June 08, 2017
Wars never have good causes”the noble motives are added later”but we have more books about the Civil War than any man can read in his lifetime, and they all agree that this brother-against-brother carnage had multiple causes that had built up over a half century.
Part 5: Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, was a horrible racist who told us the true meaning of the Civil War in his “cornerstone” speech.
The reason the mayor is quoting the Confederate vice president is that he couldn”t find such a quote from the president”whose statue was also removed last week”or any of the generals. Alexander Stephens was a weak Georgian who went from friendship with Lincoln, opposition to secession, moderation on slavery, to a sort of Ted Cruz role handling the propaganda of the Confederacy once the war started.
Advice for future mayoral statements: If you”re going to mine the archives for eugenics-based racist rants, always use South Carolina, not Georgia. All the Trotskyist “Fire Eater” ideologues came from there, and I”ll even give you a research shortcut. Use the writings of William Porcher Miles, a Congressman, slave owner, and mayor of Charleston whose vile intemperate racism would embarrass even Alexander Stephens.
But now Mayor Landrieu’s speech has passed into pure demagoguery. Anybody can pull up a single quotation and say, “There! I”ve proved it! Their true colors at last!” You still have to explain the hundreds of thousands of Southern loyalists who owned no slaves, had no ties to the cotton or sugar industries, yet chose to bear arms under the banners of the Confederacy and their home states.
Parts 6″10: The rest of the mayor’s speech can be categorized as The Pain of My Famous Black Friends. He quotes Barack Obama. He talks about a conversation with Wynton Marsalis (“How do you explain Robert E. Lee to a child?”). He brings the great jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard into the mix. He doesn”t want any black person to ever drive by a Confederate monument because it represents a “dark time,” something that was “wrong,” celebrating “men who fought to destroy the country,” reminding us once again that these are “symbols of white supremacy.” He wants to “reclaim these spaces for the United States of America…instead of revering a four-year brief historical aberration that was called the Confederacy.”
And then he says a very strange thing.
“We should stop for a moment and ask ourselves”at this point in our history”after Katrina, after Rita, after Ike, after Gustav, after the national recession, after the BP oil catastrophe, and after the tornado”if presented with the opportunity to build monuments that told our story or to curate these particular spaces…would these monuments be what we want the world to see? Is this really our story?”
Is Mayor Landrieu really suggesting monuments to tornados, economic disasters, oil spills, and hurricanes? I don”t think he is, but I”m not sure what he does want to celebrate. Whatever it is, wouldn”t it be possible to celebrate it without New South Iconoclasm? He uses the word “curate.” Is he the master curator, a Soviet-style Minister of Public Statuary? We don”t really live in an era where marble and bronze are used to commemorate things”which is why these sculptures are rare. There’s a point at which art becomes worthwhile not for the person or event venerated but for the beauty and craft of the object itself. Do we really care who Antinous was when we look at Roman statues carved in his likeness?
And by the way, when politicians start carting off works of art, don”t you normally have thousands of museum curators and art history majors and First Amendment libertarians mobilizing in protest? The silence from the official art world is deafening at a time when specialists could be especially helpful in describing the ironic details in some of these sculptures. For example, the Confederate soldier in Old Town Alexandria, by the Bohemian sculptor Caspar Buberl, was erected at the spot where young men enlisted for the war in 1861, but the inscription on its base is APPOMATTOX. Likewise, when Canadian sculptor John A. Wilson crafted the famous “Silent Sam” monument on the campus of the University of North Carolina, he intentionally omitted a cartridge belt so that the student-soldier’s gun can”t be fired. So much for racist triumphalism.
But since the debate is now lapsing into personal anecdote, I would like to offer a couple of my own. The only paramilitary organization I ever joined”Boy Scout Troop 145 of Little Rock, Arkansas”used to journey periodically to Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee alongside the Boy Scout troop at the Arkansas School for the Blind. Each sighted Scout would be assigned a blind Scout, and we would take them to every monument and marker on the battlefield, either reading the inscriptions to them or guiding their hands to the raised letters. Through this process you get up close and personal with a lot of Civil War statues, monuments, mass gravesites, artillery, rosters of the dead, and plaintive official laments sent from every state in the Union.
