Some Thoughts on the Removal of Southern Civil War-Related Symbols

By John C. Fazio
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017, All Rights Reserved

The recent dismantling and removal of Southern statuary, monuments and other symbols relating to the Civil War and its aftermath has, not surprisingly, generated a lot of heat between those favoring the same and those opposed. It is also unsurprising that proponents and opponents are often identified by race, so that a political and regional conflict morphs into a racial one. For this and other reasons, we need to ask ourselves if what appears to be such a good idea, and one whose time has come, is really that, or if our country and its citizenry would be better served by a different approach, one more in keeping with “the better angels of our nature,” to use Lincoln’s immortal phrase from his First Inaugural Address.

Let me make myself clear: I am a dyed-in-the-wool Unionist and therefore believe that the right side won the war. The alternative, in my judgment, would have resulted in the Balkanization of the country, if not the continent, with interminable fratricide. Further, I also believe that it was time for slavery to go. All the major powers of the time (Great Britain, France and Russia), and most of the lesser powers, had already abolished it. The Confederate government’s rear-guard action on the path that led to the future, therefore, stood no chance against the locomotive of history. I also believe, strongly, that the highest levels of that government and its Secret Service, principally President Jefferson Davis and Secretary of State Judah Benjamin and the head of the Secret Service in Canada, Jacob Thompson, were complicit in the attempt to decapitate the United States government on the night of April 14, 1865. On the other hand, I also believe that this conviction does not have much relevance to regional relationships more than 150 years after the fact and that, for that reason and others, our country and its citizenry are better served by letting sleeping dogs lie.

The Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Virginia

The truth is that the South put up an incredible fight for independence, despite a multitude of disadvantages, and I believe recognition of that fact should be given. Southerners are justifiably proud of the tenacity with which their ancestors fought against great odds. It is also true that there were dreadful black flag excesses –rape, pillage, plunder, terrorism and horrible neglect and abuse of prisoners of war–committed by both sides, and that this too should be acknowledged. When I was president of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable (2007) I provided for recognition of the fight made by the South (honor to the courage and bravery of those who fought and died for the cause of Southern independence) to be written into our Wikipedia entry. It was and is still there.

I believe, further, that it is reprehensible and counter-productive for victors to gloat over their victory and to “rub it in” to their enemies or former enemies. Ulysses S. Grant instinctively knew this when he signaled his men to desist from cheering when Robert E. Lee left Wilbur McClean’s home at Appomattox after his surrender there on April 9, 1865. And Lincoln instinctively knew it when he told his commanders to “Let em up easy.” The Allies rubbed it into Germany and her people after WWI and the result was Hitler, another world war and another 60 million dead. Accordingly, I am inclined to the view that more time should be permitted to pass before we begin to dismantle and remove the iconic symbols of the Southern Rebellion, more time for the wounds to heal and for greater attention to be given to the things that unite us and less to the things that divide us. Let there be no doubt that regional conflict still exists. Southerners and Northerners cannot even agree, for example, on what to call the war. Most of the country calls it the Civil War, but this term is not favored by Southerners; they prefer to call it The War Between the States or The War of Northern Aggression. Nor is there anything even close to unanimity of opinion as to the causes of the war. Nor have epithets lost favor: Southerners still call Northerners Yankees (always in a pejorative sense) and snowbirds, and Northerners still call Southerners rednecks and crackers.

I am fully aware of the atrocity that occurred in Charleston almost two years ago and that has provided the impetus to dismantle and remove the iconic symbols. No one with a brain in his head and a heart in his chest would dare to minimize that tragedy. No one is more sympathetic to blacks and their experience since the first slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619 than I am, including 246 years of slavery, 11 years of Reconstruction, in which thousands of them were slain and their property destroyed, and 100 years of Jim Crow, when they were murdered, abused, degraded, humiliated and exploited, so I fully understand their feelings on the matter.

Nevertheless, I appeal to them to accept the reality that ridding the South of iconic Civil War-related symbols at this time will not improve race relations in the South, but will make them worse, and that the last thing black Southerners need is worse race relations. A better policy, in my judgment, is benign neglect of such symbols until such time as their removal will not stir feelings of great hostility. And even then, the symbols should not be destroyed, but placed in cemeteries, museums, etc., where they will continue to memorialize, without celebrating, a terrible time in our history, the crossroads to true nationhood, a time that scholar and historian Shelby Foote described as “a helluva crossroads.”

Related links:
The Campaign Against the Confederate Battle Flag
The Confederate Battle Flag, Personal License Plates, and Litigation
Jefferson Davis Monuments Being Removed?
Whose Maryland?