Suddenly, one hundred and fifty years after Appomattox, the Civil War has become a hot topic yet again. Dylann Roof gets the blame for starting this. In the wake of his massacre of nine African-Americans in a Charleston church, we learned of his Confederate battle flag obsession.
In a public reaction to his heinous act, the Confederate battle flag is under attack on state government flag poles across the South.
We have been through similar controversies before. Long ago, the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors were induced by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to declare “Confederate Heritage Month.” This announcement polarized our community quite a bit. Many African-Americans were not happy about being asked to celebrate Confederate Heritage, and neither were many of the substantial number of residents who moved here from points north. I can remember a very unfortunate public meeting of an out-of-state white supremacist group the “World Church of the Creator” at the Chester Library in 2002, which generated a heavy police presence and challenged the library staff.
I attended a public meeting sometime in that era – I am not sure if it preceded or followed the WCOC mess. I offered the suggestion, disliked by some, that we needed to stop celebrating Confederate Heritage Month; we could simply call it Civil War Heritage month. In 1864, a young man from South Carolina died at the Battle of the Wilderness for the Confederate cause. His name was Hain Young, and he was my great-great-grand uncle. But I do not feel like a recipient of “confederate heritage.” When we recite the Pledge of Allegiance at my Rotary Club, we say “one nation, indivisible.” This is a reference to the idea that our nation cannot be allowed to shatter over any political deadlock. Perhaps that Civil War lesson may have been worth the hundreds of thousands of lives that it cost us to learn.
In the wake of the Charleston massacre, we are seeing that our Civil War ‘heritage,’ a bit fuzzy for many of us, could be good or bad. Battle flags from a defunct entity from long beyond living memory seem like something we can eliminate from today’s government buildings, as those flags have no actual legitimacy. Such flags on bumper stickers or in front yards, however, are protected by the first amendment. How about the other area of hot argument – public statues and memorials for Confederate generals or politicians?
The recent event of someone spray painting “black lives matter” on a memorial for Confederate President Jefferson Davis gave me mixed emotions. Davis was a detestable human being and did own many slaves. But he once lived, and our ancestors once allowed him to run our “country.” Pretending that the Confederacy did not happen would make some of us miserable and some of us delighted. But the real problem with that approach is that it did happen. We need to live in the real world.
But the back-and-forth continues. Fans of the Confederate battle flag will be incensed at its absence from certain flagpoles. Already, several black church buildings in the deep south have burned in arson attacks, and suspicion turns to white racists. Time will past and things will calm down, but something may happen later to bring it back to the front burner. Meanwhile, old statues and memorials need to be left alone, just as we should retain the many Civil War battlefield parks in our area such as Drewry’s Bluff and Parker’s Battery. These are good places for walking and thinking. Parks and monuments are not always about celebrating our past- they can also be about regret, reconciliation and learning hard lessons. If we have new heroes in our new world we can find some traffic circles for them, too.
I always felt that George Henry Thomas should have had a statue on Monument Avenue.
As a boy in 1831, he lived through the Nat Turner rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, and seemed to take away the lesson that slavery was a hopelessly evil thing. Thomas went through West Point, and as an Army officer, he chose to keep his oath of loyalty to the United States when the Civil War broke out. He served with distinction, saving the Union Army at the Battle of Chickamauga, and later destroying the Confederate Army of Tennessee under John Hood at the Battle of Nashville. Thomas was never given much credit for his accomplishments by his boss, General Grant, and, when he died in 1870, none of his relatives attended his funeral.
We idolize certain Confederate Generals for valuing regional loyalty over keeping their oath of loyalty to the United States. Maybe Thomas will get a statue, somewhere, someday.
We are not allowed to remove statues because they are inconvenient. In the larger sense, we are not allowed to edit history because it is sad, unfair or shameful.