And I can tell you that they are all somber and depressing and, even when celebrating military victory, grim. There is nothing romantic or inspiring about the Sunken Road, or the Hornet’s Nest, or the Bloody Pond, or the ravine where Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston died after being shot off his horse, and there is no word to describe the various equestrian statues beyond “funereal.” At Shiloh the carnage was so awful that widows and family members traveled there for decades, like 9/11 families, hoping to find some trace of their lost relative. There was not even a winner in the battle. The South won the first day, the North won the second, and then both armies withdrew because the field stank of death. There were too many bodies to bury, so the Union Army tossed them into deep pits, piling them forty deep.
And all of us good Southern boys, black and white, had the same reaction: We couldn”t relate to it at all. It was a cemetery full of horror stories, played out by men as remote from our experience as Chinese warriors. The land around Shiloh Church is verdant with beautiful meadows and forests, which somehow made it more alienating and mysterious.
It took Allen Tate, in his “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” to verbalize this feeling.
Turn your eyes to the immoderate past,
Turn to the inscrutable infantry rising
Demons out of the earth”they will not last.
Stonewall, Stonewall, and the sunken fields of hemp,
Shiloh, Antietam, Malvern Hill, Bull Run,
Lost in that orient of the thick-and-fast
You will curse the setting sun.
Cursing only the leaves crying
Like an old man in a storm
You hear the shout, the crazy hemlocks point
With troubled fingers to the silence which
Smothers you, a mummy, in time.
Tate wrote the poem in 1928. It wasn”t an ode at all, of course. It was a blind empty meditation on death. He was trying to find meaning but ran up against a blank slate. He stood at the gate of the cemetery and tried to connect”and couldn”t. (By the way, there’s an extraordinary YouTube video of Tate himself reciting the entire poem in his refined Southern brogue.)
In other words, there’s a mystery at the heart of every Civil War memorial, both the Northern ones and the Southern ones, and that mystery speaks across the ensuing decades as the nation moved into modernity. These symbols of war are actually symbols of profound grief. Why does my family save the official discharge letter of my great-great-grandfather, a captain in the Confederate Army, since it’s just a hastily scribbled scrap of paper allowing him to take his horse back to Texas? Because it’s something formal and understandable, unlike the messy horror of the war itself. The Civil War was the worst event in our history. The reason most Civil War monuments are so beautiful is that they”re covering up massacres and maimings and hatreds so intense that you can”t make sense of them. We should keep these whited sepulchres. They do mean something. If we”re still in the process of figuring out what they mean, that doesn”t mean we should cart them off to the junkyard, like small-town librarians who take Huckleberry Finn off the shelves because Mark Twain used the N-word.
The mayor closes his speech with quotations from Nelson Mandela and Lincoln.
Let’s deal with the Mandela part first. Nelson Mandela was all about “truth and reconciliation.” He created a commission to forgive all, even the Alexander Stephenses of South Africa.
One of my favorite museums is the Old State House in Little Rock, where, on one wall, blown up to gargantuan size, is a famous photograph of elderly uniformed Union and Confederate soldiers, fifty years after the war, most of them sporting long beards, reaching across the stone wall at Gettysburg to shake hands. Many of them had traveled great distances, leaning on canes, to traverse one final time the ground of Pickett’s Charge, which, in Southern lore, is the Rocky of Civil War history. Ordered by Lee, carried out by Longstreet, it was a failed infantry charge against Meade’s men, after which the South was so bloodied and worn out that it was all they could do to remain on their feet until the surrender at Appomattox. That photo of “the handshake” has been known to bring people to tears, because it seemed a final act of reconciliation. Men who had faced each other at the point of bayonets now embraced at the stone wall where the bodies had been piled. When I saw the photo for the first time, I thought, “That’s when it was truly over.”
And here we are, 104 years after that photo was taken, saying, “No, those warriors were wrong to shake the hands of their Southern adversaries. Erase the memory. No forgiveness. No reconciliation for the dead white supremacists.”
