.
Isn’t erasure of monuments to the defeated just another form of the truism that the victors get to write the history? Wouldn’t it be better to complicate those monuments by juxtaposing them with monuments to the people they oppressed? I don’t think there’s a single bronze statue in settler societies like the US and Australia where the accomplishments of the past didn’t come at horrendous cost to someone – first peoples, the environment, exploited groups (convicts, immigrants, the working poor etc.), women and children. Isn’t our job more to contextualise and complicate these celebrations of history, rather than erase them?
Normally I would say yes. Complicating statues with new signage and interpretative materials would be great. And I absolutely agree that there are a great many statues that are deeply problematic. Heaven knows, the United States has other statues to other people and other time periods that I think shouldn’t be there. For just one example, I can’t wait until the day that the people of Buffalo, where I live, tear down their Christopher Columbus statue. But in this case, I don’t think it’s feasible to re-interpret or contextualize every single statue. Perhaps some can be, or can be moved to places where they can be re-interpreted to tell the story of the Lost Cause, but it’s simply not possible for all of these statues to be contextualize properly.
But also, I want to note that what these statues are celebrating is white supremacy, Jim Crow, and the Lost Cause. Their removal isn’t erasing anything. All of that history is perfectly safe in museums, battlefields, books, symposiums, etc.
We we need to probe it, question it and condemn it, but we must never forget it. I have mixed emotions on this topic. As a fellow historian, I acknowledge that the past can not be erased and forgotten, lest we fail to learn from it. One can not, especially in this country, fully condemn the actions of those who fought and died for what they held sacred. To do so would be to reverse the healing and forgiveness that makes our history as Americans so unique. We forgave those who gave their last measure for a cause, though we consider it vile, and welcomed them back into the fold with open arms. As our fellow countrymen. No other nation has dealt with civil war in this fashion.
On the flip side, we can also never forget that the main cause of the war was, in fact, the servitude of fellow Americans. The delicate balance is to remember the fallen while also remembering and condemning the motivation. I feel that erasing all vestiges of “the lost cause” may have the effect of alienating and vilifying, which may have generational effects. We, as Americans, having lived through this horror and emerged with renewed fellowship and forgiveness are mature enough to handle it, and I fear that the knee jerk reaction to wipe the slate clean, so to speak, may be counter productive to what the war taught us to be. Forgiving, as Americans, to our fellow countrymen.
But, hey, that’s just my opinion.
I’d like people to also remember that the Confederacy and all confederates were and remain traitors the republic of the United States, then and now. Who celebrates traitors?
As were those who fought the British in the War of Independence. Don’t we all have a duty to be traitors to what we perceive to be tyranny?