Last night the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors met and discussed the Confederate statue on the Oxford Courthouse Square. The monument has become increasingly controversial in our community since the events in Charlottesville a few weeks ago, and now many are calling for it, along with the statue in the Circle at Ole Miss, to be removed.
Alyssa Schnugg of the Oxford Eagle wrote a thoughtful article on this topic earlier in the week. She is hopeful that our community can come together and agree on a solution before outside groups associated with neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and the alt-right come to town and protest. Her fear, like mine, is that in such a scenario the events we saw unfold in Charlottesville will take place here. She admits, however, she has no easy answers, as feelings run strong on both sides of the issue.
I don’t have any easy answers either, nor do I want to insist on any particular view about what to do with the statues. I think too much of what’s written on the subject falls into one of two categories: either you’re in favor of erasing history if you want the statues removed, or you’re a racist if you don’t.
Warning: this issue is much more complex than that and, therefore, this is a long post. I write this article in the hopes that it will help others process their feelings on the subject, particularly white/Anglo Christians who grew up in the South. I know many want to honor the past while also doing what they can to eliminate all forms of racism in the present.
This issue is personal to me. I am a seventh-generation Mississippian with several ancestors who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. I have spent thousands of hours over the years pouring over books written on the war by the likes of Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton. I’ve walked the fields of Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, Murfreesboro, Vicksburg, and dozens of other smaller battlegrounds. I even subscribed to Civil War Times Illustrated magazine as a kid (yes, it actually existed). In short, I was a Civil War nerd, thoroughly enjoying my study of all aspects of the Civil War.
Now, however, I feel a low-grade guilt for ever having been interested in the Civil War from a southern point of view. It is as if my interest is, in and of itself, an expression of racism. And with each call to remove the monuments I’ve wondered more and more: should I call for their removal too?
Are the statues symbols of racism?
Recently the English Department at Ole Miss wrote this in their open letter to Chancellor Vitter: “These monuments have never been about teaching or commemorating history, but were rather raised as tools of oppression against the African-American community and symbols of white supremacy.” That’s a bold statement. In order to prove it, you’d have to establish that both those memorialized by the statues and the motives of those who erected the statues were powered only by racism and white supremacy. Is that the case? If so, then I think it’s clear that the monuments need to be removed. The only way to find out is by examining the historical context surrounding the monuments.
Context: the nation leading up the Civil War
The Civil War would not have been fought without the existence of slavery; of this there can be no doubt. James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1989), 78-116. Slavery as it existed in the United States was race-based and premised on a philosophy of white supremacy, which as I’ve argued Christians must find hateful, and the Confederate States of America was formed for the purpose of perpetuating and extending slavery. Some have said these facts alone make the monuments morally repugnant and necessitate their removal.
I don’t, however, think it’s that simple: to say that the Civil War could not have been fought without slavery is not to say that it was fought to free the slaves. In 1856, the Republican Party was founded. Slavery was then legal in fifteen states, and the Republicans became the first major political party in the United States to officially oppose the extension of slavery into the various federal territories.
However, the Republicans did not propose abolishing slavery in the states where it then existed. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, he ran on a platform of “State Sovereignty,” which read: “The right of each state to order and control its own domestic institutions [meaning slavery] according to its own judgements exclusively, is essential to the balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depends.” The platform also condemned any attempt by the national government to invade the South and abolish slavery by force.
Southern leaders, however, did not take Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans at their word. Nor did they think it reasonable that they could not take their slaves, should they choose, into the territories. They led their states early in 1861 to secede. It bears noting that before the Civil War there was a legal case for the possibility of secession. The United States government then raised armies “to preserve the Union,” but not to abolish slavery, and the Civil War began in April, 1861.
Context: the Civil War
No slaves were freed because the Civil War had begun. The Emancipation Proclamation did not take effect until January 1, 1863, almost two years after the start of the war, and even then it freed only the slaves who lived in Confederate-held lands. Slaves in Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and most of Tennessee, for example, were not objects of the proclamation. Slavery was not fully and finally abolished in the United States until the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 18, 1865, or more than six months after the end of the Civil War.
