On The Removal of Confederate Statues

I have many mixed emotions about the phenomena of cities and institutions removing Confederate statues. It is an issue that has clogged my social media accounts, although I’ve seen very little about it in the news. Perhaps the media isn’t covering it much because they don’t know how to feel about it, either. The most recent actions have been taken by the city of New Orleans to remove statues from public places, even in the middle of the night, and relocate (Click Here for NY Times Article) them.  However, the one that is closest to my heart is on the campus of my alma mater, where a very prominent statue of Jefferson Davis was recently (Click here for a news story on this)  relocated from the main square to a historical archive of statues.

AP-robert-lee-confederate-statue-jt-170521_12x5_1600

Here are my mixed emotions. I have no love for the Confederate States of America. I consider the Confederacy to be rebels who took up arms against the country I love. I do not understand how anyone can pledge allegiance to the American flag and still have such a love affair with the Confederacy and all her symbols and trappings. I also consider the Confederacy to have been tragically wrong. In fact, it was so wrong that my reading of history, as a person of faith, tells me God himself intervened to make certain it lost. How else can anyone explain to me why the South did not win the war in the first two years. There is no logical explanation other than Providence. God made certain the South lost because slavery had to end and the culture which was nurtured by the enslavement of souls had to end. In the modern age, the symbols of the Confederacy, as well as the cause of the Confederacy, have been use by people who are pushing a racist and/or xenophobic agenda. This is undeniable. Since the 1960s “States Rights” has meant, mostly, that states can segregate if they want to and the federal government should just butt out. History is written by the winners, and the winners are still writing and re-writing it as an act of imperium, and good for them. We want to celebrate the values of diversity, tolerance, and freedom which are the opposite of the Confederate values of uniformity, exclusion, and slavery.

Those are the mixed emotions on one side. But there is another side. History is precious. We learn from history, but we learn nothing by  sanitizing history as if it never happened. That is what I think the proponents of moving statues are trying to do–sanitize history. Removing the statues from New Orleans or the campus of the University of Texas does not change two facts of history. Fact one: These people lived and led. Fact two: Years later, people were still committed enough to the cause that they paid money to erect a monument. Both of these truths are a part of our history, and the latter is the issue for many in academia. The statues were put there by well-heeled donors who were racists, and thought of the school as an institution for their kinds of people.

Statues mean something, and they can teach. When I behold a marble statue from Ancient Rome, I do not consider the rightness of the Empire that gave rise to it. Instead I consider what kind of people made this, what were their values, how were they right, how were they wrong, what were their beliefs and so forth. Removing Confederate statues robs future generations from such contemplation as they gaze into the angry eyes of Stonewall Jackson or the gentle face of Robert E. Lee. I want them to stare into the eyes of Lee. I want them to ask, “How can such a gentle looking grandfather have believed in such a horrible cause?”

For that is the lesson. In the end, I think of these statues as monuments of pity. Lee, Jackson, Davis and company were wrong, and their wrongness caused the greatest devastation in American history.  Yet, even in their wrongness, we can learn a positive lesson that helps us every day. Honorable people can be misguided and wrong. I often bring that point out when speaking of war from a biblical perspective. Good, honorable people can be wrong and still need to be stopped. Everything I’ve studied of Lee and (Click Here) Jackson, for example, indicate that these were good men who loved their families and, in their own twisted way, thought of themselves as Christ-followers. Yet they were wrong. Very wrong. Tragically wrong. And they had to be stopped. I thank God they lost and were stopped. It is a lesson we need to remember in the times in which we live. There are honorable, good, and yes, even Christ-following people who are on the other side or whatever issue we are passionate about. Being on the other side doesn’t make them the devil. They may be wrong, but they may yet be noble. It does not mean they should not be stopped and opposed at every opportunity. And of course, I am speaking politically and rhetorically.  We are not at the point of bloodshed. We should stop no one with the power of a bullet, but instead with the authority of our logical and reasoned argument.

Mixed emotions. History is a great teacher, and I fear removing these statues is like taking a teacher out of a classroom, or ripping a page out of a textbook because it is painful. The issue of the statues is different and distinct than the Confederate Flag debate. Statues are snapshots in time–about the people who are memorialized and those who did the memorializing. As a contrary example, the Lincoln Memorial is about Lincoln–his times, his leadership, and his sacrifice–but it is also about those who appropriated his values and transformed him into something like a Greek god. There is little doubt to me that the Lincoln of history would have thought his memorial preposterous. But it teaches us something. I don’t think it is their intention, but those wanting to remove statues have a lot in common with the ISIS folks who destroy art and culture from antiquity because their intolerance can’t abide it. It is an ironic twist that the progressive left today cannot stand anything that is not in uniformity with its own views, thus they are more like the Confederacy they deplore than the Union they celebrate. The result could be a kind of cultural slavery that denies individuals the ability to be contrary, or to consider their history.

See, mixed emotions. I legitimately can see both sides of the issue. Perhaps we are missing an opportunity. Maybe instead of removing anything, we instruct and inform. Count me as one of those who believe education and learning can fix a lot of what ails our world. Simply removing statues from public view is a choice to live in ignorance of the past, thus guaranteeing nothing is learned except a temporarily soothed conscience or a glimmer of false peace. For anyone who thinks that removing a statue will remove the racism in the heart of someone else has never seriously considered the evil of either racism or the human heart.

A BOOK REVIEW OF “A FALL OF SPARROWS”

Last night I completed A Fall of Sparrows, the debut novel from Paul J. Bennett and published by Athanatos Publishing Group.    It took me a little over a week to read, but a novel of this length I would normally have finished quicker.  Easter got in the way a bit.  I read the Kindle version, which is available for a steal at $4.99.3dfront-trim-small  I would rate the book at PG-13, because of the war violence.  There is no profanity or explicit sexual content.

