Although it was a foregone conclusion, last Thursday, the New Orleans City Council, at the urging of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, voted 6-1 to remove 4 Confederate statues from their locations. Among these were the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee at Lee Circle and the equestrian statue of Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard from City park. This seems to be the latest attempt by certain people, mainly those who are easily offended, to revise history and judge 19th Century people by 21st Century standards. This is the follow up to last summer’s hullabaloo about removing the Confederate flag.
As I see it, history is what it is. Some of it is good, some of it is bad and much of it is somewhere in between. Where in between depends on who you listen to. The War Between the States is variously known as The Civil War, The War for Southern Independence, The War of Northern Aggression, and the Southern Rebellion, among others. The name really depends on where you are and who you are talking to. And, monuments to the Confederacy and its heroes are ingrained in the culture of the Deep South. Rare is the Southern town that does not have at least one monument to the Confederate solider. Many of them, like New Orleans have quite a few. They are and have been part of the landscape.
Lately, there has been a big push in a movement to remove all vestiges of the Confederacy and its monuments and memorials from public view. Generally this is because some people feel offended by the objects and what they represent. That is not surprising since we live in a society today where pretty much everything offends somebody or some group. But erasing history is not a very smart thing. Perhaps putting history in its proper perspective is a better way to do things. First, those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. And more importantly, erasing history is a typical totalitarian tactic, whereby the ruling class impresses on the proletariat that reality is what they say it is.
As George Orwell said in his distopian classic, “1984:
“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
“In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
I did not raise much of a fuss about the Confederate flag controversy, to be honest. I thought, and still think that is was silly and misguided. How banning a flag can reduce the rate of violence in this country or make better the fact that some nut murdered a church full of people on a Wednesday night is beyond me. Maybe we would be better served to address things like mental illness, the disconnect between the Millennial generation and their elders or just hatred in general. But some people never want to waste a good crisis. So, they used the Charleston church shooting to jump on an issue that had noting to do with it, but that had had on their agenda for some time.
But, I do understand the problem many people, especially people of color, have wit the flag. First, let’s be completely clear. The flag that most people on both sides are so passionate about is not “THE” Confederate flag. It is the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. It was also adopted by other Confederate armies and was the fighting ensign of the Confederate Navy. And, it was never displayed in its current 3×5 rectangular ratio, like the American flag. Back in the day it was square.
The current “Confederate flag” that invokes so much controversy only came along in the 1950’s and 1960’s when race relations hit a flash point over school desegregation. It was used by the Ku Klux Klan and others as a symbol of defiance and rebellion. It a symbol that told the Supreme Court, the federal government and the anti-segregation movement “Not no, but Hell No!”
Having said that, I understand why so many people have a problem with the Battle Flag. While it may have meant something else at one time, it was appropriated by idiots and now represents a symbol of hatred and violence. The same thing happened to the swastika. It was an ancient symbol of peace and good fortune in several cultures around the world. But once the Nazi’s adopted it as their own, it became an inflammatory symbol of oppression and murder. I get that.
So, my take on the Battle Flag is basically this. I don’t really see anything wrong with it, but I am willing to accept the Apostle Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians that if something I think is alright causes a brother to stumble avoid it. I get that too. So, maybe the best thing for public agencies to do is only display the flag in the context of an accurate historical representation.
Unfortunately, it is a different situation when you try to erase people from history. Now, in a city that has always not only embraced, but exhibited its history, they Mayor and City Council in New Orleans wants to pull down statues to certain prominent Confederate heroes. Word is the statue of Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square may be next. Which brings up the question “where does it stop”
General Lee has looked north from the traffic circle at St. Charles and Howard Avenue for over 130 years. But in today’s politically correct climate, we can’t tolerate that anymore. Lee is said to represent slavery, rebellion and is a man who took up arms against the United States. This despite the fact that he never owned a slave himself. (U.S. Grant, the Union hero and future President did, however). Same thing for General Beauregard. Since they fought for the Confederacy and the Confederacy stood for slavery, they are, of course, bad people who should not be honored. Apparently we only came to this conclusion recently, or those monuments would not have stood for over a century.
Never mind that the both had distinguished careers in the U.S. Army before the Civil War, including serving with distinction in the Mexican War. And never mind that both of them served as Superintendent of West Point, or that after the war they both took the oath of allegiance to the United States and were pardoned by President Andrew Johnson. Never mind that both of them were, during their lifetimes, held in high regard by the very Union officers that they fought against. We can’t talk about the fact that both of them had distinguished post-war careers. General Lee became the president of Washington College and worked tirelessly for causes such as mending the divide caused by the war and free education for newly freed slaves. General Beauregard worked as an engineer and president of the New Orleans and Carrollton Street Railway, where he invented the streetcar system that still operates today and is the worldwide symbol of New Orleans.
But, the strangest thing about this is that those of us who never knew these men or lived in the era they did think we are competent to judge them with the 20/20 hindsight of modern times. Basically, if anybody had the right to judge former Confederates unworthy of respect, it would certainly be those men who fought for the Union. Those men who faced the Rebels in engagement after engagement. Who were wounded themselves and who watched their comrades shot down by the score. But interestingly enough, while they were still alive, no one had more respect for Confederate veterans, including General Lee, than did the Union veterans of the great conflict. And vice versa. From the end of the war on, veterans of both sides respected and embraced their former enemies. A case in point is the 50th reunion of the troops who fought at Gettysburg. Maybe we could all learn a lesson from this.
But, if not, the Mayor may want to think about where all this will lead. First, do we need to rename New Orleans itself? It is, after all, named after the Duke of Orleans. The same Duke of Orleans who had numerous affairs, and was dogged by rumors of murder and incestuous relations with his daughter. Should we erase the memory of Marie Laveau who, after all, was a slave owner? Do we rename Faubourg Treme, the first U.S. residential neighborhood for free blacks because it was named after Claude Treme, who shot and killed a slave? Should we rename Faubourg Marigny because it was named after Bernard Marigny, who despite offering low interest rates to free people of color, owned slaves.
While we are at it, what do we do about Camp Street? It was originally called “Campo de Negro” where slaves were bought to be sold. Let’s rename Poydras Street because Julien Poydras owned slaves (although he bequeathed freedom to over 700 slaves and donated heavily to Charity Hospital, asylums, and orphanages). The Ursuline nuns owned slaves , so do we tear down their convent and wipe them from the history books as well.
Or how about we rename anything named after a Landrieu? After all, former Mayor Moon Landrieu, the current mayor’s daddy, was instrumental in getting the Superdome built, which required the destruction of the city’s first Protestant and Jewish cemetery. And probably cursed the Saint for all time.
Really, where does it all end?