Charles Thomas Hulsey, Private, 3rd Regiment, Confederate Cavalry (Howard’s), Company D … Great Great Great Grandfather
John W. Parmer, Private, 29th Regiment, Tennessee Infantry, Company K … Great Great Great Grandfather
Payton W. Eagle, Private, 42nd Regiment, North Carolina Infantry, Company B … Great Great Great Grandfather
William James McHargue, Blacksmith, 2nd Regiment, North Carolina Cavalry, Company B … Great Great Great Grandfather
Hugh Brotherton, Private, 49th Regiment, North Carolina Infantry, Company I … Great Great Great Great Grandfather
I wrote my first “academic” paper on the United States Civil War when I was a junior in high school – a (rather poor) eight page summary of the Battle of Chancellorsville – Robert E. Lee’s tactical masterpiece, and the battle that martyred General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. I was (and am – and always will be) a Southerner, born and raised in rural Arkansas, and I was (and am – and always will be, though it has really changed) what my dad called a “Civil War buff.” I got interested, and I learned, but my interest was almost never academic. My interest was personal – cultural.
At least five of my direct ancestors fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War – the gentlemen whose names you see above. These are direct ancestors, but there were many other great great great uncles and cousins. The only way I can describe how I felt as I learned their names and their histories is … proud. Proud of the part that my family had played in that great conflict that had defined America.
As a senior in my very rural high school, we dealt with a lot of graduation paraphernalia that included a senior ring – a gaudy, wholly unnecessary thing that had a whole catalog of options for designs that could be put on the sides. We could choose from school logos, or mascots, or several club emblems, or sports collages. On one side of mine I included my graduation year and school letters (PHS Class of ’96!).
On the other side was a Civil War cannon standing under a Confederate battle flag.
I say all of that to establish my credentials, my bona fides as a stereotypical white Southern male, raised under God and Robert E. Lee, convinced that the Civil War was fought over State’s Rights and the valorous Confederacy was fighting a great Lost Cause from the beginning.
And I establish my credentials so I can say this – the statues and the memorials need to come down. The military bases named after Confederate generals need to be renamed. The flags that fly over courthouses and statehouses need to have all Confederate imagery removed. The battlefields that preserve Confederate victories need to be turned into wildlife preserves or have houses built on them. The whole of romantic Confederate memorial has to go.
All of it.
Take them down.
I started visiting Civil War battlefields in my twenties. Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove in Arkansas first, both Union victories. Then Shiloh in Tennessee, another Union victory. Then a road trip that started in Gettysburg and hit Fredericksburg, the battlefields around Richmond (including Malvern Hill and Cold Harbor), and finally Appomattox Courthouse. I drove over and spent a whole weekend at Vicksburg, followed by a weekend at Chickamauga. It took me 10 years to process what I learned on those trips, but once I did, I realized that the United States of America is doing Civil War history all wrong.
All of the Confederate stuff has to go.
My memories from those trips tend to be snapshots – standing in the peach orchard and in Bloody Lane at Shiloh, looking up Cemetery Ridge toward the bloody angle, peeking into the parlor where Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S Grant. I can see these pictures quite clearly. But there are two moments that were different – moments that, when I recall them, bring memories not of what I saw, but how I felt. Moments that hit so hard they eventually caused me to reconsider everything, to examine my beliefs and assumptions and to ultimately conclude that I was completely wrong about almost all of it – my pride, my surety that these things and places needed to be memorialized, remembered.
The first of these was at Gettysburg. The highway into town runs at the base of Cemetery Ridge – right through the battlefield through which Pickett charged. A park service road travels the length of the Confederate line, linking a series of battlefield memorials recognizing the different states that sent soldiers to that battle. The Virginia Monument, for example, is a grand statue of Marse Robert himself, mounted on his horse Trigger, surveying the field.
The Arkansas Monument is near the end of the line, and is plain by Gettysburg standards. It is a large slab, with soldiers carved in relief and an outline of the State of Arkansas, which has the following inscription inside:
“The grateful people of the State of Arkansas erect this memorial as an expression of their pride in the officers and men of the 3rd Arkansas Infantry, Confederate States Army, who by their valor and their blood have made this ground forever hallowed.”
The first time I saw it I nearly wept, I was so proud. My people, boys about my age, came and fought well and died for a cause they believed in and were called to. Those people came from my towns and my hills, and they followed Lee and Longstreet and hallowed this Yankee ground. My people. I could have hugged that monument.
Maybe I did.
The very next day, I visited the Fredericksburg Battlefield, in Virginia. In many respects, Fredericksburg was the apex of the Confederate cause. The combination of superior geography and stupidly stubborn Union leadership led to a decisive, legend-making victory for the Southern forces. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet, J.E.B. Stuart, A.P. Hill – all of the gods of the Confederacy were there. It was at Fredericksburg that Lee, overcome with awe, mused “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” It was that kind of day.
I’d spent time previously at Shiloh, a very well preserved Union victory, and had just come from Gettysburg, another huge battlefield that happened to be a Union victory. Because Fredericksburg was such a big deal in the war, one of the handful of battles that truly made a difference when it was fought and is listed with the likes of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Antietam, I expected a similarly well-preserved battlefield and memorial. And that is not what I got.
The Confederate position at Fredericksburg was on top of a ridge called Marye’s Heights, and the Union army had to cross the Rappahannock River and charge over a big plain in order to reach the heights. It was a shooting gallery, and the Union was slaughtered. Following the models I’d seen at the other battlefields, I expected to see the river crossing, the entire field of battle, and all of the Heights covered with monuments – and they aren’t. A small section of Marye’s Heights has been preserved, and that’s really about it.
