In 1978, for my project to earn my Eagle Badge I led a group of Scouts that restored the Confederate grave plot at Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina, in time for Confederate Memorial Day that year, May 10, 1978. In case you are looking for subtlety, you are advised that the date coincides with the anniversary of the death of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson on May 10, 1863, at the Battle of Chancellorsville.
Growing up in Charleston, the Civil War was the coolest thing in the world. Everywhere you looked you saw evidence of it. The skyline of the city looks almost precisely as it did in 1860. In fact the city seems a museum to preserving the year 1860. I went to Fort Johnson High School, named for the fort that literally fired the first shot of the Civil War, on April 12, 1861.
As you can see, I was quite the Civil War historian. In 5th grade, in the social studies class of one of my favorite teachers of all time, Randolph Presley Ford, the young hip black teacher we all adored, I wrote, dressed, and directed our class play on the Civil War that our class performed to the entire school. We had to perform it three times to during school hours to crowd everyone in. That probably more than anything had whet my appetite for the subject.
I read and had dates memorized and could list the commanding generals of the Army of the Potomac in order. I never missed an opportunity to do a school paper on the subject.
I got to be insufferable – I started correcting my teachers on their misstatements about the war from the time I was in 6th grade.
We lived 300 yards from two Confederate earthwork batteries, complete with bastions, gun emplacements, and moats. I used to spend hours there looking for artifacts. Never found a one.
When I inquired of my teacher and friend, Floyd Dovell, if he had any suggestions for a project that might somehow involve local Civil War history, he suggested the cemetery plot at Magnolia immediately. I jumped all over it.
To me getting to do something tangible that contributed to the local Civil War history, was cooler than cool.
Looking back, my love of the Civil War, especially in Charleston, was a celebration of history itself and the opportunity, if not to live it then, to live among it. The Lee cult and the celebration of the Lost Cause were at their nadir in that era. It was just after the Bicentennial, which a Vietnam War-weary nation gratefully had turned to for the sake of unity, and sanity. It was a relief for everyone. There is evidence everywhere among my generation in the family photos of us in our ridiculously tailored red, white, and blue clothes and horrible haircuts.
My early delving into the subject was shaped by Mr. Ford, who saw to it that slavery was the focal point of our play. The South had lost, because it had picked a fight it could not win, and in its defeat a “new birth of freedom” swept in.
But face it, I was a white Southern male, and like many if not most of us, I remained wistful that the South had lost. I was of the people who lost. I remain convinced the contemplation of “what if” drives the interest in the Lost Southern Cause.
It is the “what if” that hangs over Lee’s dispatch that, if it had not been lost, would have denied McClellan of Lee’s battle plan, preventing Burnside from getting his troops to Sharpsburg in time on September 17, 1862. Or “what if” the heroic vanity of the climactic Austerlitz-like assault on Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863 had actually succeeded? All misty behind black and white images of the fallen in the Corn Field and Devil’s Den.
On my beloved Carolina campus stands Silent Sam. As far as I know his primary significance over the past 50 years is that he will fire off his rifle if a virgin “co-ed” walks by. I never heard a shot my whole seven years.
Contrary to the assumptions of virtually everyone at the time, Silent Sam, the Confederate soldier was not erected immediately after the war. He did not arrive until 1913, during the semicentennial celebration of the war, just a few years after Raleigh’s native son and Secretary of the Navy, Josephus “Cupa-Joe” Daniels, as publisher of The News & Observer, engineered a coup d’état in Wilmington and other cities and put the African-Americans back in their rightful place, you know, without a vote.
When you look back and see the emergence of these monuments at the same time as the white robes and Confederate battle flags (which never flew from a single flagstaff on Southern soil during the war – it was not the national flag), you see them all as symbols of subjugation and terror to remind the former slaves, who briefly saw rights but had them stolen under Jim Crow, just who it was that still ruled them.
As UNC professor Michael Muhammad Knight wrote of the dedication of Silent Sam, in an article for Vice leading up to a protest against the statue in January 2015:
At Silent Sam’s dedication, industrialist Julian Carr spoke of the Confederacy’s “battles in defense of Southern liberty and Southern honor,” and honored its soldiers as having “saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.” He also mentioned that just 100 yards from the monument, he personally “horse-whipped a Negro wench, until her skirt hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.” These are the values for which Silent Sam stands with rifle in hand. (Carr, incidentally, is also honored on campus with a building in his name.)
Eight years of an African-American in the White House began a conversation, often rancorous. Barack Obama bore with dignity the surprising hatred his holding the Presidency provoked in many. But with typical grace and understatement he summed it up: “You know, some people just have a hard time with the idea of a black guy in the White House.”
