Stone Mountain: Monument to white supremacy

Stone Mountain

Rebecca Onion writes at Slate: “The Confederate memorial carving at Georgia’s Stone Mountain is etched with more than a century of racist history. But tearing it down won’t be easy.”

Here is a taste of her piece, “Hatred Set in Stone“:

The mother of all Confederate monuments looms in Georgia. It’s etched on the side of a 280-some-million-year-old monadnock: Stone Mountain, seven miles around at the base and covering 1,000 acres. The Confederate memorial carving—Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis on horseback—is on the north face, comprising 3 acres in area. It’s 400 feet above the ground; it’s the largest bas-relief carving in the world—blah, blah, blah, this thing is big.

The armed, mostly Black protesters who peacefully marched in Stone Mountain Park demanding the removal of the carving on the Fourth of July hit social media hard, but the idea that the carving, big (and legally protected) as it may be, needs to go has been gaining traction in recent years. In 2017, Stacey Abrams, then running for governor of Georgia, called for the carving to be removed. Richard Rose, president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP, interviewed by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Debra McKinney in 2018, called the carving “the largest shrine to white supremacy in the history of the world,” and said it should be brought down.

Read the rest here.

Monuments Present a “conflict that cannot be resolved”


Should we rename this monument?

David Bell, a historian of revolutionary France who teaches at Princeton, offers some solid perspective on the ongoing debate about Confederate monuments.  He focuses particularly on Donald Trump’s remarks comparing Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Here is a taste:

In the end, if we are to have any confidence in our own moral standards, we must believe that these standards are universally applicable, across time and space. And so, we must be ready to criticize figures in the past for attitudes and practices we consider abhorrent. If our moral standards are to have any meaning, then they don’t simply apply because we believe in them. They apply because they are right.

Yes, we also need to acknowledge that an overly rigid application of this principle would soon leave us with very little history to honor and celebrate, because few, if any, prominent figures of the past lived up to the moral standards of 21st-century Americans. Taken to the extreme, it would, indeed, mean tearing down the Washington Monument, and perhaps even the Lincoln Memorial.

But countries need their history. They need heroes and leaders to venerate, to inspire new generations, and to act as a source of unity. National unity can be a very fragile thing, as Americans today know all too well. Revolutionary movements have sometimes tried to consign their national pasts to the dustbin of history and to start over. The French revolutionaries famously introduced a new calendar, numbering the years from the birth of the French republic in 1792 and condemning nearly all of what came before as darkness, feudalism and superstition, unworthy of veneration. It didn’t work. Such attempts at erasure go against the deeply human need to feel a connection with the past.

The conflict, then, is one between two principles. On one hand, we should not honor people who did things and held beliefs that were morally objectionable. On the other, we need a common history we can take pride in as a nation. It is a conflict that cannot be resolved with cheap sound bites of the sort uttered by the president and his backers this week. They can be resolved only with careful, reasoned judgments, backed up by logic and evidence.

When it comes to particular figures in the past, such judgments involve, above all, looking carefully at their entire historical record. In the case of Washington, it involves weighing his role as a slave owner against his role as a heroic commander in chief, as an immensely popular political leader who resisted the temptation to become anything more than a republican chief executive, and who brought the country together around the new Constitution. Calhoun, by contrast, devoted his political career above all to the defense of slavery. The distinction between the two is not difficult to make.

Lee’s case is clear-cut. Whatever admirable personal qualities he may have had, he was also a man who took up arms against his country in defense of an evil institution. In my view, he doesn’t deserve to be honored in any fashion.

Read the entire piece here.  This is one the best short pieces I have read on this issue.


No, Your Questions About Monuments Do Not Make You a Racist! (Updated)


A monument to George Washington in Budapest

Over the last several days I have received messages from readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home who are trying to make sense of Donald Trump’s recent words about monuments.  On Tuesday, he equated monuments commemorating Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with monuments commemorating George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Yesterday POTUS offered these tweets:

What should we make of all this?  Here is one of the reader messages I received:

I wouldn’t ever dare post this publicly because honestly I don’t want to get lumped in with Trump and or be labeled a racist for simply asking a question. But I’m having a hard time understanding why Trump is so wrong on the Lee/Washington comparison. If Lee is guilty of perpetuating slavery, than why isn’t Washington just as guilty? Yes he freed his slaves after he died, but he didn’t end it when he had the chance to voice support for it at the convention, so why is he granted a pardon and still one of the good guys, but Lee is not off the hook? I get that he was a General for the Confederacy and I’m not arguing that he was good or right. I’m just wondering why Washington or Jefferson aren’t being attacked?

