Why Are There Monuments of Confederate Soldiers?
Can a man be guilty of a sin he himself seeks to purge from his being? Can he be a mixed bag, having some good and some evil in his being? Yes. We all know it. We all feel the sting of shame, of regret, when we reflect honestly on our hidden evil thoughts, when we contemplate the condemnation we would receive if a wrongful act was discovered. We could be otherwise deserving of praise for aspects of our nature that are laudable and honorable, but in that one thing we would feel disgraced.
Interesting word, isn’t it? Disgraced. It means to lose mercy, favor or virtue. Therefore, its opposite: grace, means to extend the restoration of virtue, to grant mercy, to again look favorably upon someone.
In the Civil War, America suffered a fall from grace. But grace was used to turn enmity into comity.
This is why the Civil War monuments existed, in part, perhaps in the largest part. A shattered nation needed to come back together. Secession was treason. Treason was disgrace; worse, treason was committed to protect the evil of slavery. Men died to stop it. Men died to save it. We know who won. But with battlefields stained with blood, and the shops, streets and homes filled with maimed bodies, broken futures, and fractured souls, how do you mend two warring sides?
Lincoln had planned for a mending. In 1863, roughly two years before the war ended, he issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, as stated here:
The proclamation addressed three main areas of concern. First, it allowed for a full pardon for and restoration of property to all engaged in the rebellion with the exception of the highest Confederate officials and military leaders. Second, it allowed for a new state government to be formed when 10 percent of the eligible voters had taken an oath of allegiance to the United States. Third, the Southern states admitted in this fashion were encouraged to enact plans to deal with the freed slaves so long as their freedom was not compromised.
Lincoln knew how difficult the task would be to re-unite blood enemies, so he made a plan and announced it. He informed the South that there was a way out, a way back. In effect, he did not say that they, as a people, were evil. He said they were a good people that went down the wrong path and that we should all be friends again.
As Lincoln saw it, the victors needed to extend grace to the defeated, once they lay down their arms. As he said his second inaugural address:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
The President saw the need to overcome the conceit that a person can own another in servitude; he had to destroy the idea that slavery was acceptable; and once doing that, remove the disgrace from the person. Let them restore their dignity, sense of place, recognizing those parts of themselves that were honorable and good. They were made to see that this thing about slavery they got horribly wrong. He believed that to be at peace and to become neighbors again, to be one nation again, they must forgive; they must get past it; they must see each representative of the former enemy as a whole being, fully vested with all the rights and privileges of citizenship. There are no spoils for the victors because there is no one vanquished. We are brothers again. Lincoln’s plan for amnesty was enacted by his successor, Andrew Johnson, by Proclamation 179 on Dec. 25, 1868. It granted full pardon. How appropriate. On Dec. 25 they were forgiven. The president told them to go back to their homes and to sin no more.
In doing so they built monuments to their dead. But it wasn’t their dead anymore, it was our honored dead. Some of the honored dead were those who chose to secede from the federal government to protect their dependence on a system with slavery, but they are those who gave this up and rejoined a lawful government. Some of the honored dead were those who forced them to it. General Robert E. Lee said:
The questions which for years were in dispute between the State and General Government, and which unhappily were not decided by the dictates of reason, but referred to the decision of war, having been decided against us, it is the part of wisdom to acquiesce in the result, and of candor to recognize the fact.
In their decision to surrender, they decided for all time and absolutely for America that slavery is wrong, and that it brings disgrace. Racism could not stand in the light of the belief that all men are equal. Surrender and victory became America resolving itself to a mutually confirmed truth in a manner that cannot be undone. We would not, and could not, ever be divided on this issue again. The men and women of both sides in this now re-united whole are honorable.
When the General Robert E. Lee statue was opened to the public, the Daily Picayune included this quote:
We cannot ignore the fact that the secession has been stigmatized as treason and that the purest and bravest men in the South have been denounced as guilty of shameful crime. By every appliance of literate and art, we must show to all coming ages that with us, at least, there dwells no sense of guilt.
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Fast forward to today and we see a culture rescinding grace, condemnation rages, we are breaking apart into ideological camps, persons are judged for perceived sins, judged for past sins. For all appearances, the bonds of affection are broken. The willingness to forgive or to look upon each other as brothers is vaporizing. We no longer hold certain principles in common nor do we seek to uphold them. Too many stand by while evil flourishes.
There are three dangerous and disastrous concepts taking hold today. The first is the idea that past sins taint the vessel. For example, if a founder to this country sinned (i.e. Thomas Jefferson had slaves), then he and all that he touched is tainted. This includes his place in history and the related memorials of that place, his writings, legal conclusions, etc. The second is the conceit that we are qualified and right to condemn them as persons, without distinction or evaluating the balance of their wrongs versus their positive contributions. Martin Luther King was known as a womanizer, but he made valuable contributions to the character of this nation. His sins on one side do not erase his contributions on the other. The third is companion to the second and the most dangerous of the three, that people of one class may condemn an entire class of persons as tainted (white privilege). When we are all bearers of some sin in ourselves, who are we to judge another unworthy of life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness, much less a whole class of others?
The truth is that the freedoms of today are the fruits of labor of those who went before. They were men and women in a process to establish and keep a free society. It is their legacy and it is our job to protect it. They knew then that the high ideals they established this nation under could not tolerate some of the habits they themselves operated under. The blessings of liberty were to be for everyone, so they set a course. The Civil War cemented us on that course for everyone one regardless of race. This is to our collective credit. America shines as beacon because of it.
The blessings of liberty require grace. We must stop those who want to secede from that understanding.