Abraham Lincoln wrote that “We cannot escape history,” but those tearing down statues of Confederate Civil War soldiers are trying to do just that. It won’t work.
Thankfully, most of us now agree that the human slavery and racism, upon which the Confederate economy was based, is an intrinsic evil.
However, if we now take the step of removing all Confederate memorials from view, we erase history itself – for wars require two sides, not just one. A war with only one side is a joke and the Civil War, with its causes and carnage, was very far from a joking matter.
When removing monuments, we forget that in the 1860’s what most of us now take for granted – equality of race and religion – was not a widely held view anywhere in the United States, even by men such as Lincoln. The North and South were more alike in social mores than many people realize. That subtlety is eradicated if we associate only one side of the Civil War with racism, and we also trivialize the unfinished journey, started in that war, to recognizing that all people really are created equal.
When removing monuments, we forget that the motives of men fighting for the Confederacy were more nuanced than a defense of racism and slavery. Most Southern soldiers were poor and slaveless, but also refused to countenance the interference of unctuous outsiders in their lives. Men like Lee were often ambiguous about slavery, but felt compelled to defend their homes, right or wrong, much as we would come to the defense of our own country, though it has often acted in ways far removed from the path of virtue.
Some on the right and left view Confederate statues as simple memorials to racism, but I see a more involved reality.
I see people who fought – as Ulysses Grant put it – “honorably, but in one of the worst causes for which men over fought.” I see people acting honorably, given the social mores of their times, even as we now see those mores as clearly wrong.
I see the reminders of history, the painful start of a long and unfinished journey, and people who, while of a different time, were little different from us now. That could have been us.
I see that as we now act imperfectly, for instance treating the Earth like a gigantic toilet, we should hope our descendants hold a more lenient view of us, than many of us hold of those who fought on both sides of our Civil War 150 years ago.