The Civil War is an incredibly complicated and sensitive subject. While the most common view of the war is that the North wanted to abolish slavery and the South wanted to keep slavery legal, such a narrow understanding of the events leading to the war between the Union and the Confederacy doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of understanding. Regardless, it is impossible to divorce the Confederacy from the fact that one of its primary goals in going to war was for the continuation of slavery in the southern states and the expansion of slavery into new territories west of the Mississippi River. It is because of the complexity and the sensitivity of the history that it is imperative that Confederate statues and monuments be moved from public parks, squares, and government buildings and to museums, where their historical context can be part of the presentation.
The primary argument against removal of Confederate statues from public places is that the statues are an important part of history and should thus not be forgotten. This is absolutely true, but it is, in fact, an argument in favor of moving them from their current locations and into museums where their complicated history can be told. The present life of these statues reduces them to a caricature. For those who see them as an emblem of southern pride, they are signifiers of a proud tradition. For those who see them as monuments to slavery, they are a painful reminder of the racial subjugation that did not simply end when the Confederacy lost the war, a subjugation the effects of which can still be traced to current inequities and struggles. And as we saw in Charlottesville this past weekend, where, according to the New York Times, a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was at the center of a protest that turned deadly, the result of this clash in views is not something that can be contained by having the opposing sides fight it out in the public square.
In a museum setting, Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue can be given proper historical context. Rather than presenting him as a one-dimensional figure that varies according to one’s personal view of the American Civil War, the story of Lee and the Confederacy for which he fought can be presented with an eye toward the complexity that it requires. In a museum, the Civil War can be explained with more than just a singular focus on the issue of slavery. The underpinnings of the political conflict, which can be traced back to the Articles of Confederation, the Constitutional conventions, and the Federalist Papers and beyond, can be given their proper due.
The myopic view that we must keep these Confederate statues where they are, regardless of what they represent for millions of people, is certainly insensitive, but it is also self-defeating. Divorced from context, these monuments will only breed more resentment, anger, and contempt.
According to the Herald Sun, protesters earlier today toppled a Confederate Statue in front of the county courthouse in Durham, North Carolina, angry over the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville on Saturday and the growing white supremacist movement in the United States. Actions like these will most certainly spark a reaction from people who see it as an attack on their culture and their history. Hopefully, the result will not be more violence, but a realization that the presence of these statues in public places is doing no one any good. It’s time to get them in museums where they belong.
[Featured Image by Steve Helber/Getty Images]