Facing Our Confederate Past

How do we teach students about the complexities of the Civil War?

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I don’t need to turn on the news to understand that Confederate monuments send powerful messages. I knew it long before blood ran in the streets of Charlottesville, Va., where a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was to be removed and relocated.

That event stirred memories of my boyhood in the late 1950s, when I was much impressed by an imposing equestrian statue on Monument Avenue in my home city of Richmond, Va., the former capital of the Confederacy. I asked my father who the man atop the pedestal was, and he answered, “That’s General Lee.”

I don’t recall Dad saying much about what he called the War Between the States, even though his own grandfather, as I learned much later, had served as a Confederate artilleryman. Yet the grandeur of the Lee monument left no doubt in my mind that the general had been a great, triumphant figure.

Facing Our Confederate Past: The recent events in Charlottesville, Va., demand that Americans rethink how we teach the Civil War, writes historian Melvin Patrick Ely.
A crowd of more than 100,000 people gathered in Richmond, Va., on May 29, 1890, to view the unveiling of the Gen. Robert E. Lee Monument.
—Cook Collection/The Valentine Museum

Then, during a family vacation when I was perhaps 6 years old, I met an older boy from someplace farther north. We decided to play “Civil War,” and I announced that I wanted to be Robert E. Lee. The other fellow gently warned me that this meant I would have to lose.

I was incredulous. But my playmate, evincing the sophistication that attended his status as a 5th grader, marshaled various proofs that Lee had, in fact, fought for the losing side. Knowing nothing about the actual issues over which the Civil War had been fought, I nevertheless cried tears the bitterness of which would be matched only one other time in my childhood—when I stumbled on the truth about Santa Claus a couple years afterward.

I need no convincing that these monuments matter.

A flood of moonlight, magnolias, and mint julep glasses given away by local businesses blotted out virtually any mention of slavery during the Civil War centennial in the early 1960s. You might expect that my formal education in Richmond likewise actively burnished the heroic luster of Lee and the other Confederate luminaries enshrined on Monument Avenue.

But within the walls of my public school, my white classmates and I were not taught Confederate nostalgia—nor much about the emancipation of the enslaved. A particular lesson that one teacher did proffer was that the Confederacy’s defeat had been a fortunate thing in that it passed down to us a unified country equipped to defend freedom in the Cold War world.

I learned in college what no one had ever taught me in public school: Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, like various other leading Southerners, openly proclaimed that the “cornerstone” of the new Confederacy was “the great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.”

As an adult, I came to understand that the Confederate monuments in Richmond—like the ones removed in New Orleans in May and the many others that appeared across the South between the 1880s and the 1920s—celebrate, in part, a victory won by leading white Southerners. By 1900, most white Americans—North and South—accepted the idea that Confederates had gallantly fought to defend states’ rights, and that the white South ought to be left alone to deny basic rights to its African-American neighbors.

"Within the walls of my public school, my white classmates and I were not taught Confederate nostalgia—nor much about the emancipation of the enslaved."

Not many ordinary Americans know this history; we need to be teaching it. Even New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who presided over the recent removals of Confederate shrines in that city, admitted in a recent speech to having earlier “passed by those monuments a million times without giving them a second thought.”

Because hundreds of Confederate monuments remain, the controversy will not go away anytime soon. That allows us—obligates us—to frame for our students, in ways that promote inquiry and reasoned analysis, the debate over what to do with monuments. How might we do that?

Mayor Landrieu rightly noted that memorialization in the South perpetrates “a lie by omission”—namely, the near-total absence of monuments to those who suffered under and resisted slavery, lynching, disfranchisement, and segregation. The creation of new monuments to black heroes and other champions of human rights has already begun in some places. Schoolteachers and their pupils should follow and even participate in that process, which would offer many opportunities to learn history.

As for the Confederate monuments themselves, one proposed way forward is to put existing monuments “in context.” Explanatory signage would convey what the Civil War was about; what roles the men depicted played during the conflict; who erected those shrines of memory, and when, and why. Social studies curricula, augmented by field trips to such places, could then cover the monuments and the emotions that have swirled around them. Of course, new controversies would burst forth over the right to control the content of the interpretive material.

The debate over contextualizing monuments can teach our students an important life lesson: that compromise is not always possible. Many ask, for example, how there can be any legitimate memorialization of a cause that embraced (among other values) slavery and a belief in African-American inferiority. Meanwhile, recent public hearings to consider the future of Richmond’s Monument Avenue revealed that even devotees of the Confederate heritage who are not among the alt-right regard contextualization of the statues as “desecration.”

Students could be asked to examine individual American monuments, whether Confederate or not, and to discuss their genesis and whether they deserve to remain. They could debate whether we should mothball every statue that commemorates a flawed person; however, they would soon realize that this could leave us with no monuments at all. They would also discover that even ownership of slaves, if adopted as a winnowing device, would wipe out much of the American pantheon, disqualifying not only Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, but also John Winthrop and Benjamin Franklin.

Some students might propose an amnesty for slaveholders who eventually opposed the institution or provided for their own bondpeople to go free; that would “winnow back in” Washington and Franklin. But what, a good teacher might then ask, do we do about a person who denounced slavery eloquently and drafted the Declaration of Independence, yet expressed racist views and freed almost no enslaved people?

For the moment, we Americans need to focus our hopes and efforts on preserving human life and safety and on trying to awaken whatever latent capacity for moral leadership may remain in our public sphere. As we move forward, we should also make full use of the many opportunities to talk seriously about race, history, and American values that the controversy over Confederate monuments offers us.

Vol. 37, Issue 01, Page 32

Published in Print: August 23, 2017, as Facing Our Confederate Past
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