And now Lincoln. It’s altogether appropriate that Mayor Landrieu would close his remarks with the Lincoln quote from his Second Inaugural Address, delivered one month before his assassination”but does he really understand the context? He cuts it off too early. Let’s hear the rest of it:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Charity for all, not just the North”Lincoln reaching out to Davis. Binding up wounds”reaching out to Lee. Forgiveness. Hope. And this coming right after General Sherman’s March to the Sea, when the entire South was in psychic shock.
“We have devoured the land,” wrote Sherman to his wife. “All the people retire before us and desolation is behind. To realize what war is, one should follow our tracks.”
Rufus Mead, a Union soldier from Connecticut, recalled the march to Savannah even more clearly: “We had a glorious old tramp right through the heart of the state [of Georgia], rioted and feasted on the country, destroyed all the RR, in short found a rich and overflowing country filled with cattle, hogs, sheep and fowls, corn, sweet potatoes, and syrup, but left a barren waste for miles on either side of the road, burnt millions of dollars of property, wasted and destroyed all the eatables we couldn”t carry off and brought the war to the doors of the Georgians so effectively, I guess they will long remember the Yankees.”
And yes, they do remember. In New York there’s an impressive golden monument to Sherman at the southeast corner of Central Park”across from the Plaza Hotel and the Apple Store”that was sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. A native of Savannah, or Atlanta, or Macon, or the little town of Rome, Georgia, which was burned to the ground by Sherman’s men, might have trouble walking past it or explaining it to his children. I try to avoid it myself. Any Southerner acquainted with history probably regards Sherman as a sadist and a war criminal, since his depredations were all ordered after Chickamauga and after the last defenses of Atlanta had already fallen. When the Sherman Monument started to show signs of age in the “80s, the city came up with the money to regild the statue and replace a palm frond and a sword that had been removed. There was no discussion of Sherman’s life, military career, the justice of his actions, or anything remotely political or revisionist. It was regarded as art for art’s sake.
And that’s as it should be. It’s a statue. It’s part of history. Herschel Gower, my Southern literature professor, sometimes mused about why there was so much admiration for Robert E. Lee but no movie about him. “There were no rough edges,” he concluded. “No fatal flaw. He followed duty always, even when it went against his own nature.” He opposed secession, he opposed taking up arms against his classmates at West Point, he didn”t want to make enemies of the same officers he had served with for 32 years, he admired Lincoln”but he felt his duty was to the state of Virginia. He spent the last days of the war trying to acquire statistics that would prove the superiority of the Union Army in terms of matÃ©riel and manpower”so that his men could at least have the cold comfort of knowing that their ability to fight was not in question, they were simply outmanned. At Appomattox, Grant allowed the rebels to keep their sidearms, so apparently he agreed. There are many morally repellent Southerners who took part in the Civil War. Robert E. Lee is not one of them.
I understand why a New York mob destroyed the statue of George III in Bowling Green on July 9, 1776. I understand why the people of Prague destroyed the granite monument to Stalin in 1962. I understand why, in the fever of war, the enemy’s flags and standards are desecrated. But why today? Why now? Would anyone today demand the removal of, say, the statue of the tyrannical peg-legged Peter Stuyvesant, ruler of New Amsterdam, that stands in the park off lower Second Avenue? Believe me, he did plenty to deserve it.
We want to wipe out the monuments of a century and a half ago because of some vague political point about racism? The New Orleans City Council certainly has the right to do that, and apparently the usual voices decrying the destruction of books and art works are failing to come forward in this case, but the mayor and his friends should know the precedent they”re setting. By confining these images to the scrap heap, you make the handshake of 1913 of no effect.
When Mullah Mohammed Omar gave the order to destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan, he made a curious statement. He said, “I didn”t want to do it.” International aid workers kept showing up in the region in order to protect the monuments, while all around them living people were starving and dying”so he gave the order because he was morally appalled that anyone could value antiquities over living human beings. In New Orleans we have the reverse. No one is trying to save the antiquities, and no one is suffering because of the statues, but the mayor and city council say, “We do want to do it.” What occurred there was simply an act of vandalism to strike a blow against a minority group that is today out of fashion.
Mullah Omar had a better reason than Mitch Landrieu.