The controversy surrounding the 1,500 statues, monuments and place names that pay tribute to the Confederacy has been pushed into the background by Hurricane Harvey, but it’s far from over.
I’ve contended that removing these monuments is the best option. Arguments that the Civil War was about states’ rights rather than white supremacy and the preservation of slavery are disingenuous. It’s not right to ask fellow African-American citizens to tolerate courthouses and public parks that are dominated by statues of men who fought hard to keep blacks in slavery.
I’ve also conjured a rationale for maintaining statues and place names that commemorate national founders such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who also were white supremacists and slaveholders. If we dismantled all of our statues that celebrate racists, liars, adulterers, woman abusers and Indian killers, we’d have very few left.
This will never be an all-or-nothing issue, and the middle ground is very hard to find. What do we keep and what do we throw out?
Permit me to make a case for keeping a particular monument, and then we’ll see how well the rationale applies to the issue at large.
You’ve probably never heard of my hometown, Victoria, Texas. It’s a pleasant community of 63,000, more or less equidistant from Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Corpus Christi.
It’s an old town, dating to the 1824 colonization of the area by Mexican empresario Martin De Leon. Victoria was the center of De Leon’s colony, and the center of Victoria is an old-style Mexican town square called De Leon Plaza.
The southeast corner of De Leon Plaza is dominated by a larger-than-life statue of a Confederate soldier, not Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, but just an ordinary, nameless private dressed in torn, tattered civilian clothes.
His head is bandaged, but his right thumb is cocking the hammer on his rifle. His pose implies courage and determination. The statue is called “The Last Stand.”
It was dedicated in 1912, part of an early 20th-century burst of enthusiasm for commemoration of the generation of Civil War veterans who were rapidly dying off.
But “The Last Stand” is different from many other statues that were erected during this period. As Marc Fisher pointed out in the Washington Post last month, the Monumental Bronze Company in Bridgeport, Conn., perfected the art of the prefabricated, generic zinc statue that could be delivered and assembled for around $450. As a result, many essentially identical, poorly wrought statues were erected in the north and the south to commemorate both Confederate and Union veterans.
“The Last Stand,” however, was commissioned by the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy from the prominent Italian artist Pompeo Coppini, at a cost of $5,000.
The local newspaper’s report on the statue’s dedication on July 10, 1912, implies unity rather than divisiveness. At least two Union veterans were in attendance, and Mayor William Craig, an ex-Confederate soldier, remarked that if Abraham Lincoln were still alive, there would not be “a foot of soil under Dixie’s sky on which he might not pitch his tent and pillow his head upon a Confederate soldier’s knee and rest in safety there.”
Of course, the fact that “The Last Stand” is a work of art that was dedicated in a spirit of reconciliation and unity may not matter much to black Victorians who for years entered the movie theatre across the street through a separate entrance that relegated them to the balcony.
Nevertheless, our nation has a tradition of honoring the courage, determination and loyalty of our soldiers, even if they were fighting for a bad cause. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a good example.
We don’t commemorate Presidents Johnson and Nixon or Secretary McNamara or General Westmoreland for their leadership in our misguided participation in the civil war in Vietnam. The fact that we were on the wrong, losing side doesn’t take away from the courage and commitment of the ordinary soldiers, who were doing what our soldiers always do, responding to their sense of duty with courage and self-sacrifice.