One by one they are falling, like weeds being cleared from a long-neglected garden. Statues and other public monuments commemorating the Confederacy, that cabal of slave-holding Southern states that precipitated the American Civil War during the 1860s, are being taken down and placed in storage or in museums – anywhere other than the pride-of-place locations they have occupied in public parks and civic squares. The presence of these monuments, along with the display and veneration of the “stars-and-bars” Confederate battle flag, has been the subject of acrimonious division and debate for decades. One side decries the continued presence of these monuments as constituting tacit – or, perhaps, overt – approval of slavery and the right to secession. The other side insists that the statues and flags are legitimate memorials to the history and heritage of the South. Passions run hot and deep in this debate. It’s as though the Confederacy’s surrender in 1865 ended the war on the battlefield, but not in the hearts and minds of the descendants of those who fought in the conflict. Violence seethes beneath the surface of the dispute. Sometimes the brutality breaks through, leading to painful – and even lethal – consequences. Case in point: In Charlottesville, Virginia, city authorities decided to remove an equestrian statue of General Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Confederate armed forces during their attempt to break away from the Union, from a public space ironically named “Emancipation Park.” In August, a gang of white supremacists for whom veneration of the Confederacy is only part of an overtly racist and anti-Semitic ideology marched in protest of the statue’s imminent removal. Counterprotesters who supported the removal soon appeared. In the midst of the resulting chaos and confusion, a car rammed into the ranks of the counterprotesters, killing a young woman. A white-supremacist man faces charges in the wake of the tragedy.
Not only did the Charlottesville authorities uphold their decision to relocate the Lee statue; other Southern municipalities also took action to eliminate their Confederate monuments as well. Those measures prompted the expected pushback from people who continue to cling to the belief that the defeat of the Confederacy represents a “lost cause” rather than simply a lost war. The union’s victory preserved the federation of states that went on to become the most powerful nation in the world, both economically and militarily. Reluctantly, then eagerly, the former Confederacy participated in, and benefited from, the advancement of the nation it had attempted to rip asunder. If anything, the South should be dotted with monuments honoring Civil War president Abraham Lincoln and Union General Ulysses S. Grant, who won the war, rather than Lee and Jefferson Davis, who was president of the Confederate states. It stands to reason that many Southerners have long since accepted the result of the Civil War, and have moved on. Yet many others, as evidenced by the Charlottesville disaster, clearly wish the outcome had gone the other way … that the Confederacy had succeeded in its aim to establish itself as an independent nation. But why? Do these dreamers really believe that residents of a separate South would have lived happily ever after, with no more interference from those do-gooding abolitionists from the North? Well, you know the old saying:
“Be careful what you wish for.”