And I hate the fact that I can’t feel safe to ask this question in public without feeling like I’ll be labeled as a racist/terrorist or trump supporter. But I’m genuinely curious if you can shed some light or even point me to a good article that isn’t going to shame me into thinking the way the author wants me to already think.

First, I am saddened that this reader thinks she/he will be labeled a racist for trying to make historical and moral sense of what Trump said about monuments to Lee and Washington.  I don’t know this person well, but I know she/he is not a racist.  I should also add that I do not know where this person falls on the political perspective.  Over the years I have known this person to have a curious mind and a passion for truth.  If a person like this feels she/he cannot ask honest questions about this issue then something is wrong.

Second, at one level this person is correct (and so is Trump).  There are similarities between Washington and Lee.  I wrote about them yesterday. Let’s not forget the fact that both men owned slaves and were active participants in America’s slave culture. Maybe neither of them deserve a monument.  But on the other hand, there were also a lot of differences between Washington and Lee.  They are worth noting too.

In the end, I think there is a difference between moralizing about men and women in the past and erecting monuments to them.  As I have now said multiple times at this blog, monuments tell us more about the time when they were erected than the moment in the past they are meant to commemorate.   Lee monuments were erected by Lost Causers who wanted to celebrate a society built on slavery and white supremacy.  Most of them were built during the Jim Crow era for this very purpose. Think about it.  Would Lee merit a monument if not for his role as commander of the Army of Virginia?  Maybe, but I doubt you would find one outside of Virginia.  I don’t know off-hand the history of George Washington monuments, but I wonder how many of them were erected for the purpose of celebrating his slave ownership.

This post has some good links for further reading on this issue.

Jefferson, Secession, and Monuments


Last night on CNN, host James Lemon had African-American public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson on his program.  Lemon asked Dyson to respond to the comments Donald Trump made yesterday about historical monuments.  Trump said:

So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down.  I wonder, is it George Washington next week?  And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop.

All day the commentators on CNN have been outraged that Trump would compare Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.  Dyson responded by saying that Lee and Jackson seceded from the union, while Jefferson and Washington, despite owning slaves, formed a “bulwark” against slavery by articulating the ideals that eventually brought the institution to an end.

On one level, I found Dyson’s comment refreshing.  When commentators say that we can’t find a usable past in Western Civilization because it is tainted by the sin of slavery, I often cringe.  Yes, Western Civilization has been inherently racist.  Yes, Western Civilization brought us slavery.  But at the same time, Western Civilization brought us the ideas and ideals–liberty and freedom especially–that were eventually applied to the slavery and ultimately brought it to an end.

I have little patience for defenders of Western Civilization who fail to acknowledge its relationship with race.  I have little patience for those who demonize Western Civilization without acknowledging the historical complexity I wrote about above.  I read several books and articles this summer that propagated both fallacies.

But when it comes to Jefferson, things are even more complicated than this.  If you read Ibram X Kendi’s recent New York Times op-ed you will learn that some of Jefferson’s ideas contributed to secession.

So should the Jefferson monuments come down?

The conversation continues.

(See my last post where I discussed this more fully).

A Soldier’s Correspondence from the Civil War’s 150th: Chancellorsville

With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War upon us, Lewis Norman (not his real name), a Ph.D candidate in American history at a major research university and a Civil War re-enactor, offers another column about re-enacting and the experience of war.  See his previous columns here.

I am sure that there a variety of opinions about historical re-enacting among the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but I do feel it has the potential to be a legitimate and valuable way of getting people excited about the past.  As an academic historian-in-training and a re-enactor, Norman’s columns will attempt to bridge the gap between these two approaches to encountering the past.  Enjoy!–JF

