In recent months, the battle over the appropriate fate for the Confederate statues and monuments peppering the Southeast has become the latest incarnation of the decades-old struggle over how one of America’s darkest periods should be remembered.
A new and controversial method for dealing with this painful chapter of history has emerged in New Orleans and St. Louis, where Confederate statues have been removed from public spaces, such as city parks and government buildings.
The controversy revolves around the nature and function of these statues; do they simply preserve history, or do they honor those who fought on the wrong side of history? No one wants to erase the memory of Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis. It is undesirable and impractical. Those who support the destruction of these monuments believe that in honoring the individuals they portray, they honor the causes for which they stood.
This argument is difficult to refute; few would argue that the statue of Jefferson Davis in front of the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery does nothing to defend and legitimize his views and actions. Such a statue is not appropriate for such a location, as an African-American Alabama state congressman should not have to walk by a statue honoring a man who led the bloodiest war in American history to keep his ancestors in bondage.
At the same time, such a statue should not be destroyed. It holds value as a work of art and a relic of history, a reminder at the very least of a time in which such statues were considered uncontroversial.
These monuments would serve their purpose — preserving the memory of a dark period of treachery and of the era of racist defiance of the truth which followed — more effectively and less offensively in a museum.
The statues in New Orleans and St. Louis should not have been cast aside; the destruction of art is never a good thing for a society or a culture. Rather, they should have been relocated to a more appropriate location.
As a side note, statues should not be removed from a park or public building without being replaced by another statue. The removal of a historical monument robs a space of a part of its atmosphere, and the cities of New Orleans and St. Louis would be wise to replace the removed statues with new ones of civil rights leaders or other activists. Such a measure would also erase the lingering aftertaste and memory of an offensive monument.
I should note that statues should be assessed on an individual basis. Not every statue of a Confederate veteran needs to be removed. Beside Jefferson Davis’ statue in front of the Alabama state capitol is a sculpture of John Allan Wyeth, a Confederate veteran whose most significant historical contributions are in the field of medicine, not in the defense of slavery. His statue need not be removed because it does not serve to honor his contributions to the Confederacy.
Additionally, certain locations are appropriate for confederate monuments. For instance, Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery is full of monuments to fallen Confederates both individually and collectively. Because these statues are located in a Confederate grave site, they serve not to honor the Confederacy as a concept but to honor the sacrifices made by its soldiers. They are simply an embodiment of the basic human right to a dignified burial.
Finally, because the point of not destroying Confederate monuments entirely is to preserve the history that they represent, I (somewhat sarcastically, but only somewhat) propose a new solution for Atlanta’s Confederate memorials: beside each Confederate statue should be erected a monument to William Sherman. Sherman did, after all, contribute more to what the city Atlanta has become than any member of the Confederacy.