Synopsis:  In the middle of the American Civil War, a school teacher turned rugged Confederate soldier named Will Seymour has a worldview shifting experience when he encounters a young runaway slave girl named Evaline.  Will becomes Evaline’s protector, committed to the mission of escorting her safely through hostile Confederate territory to the North, where she can continue on her way to true safety in Canada.  Along the way they counter dangers, many adversaries, and battle constant hunger and lack of supplies.

Who Would Like This Book:  People who love historical fiction, literary fiction, nature writing, Civil War enthusiasts, people interested in race relations, idealists, and people who like journey stories.  If you are a fan of The Outlaw Josey Wales, you’d probably like this book.

What I Really Liked About Sparrows:  There is much to like, but four things stand out.  First, Bennett does a great job with his history.  He completely nails the food shortage and scarcity of the Confederate Army, as well as the overall picture of life in Virginia during the war.  Second, sometimes the prose soared to superb heights as he described the natural surroundings.  To me, it felt at times, a little Thoreauish.  Third, Bennett tells a complete story that holds the readers suspense from the first page to the last.  Many first time novelists lose their way in the midst of their story, losing the juice of the original idea.  Bennett avoid this pitfall by sliding the main characters in and out of new dangers and challenges without changing the nature or essence of the story.  Four, I love the idealized way I can read back into the racial and sexual component of the tale.  Even though it is historical, the relationship aspects of it are shockingly contemporary.

What I Found Difficult in Sparrows:  Not much, but there are a couple of things that I didn’t find so pleasing, but these are mostly personal preference issues.  One, Bennett uses dialect for Evaline’s speech.  I’ve worked with dialect in some of my writings in the past, and know how hard it can be to write, but as a reader, I’ve decided I don’t like it.  It distracts from the story instead of adds to it.  Second, I think Will’s transformation from one worldview to another is rushed.  As a reader, I would have liked to spend more time on that process, and I think it would have taken Will, a life long slaver from Georgia, longer to work through that than the couple of pages afforded it in the text.

What I Found Fascinating:  It is obvious to me that Bennett loves firearms.  Some of the most detailed descriptions in the whole book are about the different rifles, guns, pistols, and such that were in play during the Civil War.  Whereas most writers might simply say that, “He loaded his rifle” Bennett gives us a description of the loading action of the individual rifle, its firing mechanism, how the minie ball fired, the color of the smoke, and who in the army might carry that kind of weapon.

I also found the brief epilogue fascinating.  I can’t tell if it is Bennett telling us as the reader that this is essentially a true story, or if it is a part of the story itself.

Final Analysis:  I highly recommend A Fall of Sparrows.

A BOOK REVIEW OF “REBEL YELL” BY S.C. GWYNNE

The actual title of the book is too long to include in the blog title:  Rebel Yell:  The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.

This book is not about rocker Billy Idol
This book is not about rocker Billy Idol

How is that for a mouthful of history?

S.C. Gwynne is one of the better writers anywhere, and I have lauded his fantastic Empire of the Summer Moon many times before.  This book is another fantastic journey into the past.  Whether you are a Civil War historian or not, you will appreciate this volume if you love biographies.

The book is mostly chronological, starting with Jackson’s troubled childhood, labors at West Point, heroics in the Mexican-American War, and his career as a professor at VMI.  Gwynne excels, however, when he focuses upon the odd personality and characteristics of Jackson with his near vegan diet of stale bread and water, tendency to sit in the dark alone for hours, physical ailments, and reserved, distant manner.

The dominant, lingering characteristic is Jackson’s religious faith–Presbyterian Calvinism to be specific-and the way it colored everything he said or did.  For me as a modern reader, this is the attribute that is at once the most interesting and disturbing.  His faith seems in direct contradiction to the cause of the South in general, and to the work of killing in specific.  For Lee, war seemed like chess and strategy, whereas Jackson loved battle, killing, violence and death, consecrating it all with his raised hand in prayer on the battlefield.

It also should be noted that Gwynne does a great job as a historian by telling us the events without attempting to rationalize or explain them.  One almost expects the nearly obligatory passages decrying the mindset of Confederate leaders and generals while promising to present the facts in an unbiased way.  Instead, Gwynne simply tells the story of Jackson’s life and exploits in the context of the world Jackson lived in and lets the reader do his or her own analysis of how wrongheaded and doomed the cause was, and had to be.  In the process, he succeeds in casting Jackson as an extraordinary American in a very difficult, and different, time.

There is another delicious bit to this biography, that delights me as a historian.  It shows, in startling detail, how poorly run the Union army was at the beginning of the war.  McClellan, Burnside, Pope, McDowell, and Hooker were all vastly over matched by Jackson and Lee, who did more with fewer resources than was, in many ways, imaginable.  One good Union general, early in the war, would have ended it in 1861 and American history would have been drastically different.  Ironically, it might have been different for the worse, as an early ending to the war would not have, likely, ended the despicable institution of slavery nor humbled the South sufficiently.

If the book has a weakness, it is that Gwynne is not a professional historian of the Civil War, and his description of troop movements, military maneuvers, and battlefield tactics sometimes feel like material he copied from a battlefield monument.  Having said that, his prose is clean and understandable, but not as energetic as the other aspects of the book.  I can easily excuse this, however, because anyone can get lost in the seemingly never-ending flanking attempts of 18th and 19th century battles.

I highly recommend the book for education and enjoyment.

image from dallasnews.com