The American Civil War statue debate seems to have dropped below the news threshold, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Unless there’s a full blown confrontation, guns and placards on show, madmen reversing cars over people, then it’s not worthy of our collective time.
I shouldn’t really call it a debate: it’s more a shouting match. Being part of the unheard mass of people in the middle who take a historical interest in the Civil War, you are thoughtful about putting your head above the parapet, liable as you are to be shouted down by both sides. From friends in the US, or through Civil War blogs, I hear of less sensational cases that don’t make the news outside of their county, let alone country; a re-enactor pepper-sprayed in South Carolina, statues removed in the dead of night by the authorities in Baltimore. Weirdest of all, protestors turning up to jeer an Ohio re-enactment regiment, one that had a noble history of fighting for abolition. Hard to figure that one out; presumably they were protesting history in general.
That there are some statues that need to be moved seems indisputable to me. It’s all about context. A statue outside city hall or the law courts projects its values and history inside by association. The wording on a plaque may be inappropriate or downright offensive to some. That matters. New statues alongside the old can be used to change the context; redress the balance, show the other sides to the story. But in some cases they need to find a better home for our times.
I’m still saddened to see them go. Statues tell more than one story if you look hard enough. Not all history is digital – yet. I once visited a Confederate prison cemetery on Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie. Rebel officers were held there for many years during the war and a bronzed southern soldier keeps watch over the two-hundred or so graves. He’s positioned to look south, across the lake to the mainland and his far away home. He’s an easy statue to like, carrying some casual and romantic aspect I’ve have come to associate with Southern soldiers. The incongruity of a Confederate statue this deep into Yankeedom was interesting in itself. The information board in the cemetery car park told me the statue was erected in 1910, forty-five years after the war by the Cincinnati chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy. I was surprised that Cincinnati, a Union city, had a chapter back then. It encouraged me to look into it more, to understand how widespread organisations like the DOC were at that time. Part of the plinth was donated by the Grand Lodge of Mississippi and as I walked the graveyard there were masonic symbols on many graves. So the statue taught me little about the Southern cause in the Civil War, but led me to understand much more about early 20th century social attitudes and interest groups in the long shadow of the war. Monuments often tell us far more about the people who funded them than the figures they aspire to immortalise.
Some might say it’s not even my history, an Englishmen with no dog in the fight. Maybe so, but go carefully, America. Move the statues that need moving, square up the history so all the suffering is on show. The present outranks the past; on that there should be no debate. But we should tread gently on history, lest we lose sight of the paths that lead to today.