I am, in part, a child of the Confederacy.
Two of my great-great-grandfathers were Civil War officers, one in the South Carolina Militia, the other in the South Carolina Cavalry. Both served honorably, and once the war was past, returned to their towns to raise families and rebuild their communities. In that sense, they were lucky: more than 90,000 Southern soldiers died in battle, 164,000 died of disease, and 31,000 died in Union prison camps. Those never raised families or rebuilt their towns.
Now, I am also a son of the Union, since another great-great-grandfather fought with the North (and ironically was severely wounded in South Carolina). That makes me a “son of both” — an SOB, in lineage society parlance. Indeed, I belong to societies that honor and memorialize both.
But there is no controversy about my Union heritage, not in the way there now is about Southern descent. So as you can imagine, I have a conflicted perspective on the claims, accusations, and vitriol that surrounds it, and the monuments, flags, and celebrations that recall that part of my — and our — history.
It is impossible to claim that the Southern position was not fundamentally based on slavery. Yes, a perceived violation of states’ Constitutional rights were the political justification to secede — but the rights that the Southern states wanted to preserve were rights to treat human beings as property. In fact, Lincoln himself recognized and acknowledged those rights: he originally intended for the South to retain them, and only wished to bar new territories and states from asserting them. Slavery, it seems, was an essential commercial and legal characteristic of the entire American nation. That stain began on day one.
This has become a rabbit hole of guilt and victimization. It is without question true that the prosperity of the American nation in its first century benefited from slavery — South and North. It is well-known that several founding fathers owned slaves, even as they signed a Declaration that all men were created equal. And finally it is indisputable that slavery was the basis for Southern secession, was defended politically and militarily by its politicians and soldiers, and was perpetuated in effect if not by practice long after the war was lost.
But the question is not the past. It is the present, and perhaps, the future.
The question is whether honoring a person’s achievements and contributions implicitly honors his or her failings as well. Does recognition of a man’s good deeds also absolve his bad ones? And what is a good deed, if it directly or indirectly affirms a moral turpitude?
I don’t think there is an answer to this — at least, not one that everyone will agree to. One man’s honor of an ancestor for bravely defending (and perhaps dying for) his state and family, is dishonor to another for having participated, even dutifully, in a war to protect an immorality. These arguments rapidly become ridiculous as degrees of good and evil are stretched and distorted, so that Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee and George Washingon all find their historical actions equated and measured to try to find a balance point whereby public honor becomes acceptable.
Everyone reads into a public honor his own interpretation of history. While many of the monuments so controversial today were erected, not immediately as war memorials, but a century later as veiled political statements, with the passing of time today’s citizens see in them their own personal understanding of the histories of their families and communities. There are many who feel that it is possible and even correct to honor an individual for bravery and duty regardless of the service to which it was rendered, just as we accept Vietnam War memorials despite the events of My Lai or the use of napalm.
The more fundamental question is how (or whether) to honor someone if doing so offends a portion of the citizenry. That’s a question, it seems to me, for each individual community to work out, and not for agitated activists of either persuasion to force from the outside. Every town cannot become a battlefield for the political emotions of the nation at large. It’s not their field to occupy.
Despite all of this, however, there sometimes arises a development that sweeps away issues of historical judgement, and makes the fact of a public honor a concern far beyond its merits. That is when a monument or memorial becomes a rallying point for the emergence of new political movements that threaten the integrity of the community, state, or nation. No one objects when a universally accepted patriotic group gathers around a statue of George Washington during times of national crisis or celebration. But when a neo-Nazi or neo-Confederate group gathers near one of Robert E. Lee to promote ideologies of oppression and hatred against fellow citizens, that fact alone destroys the value of a public honor, and transmutes a monument into a symbol of the worst and not the best of that person’s history.
And that is the moment to tear it down. Because if a monument starts to be seen, not as recognition of the best of a person, but as an affirmation of the worst of him, it is no honor at all. And that dishonors not just him, but us.