Finally, while most Mississippians supported secession, many did not. In the 1860 presidential election over one-third of voters chose candidates who opposed secession. Most Mississippians who served in the Confederate armies did not own slaves. The war has often been viewed by the soldiers who fought it and the historians who study it as a “rich man’s war [large land and slave owners] and a poor man’s fight.”
Context: the soldiers who are memorialized
In light of these facts, I’ve tried to imagine what it must have been like for two of my great-great grandfathers when they enlisted in the Confederate army. They did not join until the spring of 1862, a year after the war began, so they weren’t fire-breathing secessionists. The United States Army of the Tennessee, led by U.S. Grant, was at that point on the Tennessee River within a few miles of Corinth.
Mississippi faced an invading army, and all the deprivations and that come from war. Slavery had not been abolished; indeed it was not even a war aim at the time. Therefore, I doubt my grandfathers’ decisions to fight came primarily from a desire to perpetuate slavery. The simplest explanation is they felt it necessary to defend their homes and families. In short, even though the leadership of the South got so much wrong leading up to and during the Civil War, that does not mean the soldiers of the South were themselves dishonorable.
Further, I find it hard to believe that those who erected the statues a generation after the war were motivated primarily by a desire to oppress other races. Building memorials for those who died in wars was a new phenomenon at the time, and the trend reached the United States just as the Civil War generation was dying off. The simplest explanation is that the sons and daughters of those who fought wanted to remember the soldiers who served (which is, after all, what is expressly written on the monuments themselves).
There is no question that the South did not possess the moral high ground in the Civil War, but that doesn’t mean the men who fought were motivated only by racial hatred. I believe the argument put forward by the English Department about the monuments fails. Maybe the monuments really were erected simply to remember those who died in the Civil War. If you put yourself in the shoes of the men who fought and their children, it’s difficult to imagine what else could have realistically been done.
Context: the present day.
However, if you call yourself a Christian then those aren’t the only shoes you must consider. “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well.” James 2:8.
Who is our neighbor? Everyone in our community, of all races. And if my brother or sister in Christ with a darker skin tone than mine looks at those monuments and sees something different from what I see, well, I think I can understand. In fact, it’s hard for me to see how an African American Mississippian, given the racial history of our state, could possibly look on those monuments and feel anything other than some form of pain.
How do we love our neighbor, then, when it comes to these statues? We try to sympathize with them. If our neighbors say these statues on courthouse lawns or at the entrance to the university make them feel unwelcome in their own towns, we need to consider that seriously. It would be unloving to act otherwise. Whatever else is true of Confederate memorials like these, we can all be sure of this: they only tell one side of the story of the South. And if our neighbor petitions our government to move the statues elsewhere, we also need to consider that seriously and not get defensive and resort to slippery slope arguments about what other changes removal might lead to.
It is possible to see an argument for the removal of the statues, or at least their contextualization, without it meaning we agree with the English Department at Ole Miss. It is not an admission that our grandparents were totally dishonorable people, that interest in the Civil War is an expression of racism, or that we cannot admire the sacrifices of those who fought for the South. It doesn’t have to be a betrayal of heritage. It can be, rather, an expression of love to brothers and sisters who hurt and who for too long were oppressed by their neighbors rather than loved by them.
I know feelings run strong on both sides of the issue, and I think it is complicated enough to justify those feelings. I don’t not agree with the simplistic way the issue has been framed: keep the statue and you’re a racist, remove the statue and you’re in favor of a real life 1984.
However, no one wants what happened in Charlottesville to happen in Oxford. I’m praying the leaders and citizens of Lafayette County can come together, think through all the historical context, and, by God’s grace, put themselves in one another’s shoes and agree on how to publicly memorialize our history.