Two things are important if we’re to glean any value from history. One is preserving it in the first place. The second is interpreting it with as much fidelity as possible for succeeding generations who will analyze the past from their contemporary viewpoint.
Fall short on the first point, and the human narratives and physical evidence of civilization-shifting events can be hopelessly muddled – or lost altogether.
On the second matter, skewed, partial, or partisan interpretation can lead to a society clinging to propaganda that’s well-removed from actual truth.
All of which remains relevant as new battles occur over Confederate monuments, 152 years after the Civil War ended.
Atlanta has not been immune, with sporadic calls of late to hammer Stone Mountain clean of its veneration of the Confederacy.
We’ve written before of the risk in either seeking to obliterate evidence of a painful past, or cling to only one aspect of a multi-faceted story. Neither will yield the result any impassioned faction desperately seeks.
We believe Civil War history did not end in May of 1865. The following period of Reconstruction and the Lost Cause narrative are equally worthy of study as we today try to understand how we got from there to here.
That cannot happen if the monuments desperately seeking to rebuild Southern pride in the face of a staggering defeat are uprooted from public view. Leaving them in place – and, most importantly, properly interpreting them for a modern age – is the best way to let people accurately see the incessant flow of history and evolution of human thought.
The Atlanta History Center offers on its website a template for helping place this great conflict in proper context. Their work acknowledges both Southern loss and the awful toll slavery brought upon the entire nation.
Part of that is finally acknowledging what the Lost Cause era did not – that slavery was a central reason for the horrendously bloody conflict. The Rebel South’s leaders made that quite plain. As in the remarks of Georgian Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, from his famous 1861 “Cornerstone Speech” delivered in Savannah. “With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system.”
Historian (and now-DeKalb County CEO) Michael Thurmond, in his book “Freedom,” quotes a Virginia newspaper editor who wrote that, “if our people are not capable of vindicating their title to property in negroes, then they ought to quietly surrender the question, stop the war, abolish slavery, and confess themselves eternally disgraced.”
This reality, in no manner, diminishes the tremendous loss of life and property which the South (and North) suffered during the Civil War. The graves of Confederate soldiers should lie unmolested as evidence of the sorrow and sacrifice made by thousands of households. Their tale is part of history. So is the battle to end slavery.
Christy Coleman, CEO of The American Civil War Museum, told an audience at the old Cyclorama in 2014 that we should view the war in its entire, sweeping breadth – not treasured fragments. “We should remember all of it,” she said.
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Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.