If you have practiced law for any time in Georgia, you have walked by Confederate monuments. The smaller and more remote the jurisdiction, the greater the likelihood that you walked beneath the shadow of a Confederate soldier, general, or political figure on your walk to court. Recently, the county commission in Henry County, Georgia, voted 4-1 to remove the Confederate monument on the square. This one is steps from my office. It is slated to come down within 60 days. Leon Stafford, of the Atlanta Journal, writes, “[a] Confederate monument in McDonough’s square will be removed in the next 60 days, the latest shrine to the Confederacy to be taken down in metro Atlanta.”
When Confederate monuments started coming down a few weeks ago, I walked to the square for a closer look. For years, it had existed beneath the level of consciousness. The granite soldier has stood impassive as I paced the square while waiting for a verdict. Somehow he was there for years without me looking at him that closely. What I notice (or what I believe I notice) about this soldier is that he appears to be low ranking. He holds a single rifle, boots, hat, and sack. His is not a dress uniform. He bears no sword. He appears to be infantry. I don’t know much else. I don’t know if he is the likeness of a particular person or is something of an everyman. When I went to check him out, I imagined him as a conscript. I noticed something else. There had been an attempt to recast the setting of this monument as part of a larger war memorial. Today, he is surrounded by various flags of the military branches. Before recent events, there had been an attempt to render the statue less a “shrine to the Confederacy” than as a war memorial more generally. To be sure, the Confederate soldier dominates the scene, and he is now surrounded by the flag of the nation against whom he took up arms. But I noticed the effort, such as it was.
In light of recent events, I turned to Shelby Foote’s Civil War series (Foote has also been criticized. I’m well aware). I used my monthly Audible credit to download volume one of that series. Volume One alone is 38 hours long — so, I am in it now for the long haul. In volume one, Foote describes the build-up to the war. In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner, an avid abolitionist, was beaten and nearly killed on the Senate floor by Preston Brooks of South Carolina who used a cane as his weapon. He suffered no consequence for the action. Afterward, he was sent additional canes as a gift. Following the election of Lincoln, states began seceding one-by-one. Foote gives a lengthy treatment to Senator and soon-to-be Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s speech announcing his resignation from the Senate. The Republican Party, then the party of Lincoln, was new on the scene. There was party upheaval and splintering in the election of 1860. The result of that election was the catalyst for succession.
The War wasn’t fought between Senators or even generals though. Over 750,000 died in the war. An interesting piece of data — 500,000 foreign-born soldiers served in the Union army. The Civil War was considered the first modern war but fought with the tactics of a bygone age. Many of the bloodiest battles consisted at men being hurled against artillery fire. The numbers were brutal. In the Battle of Shiloh, 23,000 were killed in two days of fighting — a single battle in the Western theater. Those who did the bulk of the dying on their respective sides had much common with one another. The stark differences in philosophy, views on slavery, and economic interest were to be drawn between those in charge. There were two conscription acts by the Confederacy. As an aside, North Georgians did not uniformly want to secede. But sitting it out, particularly in the South, was not an option. Near my home, there is a Confederate graveyard where the markers are small, rectangular, and uniform. If you are from the South, you have no doubt seen such a place. Generally, the generals — the kind of people depicted on Stone Mountain — are not buried there. The poor often die fighting the battles of the powerful. That much has not changed.
Most of the confederate monuments were built in the 20th century as part of what is known as the lost cause movement. They were built in reaction to anniversary dates of the civil war and often in response to efforts to further civil rights. And the impetus was generally aimed at mythologizing and rallying together around a common (most certainly racial) identity in the face of possible discomforting social change.
Now the Confederate statue I’ve walked by thousands of times is slated for removal. And I have thought on what it is like to live in this particular time. I have also tried to imagine what it would have been like then. I look and see some parallels — the breakdown of civil debate in the Senate, two sets of people stuck in their own narrative with little concept of nuance, and a political divide that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths (ours by a pandemic theirs in a brutal war of a different sort). Those dynamics were at play in the lead up to the Civil War, combined with the unraveling of party politics. And The Lost Cause movement was an attempt by those in power in Southern States to recast truth as they knew it. To use a phrase coined by a White House Official, the movement that led to the construction of Confederate memorials was all about the casting of “alternate facts.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.
To see into the build up to The Civil War and in the events that preceded the construction of monuments is to peer into the mirror. And, alas, I see the teachable moment being lost on those around me. Monuments do not seem to be the only things going away. Alongside this movement, perhaps even within it, I see the very forces at play that led to the monuments themselves.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” said William Faulkner. We do not escape it and are perhaps never more wed to it than when it is beneath the level of our consciousness. When the day comes that the monuments are no more, what will wake us to the way we are acting? When we are freed from walking by the monument on the way to the courthouse, will we have the discipline to understand the history that led to what awaits us when we are inside the building? What does our present look like when we have taken down the reminders of our not-so-pleasant past?