The present assault on disfavored monuments and markers is also an assault on history itself, which suffers from a general misunderstanding of the word. Properly understood, history is inquiry (“historia”). But for many Americans, it is an ill-digested miscellany of dates, figures, battles, treaties and elections all too easily forgotten.
I can only offer a plea for detailed and dispassionate inquiry. I can’t pretend to interpret divine will to earthly sinners – I am such an offender and I hear no voices from above. What follows is secular.
Like so many monuments to the Confederate dead, Silent Sam is now dismissed as a tribute to Jim Crow. It is said, correctly, that many such monuments went up decades after the guns fell silent, with the suggestion that if they were true memorials they would have been immediate.
This is a hard contention to treat historically, focused as it is on emotions now largely lost. The crude dedicatory speech of Julian Carr, much publicized of late, is cited as a telltale clue to racist intent. No doubt some were amused by Carr’s boorish and vulgar boasting, but surely many alumni, students and friends were appalled by the suggestion that a symbol of sacrifice was really a monument to racism.
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The second contention, following from the first, lends itself to more exact inquiry. Those who view the half-century delay as evidence of sly purpose seem to forget why Southern sentiment vanished, or was driven underground, in the post-Appomattox interval.
After the collapse of Andrew Johnson’s attempt to reconstruct the shattered union as Lincoln advised (“let’em up easy”), the South fell, in 1868, under a military occupation. It imposed strict conditions of readmission, some reasonable, including ratification of the 14th Amendment and the design of slavery-free state constitutions. The resulting tensions (including the birth of the KKK and the theft of the presidency from the Democratic candidate, Tilden, in 1877) had long, loud echoes. Some eminent ex-Confederates, including Wade Hampton and James Longstreet, cooperated with the new order, but paid a price in defamation. It was then, incidentally, that Longstreet’s worries on the third day at Gettysburg began to be blamed for the defeat.
The era was crowned by a constitutional calamity – the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, a Louisiana railroad case that sealed “separate but equal” discrimination in the law for half a century. The plaintiff’s case was argued by Albion W. Tourgee, a former Union officer with North Carolina connections who earlier came South to Greensboro and served as a state judge and constitution-writer. He described his experience in two novels that remain among the vivid contemporary evocations of post-Civil War conditions. “A Fool’s Errand,” especially, ought to be more widely read. To say that Confederate memorials were erected 50 or more years late is to state an empty historical truism.
Those who bandy the ugly term “treason” of Lee and Davis should study the story closely. Congress was, as usual, the source of vengeful outcries. Davis, imprisoned at Fort Monroe, Va., for a time in chains, longed to be tried but was never formally indicted. He believed that secession had been constitutional (threatened earlier by dissident New Englanders during the War of 1812). Lee’s indictment was stopped in its tracks by his great foe, Ulysses S. Grant, who threatened to resign as the first lieutenant general of the Army since Washington if the surrender terms he had given were disregarded.
In fact, the treason clause of the Constitution was plainly designed to deter “aid and comfort” to foreign invaders and is a poor fit in civil wars reflecting profound national divisions. Had Lee or Davis had a civil trial by jury, both would almost certainly have been acquitted, leaving the doctrine of secession dangerously alive and ambiguous in a nation frequently fractured by fundamental quarrels.
Whether or not Silent Sam and his companions are to be honored as monuments to the fallen or dismissed to obscure museums as Jim Crow memorials is hard to predict at this overexcited moment. “Nothing,” remarked the historian Macaulay, “is so disgusting as the English in one of their periodic fits of morality,” and such sanctimony is all too familiar on these shores. We are in the throes of such a fit today, and the one certainty is that history, properly understood, will be the loser.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington. This column is dedicated in loving memory of James C. Yoder, devoted historian.