Somewhere in amongst the fevered jeering that Obama was a Kenyan-born Muslim Marxist, conversations began to take place involving the morality of leaving the names of Confederate generals and Jim Crow architects, and even slave owners at all, on university buildings. And we began to discuss moving the Confederate monuments.
It seemed to me at the time to be an overreaction. You can’t erase history. At what point do we become so doctrinaire that we are unable to get beyond the Constitution’s hypocrisy in claiming to secure blessings of liberty, while it endorses slavery and assigns their value as 3/5ths of a person, so that we are no longer willing to see the document as a call ever to strive to form a more and more perfect Union?
But then I heard the speech by the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, about why we need to remove these statues. I changed my mind. When we glorify a Confederate general or Confederate armies in a public square, we glorify the Confederacy, and we glorify slavery. How do we explain that to an African-American child who must walk by those statues? How is it anything other than a symbol of African slavery and a means of perpetuating subjugation?
The South lost. Get over it.
Then an interesting thing happened. A bunch of Nazis carrying Confederate battle flags and Honest-to-god Nazi flags held a violent exhibition where they brought guns, did Nazi salutes, and chanted racist slogans against seemingly every possible ethnic group but Northern European Mericuns, all in the name of an orange guy in the White House. And because of a statue.
And as you would imagine, one of the Nazis went on a rampage and rammed his car (why is everybody all about weaponized cars anymore?) into a bunch of people, murdering one and injuring 19 others.
In case it was lost on everyone, these Nazis and Klansmen told us that it IS about hate, not heritage, or maybe it’s both if the heritage you celebrate is of slave masters and oppressors.
In the days since the incident in Charlottesville, a memorial at the courthouse in Durham, NC was toppled by a mob, in a scene indistinguishable from the pulling down of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Bagdad in 2003. The City of Baltimore ripped statues in public squares from their bases in the dead of night. One was of Roger Taney, the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court who rendered the majority decision in the abominable Dred Scott case that made the Civil War a certainty. If ever a statue deserved to be desecrated, it was of him.
This morning I saw that Roy Cooper, the newly elected Democratic Governor of North Carolina, called for all the Confederate statues in the state on public squares to be removed. In anticipation of the move, the NC General Assembly had exerted control over these public statues and has required, just as citizens must before going to the bathroom, that they get the legislature’s permission to remove them, it being very important to the legislature that they prove without question that their primary aim in governing is to institute a new Jim Crow and to continue to subjugate those citizens of African heritage. Cooper has asked them to repeal that law. He also called for the legislature not to pass the law they are considering to make it legal to run over protesters accidentally on purpose (what is it with these people and cars as murder weapons?).
In the wake of the Klan/Nazi race riot in Charlottesville, Robert E. Lee has been both mocked and lauded. On the one hand, his perverse conception of duty which led him to betray country for state has been roundly condemned. Others cite his post-war opposition to statues honoring Confederate generals. In a letter declining an invitation to attend the dedication of statues at Gettysburg, he wrote:
“I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.” And he believed memorials should be limited to cemeteries.
He never expressed those sentiments publicly.
I say it’s time. Take them down. Silent Sam can find a place where there may be more virgins. Don’t destroy them, but move them to existing museums, or do like they did in Budapest with ridiculous communist and Soviet sculptures. Let’s make our own versions of Budapest’s Memento Park, and preserve them in large groupings together so that their context can be better explained, in a way that would make my teacher Mr. Ford proud.
The public square memorials to soldiers? I say some of them can go into cemeteries. Virtually all were dedicated to the fallen. It would be fitting.
So, would I do it again? Would I refurbish the Magnolia Cemetery plot if I were working for my Eagle today? Probably not. But if I did I would probably do it under the condition that some interpretation and context be added so that the site not be seen as a glorification or mistaken as a place for Confederate Lost Cause Cult rites. I’m still proud of my Eagle Project, and I still think it was cool. But actions have to be judged in their time. Today, without the necessary stipulation, that same project would take on a meaning other than the more innocent and noble one I ascribed to it and it was seen to have, among white people at least, in 1978.
As I was coming up, I think it was too easy as a white Southern male to get caught up in the glorification, and, like it or not, we all perpetuated the myths, and we forgot that any glorification of the Confederacy is a celebration of slavery and of traitors.
Until last week, I would have said Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary was THE definitive statement on that war. But as of today it may no longer be. It still clings to the history without sufficient consciousness of its symbols, and will as of just now seem out of date. It’s still worth seeing. And the war is still worth studying. But our perceptions have changed.
As time goes by, I become prouder and prouder that from 1861 to 1866, the Madisons, wanting no truck with Confederacy or war, moved west to Allegheny County North Carolina, to live in a steep holler, hiding their sons from the draft.
Yep. Silent Sam and his brothers need to go.