As I stood on that ridge and looked out at the houses being built on the Rappahannock … I was offended. How could one of the masterpiece, distinctive victories of the Army of Northern Virginia – the great Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and James Longstreet at their absolute finest – be disrespected like this? This was United States history, right here! These people fought and died for their country and cause (never mind that their country wasn’t the same as the one I was in) – we must remember!
That trip was over 15 years ago, and I can still feel the way I felt those feelings – pride in my “heritage,” and offense for the memory of my people that fought and died so bravely.
And it’s all wrong, for so many reasons.
First things first – there is not a single thing wrong with being proud of being Southern. The South has room for improvement, just like everywhere, but there are parts of the culture that are worthy of our pride. But the “heritage” that we speak of when we talk about the Confederacy and its symbols is not a heritage of bluegrass music and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day and calling any soda “Coke.” The heritage of the Confederacy is slavery, and racism, and hatred. You can say what you want to say about State’s Rights – the men and women of the Confederate States of America were fighting for the absolute right to tear human beings from their homes, enslave them, treat them as less-than-human (livestock, really), beat them to make them work, sell children away from their parents for profit, and in all ways ensure that those humans would never, ever, ever have rights equal to theirs because those humans were, well, less than human. That’s the State’s Right they were fighting for. Robert E. Lee is talked about in hushed tones as a gentleman patriarch, nearly a God. Stonewall Jackson was a pious, God-fearing Christian. But it doesn’t matter if these men were good men or not. All that matters is what they did – and what they did was choose to go to war to dissolve the United States of America in furtherance of an orthodoxy that can only be described as evil.
Our heritage is hate and oppression. Our heritage can be seen every day in the statistics that prove systemic racism and white privilege. Our heritage is an unearned smug superiority that we try to back up with jingoistic patriotism and anti-elitism that only ever makes it worse for every single one of us. And until we’re willing to acknowledge and back away from our real heritage we’re going to be seen as the backward racists that we are. Because we, collectively, are. About that there can be no doubt.
Statues and monuments aren’t history. Museums are history. Textbooks are history. History is academic – what happened, why, how did it impact society, what can we learn from it, how can we make sure it never happens again. History has context. When young men (and maybe women – I speak to the experience of men because it is the one I know) from the South view these memorials and statues, they don’t view them with historical context. They view them as culturally aspirational.
A statue of Robert E. Lee, or Jefferson Davis, or some random young private, shares its space on a county square with a monument to the heroes of World War II, and sometimes even a cross, or a copy of the Ten Commandments. A young man trying to figure out what he wants to be in life sees these things not as history textbooks but as encouraging posters. We make statues and memorials for great people, people that we believe we should emulate. We name military bases and institutions for people that we’d hope our children can aspire one day to be, in all respects. We don’t put context, and difficult quotes, and discussions of racism next to, for example, the Arkansas Memorial at Gettysburg. And so when I saw these things as a young man, I saw them without context and I naturally felt pride – and immediately needed to defend everything about this idea.
So let’s, as a country, be clear about what is being romanticized here:
The Confederate States of America was an armed insurrection against the United States of America with the express and stated purpose of dissolving said United States for the primary end of furthering the evil and racist institution of slavery. Robert E. Lee invaded the United States of America with an Army as an offensive strategy against an enemy. They killed hundreds of thousands of American citizens, and they did so primarily because they thought black people weren’t actually people.
Read that again. Those are facts borne out by any fair and complete reading of history. If you disagree with one of those facts, then there’s the first problem – we’ve got to get straight on the facts. If you agree with those facts, then here’s what follows:
Is that what we want to be holding up to our children as who they should be? I’m asking my fellow Americans and Southerners – who do we want to be? I’m not talking about erasing history – the history will always be there. But history is in museums and textbooks. I’m talking about pointing to our heroes and establishing a cultural narrative about the ones we talk to our kids about in hushed tones, the ones our kids see statues of in the square, the ones that we can call heroes without ever having to forget the big driving force of their narratives. There are plenty of those.
Take down the statues of Lee, Stuart, Jackson, and Davis on Monument Avenue in Richmond and replace them with Grant, Sherman, and Lincoln. Or if that’s a bridge too far then put in Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, or Frederick Douglass. Take the names of A.P. Hill, Braxton Bragg, and John Bell Hood off of American military bases and replace them with modern military heroes – how about Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall, or Chester Nimintz?
And those are pretty easy, but I’ve become convinced that if we’re ever going to be able to move on we’re going to have to exorcise these demons. Now is not the time for half-way solutions – now is the time to make a point. Raze the Fredericksburg battlefield and put a rent-controlled housing development at the base of Marye’s Heights. Bulldoze every monument and let Chickamauga return to wilderness in North Georgia. Knock down the monuments on Lee’s line at Gettysburg, and do it because they lost, dammit. And leave all of the Union monuments. Leave the statues of Lincoln, and don’t touch the Shiloh battlefield. The United States of America needs to make a point that not only will it NEVER forget, but it will NEVER tolerate that kind of attack on its sovereignty again.
Confederate battle flags should be outlawed, just like swastikas are outlawed in Germany. But not just the battle flag. Take a look at Georgia’s state flag, and compare it to the official flag of the Confederate States of America. Mississippi is getting all of the attention right now for the battle flag, but tell me this is any better?
I’m a descendant of Confederate Veterans. I was raised a white, protestant Son of the South in a Confederate state that required the National Guard to integrate the high schools in my parents’ lifetimes. And it’s time to say it publicly, and loudly – full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes:
We’ve got to stop it with the Confederacy.
We’ve got to kill it off.
It has to go, all of it. America will never heal until it does.
Take it down.
Take it all down.