The city council of Charlottesville, Virginia, voted earlier this month 3-2 to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from the city square after deeming it an offensive symbol of white supremacy.
The council considered two options: relocate the statue someplace less prominent, or provide historical context to the monument and use it as a forum for discussion. They opted for the former. A statue of Stonewall Jackson will be allowed to stay, for now.
After the vote, a GOP candidate for governor visited the park to oppose the decision, and protesters shouted him down with chants of “White supremacy has got to go!” They also “hoist[ed] signs saying ‘Ban Bigots’ and ‘No tolerance for white supremacy,’” according to the Washington Post.
The Lee statue’s removal is the latest in an ongoing war over Confederate memorials. Perpetual debates remain in New Orleans over a similar Lee statue and in South Carolina over a Jefferson Davis memorial. Last year the National Cathedral in Washington voted to remove Confederate symbols from stained glass windows that depict Lee. Movie critic Lou Lumenick of the New York Post even suggested we ought to, in effect, ban “Gone with the Wind.”
We Need to Remember, Not Erase, Evil
The Confederacy was a horrible, evil cause. My ancestors risked their lives to fight the Confederacy, and as an officer with the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, I spend much of my time remembering the Union heroes opposed to it. We rightly celebrate the Confederacy’s destruction in the war and we understandably abhor its symbols. The Confederate battle flag is a symbol of enemy power and does not belong over state capitols.
Yet the Confederacy’s destructive purpose does not mean that we should snuff out all of its memorialization now. As recent as 50 to 60 years ago, the memory of the Confederacy was used to fuel a cultural racism with real political clout. Now Confederate memorialization is generally a harmless gesture to Southern identity at worst, and historical preservation at best, so the struggle against it is mostly a series of cheap and self-congratulatory acts.
All Confederate soldiers are dead. They made the ultimate sacrifice for their cause, and their cause still failed. It does not take political or moral courage to target a dead Confederate soldier.
There is a deeper and more concerning element: the damnatio memoriae, which means “to condemn the memory.” It was the Roman practice of eradicating names and images of hated figures of the past, usually those the ruling class opposed, even after death. It was considered by many to be worse than death itself. They were scratched out of engravings, their burial statues smashed, their words burnt.
We Don’t Want to Go Where This Ideology Leads
It is an act of tribalism and an ideology of extermination, but beyond the insult to history and memory, we must realize it started with the words and images, and often ended with the associated people. Iconoclasts throughout history always seem to end up with a body count. We are a long way from the petty removal of a Robert E. Lee statue to that, but the mindset is the same — and the ideologues who seek the cheap opposition to historical figures may, given time and means, eventually talk themselves into it.
History tells us the campaign against Confederate memorials can also backfire. Ancient Egyptians believed that destroying a person’s name somehow destroyed the person. Pharaoh Horemheb mutilated the cartouches of much of the eighteenth dynasty, including Tutankhamun. In the nineteenth century they were rediscovered, and today Tutankhamun is one of the best-known pharaohs. Removing someone from history creates blank spaces that provoke more questions, ensuring the memories are not forgotten. Like a message in a bottle thrown at sea, history has a way of washing back on shore and grandly revealing what censors have tried to erase.
Ironically, Lee himself frequently opposed building Confederate memorials because he worried it would anger the North and preserve fierce passion for the future. He wanted a speedy reconciliation and saw some Confederate memorials as obstacles to it. Many believe the divisions of the Civil War remain today and such memorials merely idolatrize the Confederacy’s position in that struggle.
But Lee’s statue can serve a higher purpose. It can bring history to life, force us to confront what drove leaders like him to make such wrong decisions, and ask why so many Americans continued to adore them long after the war was over. Instead of removing Lee, a society wanting to learn from the successes and failures of history should pay more attention to him.