As is probably pretty obvious I am greatly interested in monuments. So it pains me to see what is happening around the country with flashpoints in recent days in New Orleans and Charlottesville, Virginia.On one hand I understand that a certain population has to see monuments to Confederates as a great big middle finger. That their ancestors were oppressed by the Confederates, a war was fought over that and the Confederates lost yet the monuments glorify that lost cause.
Although the Confederacy lost they have more monuments in their cities than the average northern city does to its cause. It would be easier if the monuments had always been to the fallen soldiers, placed in cemeteries or court house squares. But we have monuments to the leaders of that fight.
And that is where things get difficult. Monuments commemorating the dead are far easier to fight to preserve. But does every city with a population over 50,000 really need a monument to Robert E. Lee? Probably not. It would be easy if the only Lee monuments were in places where it has more historical context, like near a battlefield Lee fought at, or where he lived a portion of his life, or where he died.
But history is often not easy to deal with. It can be ugly and unpleasant to deal with, even with 150 plus years of hindsight. I doubt many descendants of Confederates would say they are proud that their ancestor fought to maintain slavery. They would be proud that they defended their home, country, state. That they fought well on the battlefield. Was the cause the Confederates fought for so ghastly that we need to clean it from our memory? Certainly not. But neither do we need to celebrate it. We cannot ignore it so we should strive to understand it better.
So where is that fine line between commemorating and celebrating? How do we better understand the Civil War? Do we leave the monuments in their places? Add nearby signage explaining more of the story? Move the monuments to an interpretive park? Does every city have the space to create an interpretive park? Probably not. When a monument is not easily accessible by foot would signage really matter as few would see it? If most “visitors” are driving by it then any signage won’t be seen.
It should be clear that the answer is not taking down the monument and hiding it. It appears that this is what New Orleans is doing. They’ve removed two of a planned four monuments. But the city has tons of other small monuments scattered around. What is the future for those monuments? There are some too that advocate destroying the monuments once removed.
In Charlottesville the plan is to sell the Robert E Lee monument. I’m not sure who is buying it but because I haven’t heard anyone announce that Lee will be moved to an interpretive park my guess is the buyer will hide or destroy the monument.
Ultimately trying to hide our history is what disturbs me the most. We need to find ways to explain it, show the multifaceted sides of the issue. None of this is easy. I wish I could offer up easy solutions to the cities struggling with this. I understand that cities would rather remove the offending monument than deal with the harder discussion. But they also should be aware that removing the monument is likely to do little to improve the day to day lives of its people. Sure there will not be the visual reminder but the scars of our history are not so easily forgotten.
And the cities should be aware that it gives Civil War tourists one less reason to visit. If I was going to New Orleans six months ago those four monuments, along with the other smaller ones, would have been on my itinerary. Plus the museums, cemeteries and other sites around town. Maybe it would have been lunch time while I was near some monuments and I would have eaten locally. Now the list has grown smaller. Six months from now how much will remain to see? Will the concerted effort of the city to erase its past instead of learning from it have soured me on making a visit at all?