To learn from the past, keep its monuments

Every reference I come across to the 1814 battle of Horseshoe Bend is preceded by the adjective “forgotten.”

That was the case for me, too, a few years ago as I was driving north to Birmingham, Ala., after a morning of teaching journalism at Auburn University. The green directional signs lured me off my route to Horseshoe Bend National Military Park in rural central Alabama, 40 miles west of the Georgia state line.

I hadn’t completely forgotten the battle of Horseshoe Bend; it had just slipped into that place where the mind holds old memories, waiting for the right prompt to push them back into consciousness.

The signs reminded me that the lesson of Gen. Andrew Jackson’s fight against the Creek Indians was one of my favorites from the third grade “Know Alabama” history book. It was the story of our nation’s manifest destiny. The Creeks were defeated so the country could expand westward, Alabama could become a state and a general gifted in the strategies of war could be catapulted to the presidency.

As I detoured off U.S. Highway 280 toward the park, I remembered telling my mother in the years during and after elementary school that I wanted to make this trip and see this place. But we never did, maybe because it was so far off the beaten path. I was excited to finally make it.

I motored into the park and the very first roadside marker began to alter what I remembered about the battle’s place in history.

It said, “On this site, on March 27, 1814, a deadly and decisive battle was waged. Never before or since in the history of our country have so many Native Americans lost their lives in a single battle.” Eight hundred Native Americans died in the battle.

The hour-long visit on that hot and humid September day left me with a revised and more accurate view of the battle of Horseshoe Bend. It hadn’t actually been about “brave men” (whites) fighting through “enemy bullets” (from Native Americans) or making the land “safe for white settlers,” as “Know Alabama” had put it. It was about the gruesome massacre of Native Americans as part of a land grab. Words like “genocide” emerged as part of the new perspective the interpretive signage now offered.

I’m not sure there’s anything further from Americans’ minds than a 200-year-old battlefield in a sparsely populated part of rural Alabama. But I see a connection to the recent debates over memorials for the better-remembered battles between the North and South.

As New Orleans, UNC-Chapel Hill and other places decide what to do with memorials to Confederates, they might look to the park service’s commemoration of this forgotten pre-Civil War battle to see how giving context to what’s on display might be a better solution than simply taking things down, storing them away and forgetting about them completely.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu was right when he said, in reference to views on race, “We need to change.” He also said, “If we take these statues down and don’t change to become a more open and inclusive society, this would have all been in vain.’’

I agree. But is change more likely to come from taking the memorials down or leaving them and adding context?

Isn’t change more likely to happen if there’s something to look at, discuss and discern? I would never have relearned the battle of Horseshoe Bend if the place had just been torn down.

According to historian Justin Scott Weiss, “at Horseshoe Bend, a new generation of historians have helped increase the public’s awareness with a variety of new exhibits, perspectives and publications that lay forth the true history of Horseshoe Bend. They have also helped transform what once was a land of conquest and control into a place of peace and cultural unity.”

Peace and cultural unity is also Landrieu’s laudable goal. While it’s easier to tear down the monuments than build new ones, it seems unlikely unity can be achieved by taking away any semblance of the past.

Paul Isom is a journalism instructor at N.C. State University.