When I was 8 years old in 1961, our nation began a five-year celebration of the Civil War centennial. For two years, I was obsessed with the Civil War.
I knew every battle, read numerous books, diagramed each major battle and had a collection of Civil War soldiers that I custom-painted in their blue and gray uniforms.
I knew all the characters. There were heroes and villains. The South had the majority of great generals, but the North had the resources that ultimately won a brutal war of attrition. The reconstruction period was painful and it took a century for the South to fully regain its economic footing.
Fifty years before I became interested in the Civil War, at the war’s semi-centennial anniversary, many of the men who actually fought in the battles were beginning to die of old age.
Reunions were held on 12 major battlefields to celebrate the 50th anniversary of those battles. Statues commemorating those who fought in the battles were erected on the battlefield sites.
In 1911, President Taft celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first Battle of Manassas by giving a speech emphasizing America’s hope to prevent future wars by employing peaceful solutions to international problems.
In the South, however, feelings differed. Many southerners mourned what they referred to as the “lost cause”— an antebellum lifestyle that was abruptly ended by the Civil War.
Those who were old enough to remember the times before the Civil War wanted subsequent generations to appreciate the perceived virtues of those times.
As a result, statues memorializing confederate heroes were erected throughout the South. Around the same time, filmmaker D.W. Griffith made two of the first feature-length movies, “Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance.”
While the movies were among the first to embrace modern filmmaking techniques, they also painted a benign picture of slavery, blamed the Republicans for diluting the voting power of Caucasians by giving blacks the right to vote and glorified the Ku Klux Klan.
Not surprisingly, due to the movies’ popularity in the South, the Klan enjoyed a period of great resurgence a few years later.
My wife’s grandfather graduated from veterinarian school at Ohio State in 1922. His first job after graduation was working for the South Carolina Agricultural Department. When writing his memoirs in 1963, he noted that he could only live there for a year or so.
The “southern lifestyle,” as he put it, was not for his family. He referred to the glorification of Confederate heroes as a prelude to the re-emergence of the Klan, which reinforced the ongoing mistreatment of African Americans.
When seen in this context, it is understandable that the existence of statues commemorating Confederate heroes is so controversial today.
The 8-year-old boy inside of me still likes to visit Civil War battlefields. The men who fought wearing blue and gray colors were gallant and heroic as they battled on those hallowed grounds.
It is clearly appropriate to commemorate soldiers from both sides in the context of the battles that were fought. Doing so ensures that the importance of those battles will not be lost to future generations.
Many museums serve a similar educational context to the Civil War period. It most certainly is appropriate to have statues and other depictions of those involved as part of the exhibits.
However, because of the controversial nature of the context of statues in other settings, perhaps it is time to consider moving them to more appropriate venues or removing them altogether if such places do not exist.
Over 50 years ago, my wife’s grandfather noted the connection between the tributes to Confederate heroes and efforts to perpetuate ugly elements of the South’s history. Why do we have so much difficulty connecting those dots today?
Robert E. Lee, who agonized over which side to fight for and who played a significant role in reunification endeavors after the war, thought it was a bad idea to commemorate Confederate heroes with statues and asked that none be made of him.
General Lee stated that Confederate statues would retard, rather than accelerate, reconciliation. He might be surprised to see that America is still dealing with this issue more than 150 years after he made his request.
Clearly we should consider heeding General Lee’s advice in an attempt to resolve the ongoing resentment about issues that were supposed to have been resolved 150 years ago.
Jim de Bree is a Valencia resident who still loves to study the Civil War.