I visited Civil War battle sites on my honeymoon: Antietam, Harper’s Ferry, Gettysburg. It was early May and they were beautiful places. Lush fields, trees, wild flowers – and graves. Hundreds and hundreds of men had died there fighting for both sides. I doubt that many were particularly political. They were recruited into adventure or a sense of honor. Perhaps someone they admired was building a company from the small town where they lived. Most New England towns have a Civil War monument. I’ve seen them in Ohio and Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia. Oh, certainly the politicians and some of the men at the top – the generals – believed in the cause. That is their job. But the ordinary soldiers went because someone asked them or because all their friends were going or they got paid to enlist and the family needed the money.
The current desire in a lot of places, Richmond and New Orleans to name two of them, is to remove the statues of the generals and politicians. I lived for many years just blocks from Monument Avenue in Richmond. The large monuments stand in circles that can be difficult to get to depending on the traffic: Jeb Stuart, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson. Plus the explorer Matthew Maury and tennis great and local hero, Arthur Ashe. (Ashe was added after a great deal of controversy.) Most Richmonders probably couldn’t name all the statues and likely don’t know who any of these men are.
The Boston Globe had a feature story on July 4th.
Ana Edwards stood on Monument Avenue, one of America’s most elegant boulevards, and stared with disbelief at the inscription on the 67-foot-tall memorial to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate government that was based here during the Civil War.
“Exponent of Constitutional Principles,” the inscription said about Davis. “Defender of the Rights of States.” There were no words explaining Davis’s role in the enslavement of hundreds of thousands, no hint that much of the nation’s slave trade was conducted here in Richmond, at a time when black lives plainly didn’t matter to many, except as human chattel to be exploited or sold.
Instead, emblazoned in stone, was Davis’s assertion that he acted “not in hostility to others.”
Edwards had never read the description and I hadn’t either. And neither had the Mayor of Richmond, Dwight Jones. But unlike many in Richmond and other places across the South, I don’t think the statues should be moved or put in museums or crowded together in a kind of Confederate History Park. I believe they need to be used as teaching tools.
Earlier this spring, my husband and I were in Annapolis where there is a prominent statue of Roger Taney on the grounds of the State House. Taney was the Chief Justice of the United State Supreme Court and wrote the infamous decision in the Dred Scott case declaring slaves were not citizens and couldn’t sue in federal court. Instead of removing the statue, there are signs that explain who Taney was, who Dred Scott was, and why the decision mattered. I like this approach much more than taking down the statues and putting someplace where most people will not see them. Annapolis also has a new memorial to Kunte Kinte (subject of Alex Haley’s Roots) on the City Docks where he landed as a slave.
The controversy over Monument Avenue comes at a time when there is a fight to prevent development in Shockoe Bottom where there were a number of slave jails and auctions. I wrote about the preservation effort back in April.
Slavery is an ugly part of our past and the men who believed in it, the Jefferson Davis’ and Roger Taneys need to be remembered. We can’t forget who they were and what they did, any more than we should forget the slave auctions. Richmond, and other parts of the south have a prime opportunity to educate. Put up some markers, publish some informational materials. Make sure that all those bicyclists and spectators at the big race in Richmond in the fall know who Jefferson Davis was and what he did, but leave the statue. Leave the statue as a reminder of our dark past. Leave the statue so we don’t forget. And make sure they, and other visitors to the City know about Shockoe Bottom.
We can’t always be proud of our history, but we do need to remember it.