The Battle of Chancellorsville is widely known among historians both amateur and professional as General Robert E. Lee’s finest victory.  It is equally known for being the location where Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson was shot by his own men after completing one of the most daring flanking attacks of the entire war.  All of that imagery is alive and well in the wilderness of eastern Virginia even now for the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.  Consider a few of the reflections I offer here as an expression of my experiences on the “front lines” of the 150th anniversary of the war as it played out for the national reenactment of the Battle of Chancellorsville on May 6 and 7, 2013.
A few of my “pards” and I decided to head to the battlefield an entire day early (on the 5th) for the purpose of seeing the actual ground on which the battle had taken place.  Here’s an initial point that perhaps most history buffs and scholars do not know; reenactments rarely take place on the original ground.  Because most of the biggest battles of the war are preserved by the National Park Service, living historians are not allowed to fire weapons on that land.  Therefore, most of these large national events (yes, even Gettysburg) actually take place on land nearby.  That said, our initial trip to see the battlefield was full of foibles due to our own navigation mistakes.  However, one of the mistakes led us to the small display at Kelly’s Ford.
After our brief stop at the relatively unassuming but no less educational “Civil War Trails” marker for Kelly’s Ford, we pressed on to the main NPS visitor’s center for Chancellorsville.  There we had an opportunity to hear a ranger talk on “The Wounding of Stonewall Jackson” and even saw the monument dedicated to the event.  The vivid detail of the action as told by the ranger was everything many of us “Civil War nuts” originally loved about the war.  It was full of grace and power and literally the stuff of legend.  (Had I encountered it pre-graduate school, I would have certainly loved it more.)
My comrades had found an awesome camping location a bit off the beaten path of the mainstream rows of tents.  Despite the rock I slept on Friday night, it was a comfortable camp with a quaint timelessness to it.  Camped along a mostly-stagnant creek with enough firewood to keep us warm in the 40-degree nights, we had our usual mixture of “guy talk” around the fire.  It blended the 21st and 19th centuries with surprising ease.  We discussed modern sports, Victorian clothing, and every reenactor’s favorite… the hobby itself.  The battles over the next few days were lackluster, so instead of focusing on the unrealistic scenarios and overcrowding of the public battles, I’d like to discuss two important moments from the weekend.
First, there was a distinct air of celebration to the Confederate mood, far more than I’ve experienced at other battles in my years in the hobby.  From the themes evident at the ranger station to the overt celebration of the Confederacy at registration, I could sense that the Spotsylvania County event organizers were playing to the home crowd.  I am not certain that I find fault with their decision to be economically savvy, but as a historian I definitely took pause.  There was little indication of the divisive issues of the war, namely slavery, brutal violence, and the incredibly vitriolic debate over political power.  Instead, it seemed a tribute to Scarlett O’Hara’s South, complete with both Generals Jackson and Stuart (who, to their credit, were both actually present at Chancellorsville).  Maybe I haven’t quite come to terms with what it means to celebrate the Confederacy, but this event seemed to me to be a particularly glowing spectacle of Old South festivity.
Second, the “civil war within Civil War reenacting,” as a pard called it, was quite evident at the event.  This contemporary war is being fought between two types of living historians.  There are some, calling themselves authentic or campaigners or progressives, who prefer a more realistic set of scenarios.  Rather than getting excited about “powder burners” and events full of romanticized battles, progressives prefer the harder aspects of war life such as marching most of the weekend, eating only what soldiers had (even at that time of year), and sleeping only with the gear soldiers had.  The other side of the contemporary war are the mainstreamers.  These folks are more interested in celebrating the war through a carnival atmosphere.  They enjoy eating elephant ears or soft serve ice cream.  The highlight of their weekend is the “din of battle” while loading and firing as fast as possible, often refusing to “take a hit” because it means they will miss out on firing their musket another few times.  They sleep comfortably, on cots, sometimes in heated tents with portable Coleman stoves. 
This division, though, is about more than how the two groups “enjoy” the hobby.  They represent a difference in how people choose to celebrate and understand the war.  If you’re a reader from Dr. Fea’s circle of professional historians, especially regarding the 19th century, this is an important point to acknowledge.  This division in “the hobby” also represents a division in the book purchasing world; it’s an attitudinal difference reflected at Civil War Roundtables and even among the young scholars that grace your classrooms.  We need to decide, as scholars and historians and even “buffs,” what we intend for the Civil War to mean.  There will be no consensus, but there should be a conversation.
While Chancellorsville is not the “end” of the 150th, or even the pinnacle (which I assume will come next month at Gettysburg), it certainly marks a sort of Confederate high tide.  As we reflect on this all-important anniversary of the Civil War, we have a real opportunity to decide, collectively, what it means.  For some heritage is the key issue.  For others, celebration is part of the identity formation that makes history so very important to our collective present and future.  As I looked around and saw youngsters in the ranks or running about in camps, I wondered what this event meant to them.  Was it just fun?  Did it have any reflection of the horrors of war?  Do campy fake-blood medical demonstrations help give us any better understanding of the brutalities of 19thcentury warfare?  As we continue to live in the long-standing consequences of the Civil War through race, class, and sectional differences that live themselves out in contemporary political and social discourse, let us remember to reflect as thinking people on the realities of the Civil War.  That said, there’s nothing completely anachronistic about enjoying a lemonade while you think.