In Easton, Pennsylvania stands a massive monument to the fallen soldiers of the Civil War. There’s a central column seventy-five feet high surmounted by a statue of a bugler. Around the base are granite statues, plaques, plinths, and a fountained moat. It is massive, ugly, surprisingly tasteless, and dedicated to the honored dead.
And nobody is agitating to have it pulled down.
From Baltimore to Texas, all across the South, monuments to the soldiers of the Confederacy are being removed. Some have plaques listing the names of the fallen; others have only a single regiment or town on the plinth. Many are surprisingly tasteless constructions rendered in similar style to the Easton monument. —But of course nobody’s objecting on aesthetic grounds.
The Confederacy is defeated, its dead long buried, and even the survivors gone to dust. Fewer every year ever met a veteran of that conflict, and its battlefields are now vast parklands which draw thousands of visitors every year. We memorialize there the thousands who fought and died, and following the examples set by such men as Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, and Robert E. Lee, we honor the fallen of both armies, that we may heal those wounds that still remain a century and a half later.
Forty years after that war ended, it became fashionable for towns to raise monuments to honor their fallen. In part because it would be unthinkable to ever again raise the regiments to battle our neighbors, many of these statues were planted in the middle of the town squares that had once been left clear to provide a drill ground for the local militia. Now, the time for that militia has passed, and instead of a place for mustering troops we have a patch of parkland.
Every small town in Maine has at least one of these monuments. There’s a tin soldier on a plinth, and it was raised in memory of the honored dead. Most of them date from around 1900, when some very convincing salesmen traveled North and South in search of a market for low-end foundries. They sold in large part because a lot of the fellows who marched off to war got buried on the battlefield, often with a marker reading Unknown Union Infantry, Petersburg, #1028. These are the only memorials those poor boys will ever have — these pot-metal statues, plus maybe their names on a plaque in the town square.
The main difference between Maine and Virginia is the uniform on the tin soldier. While they were not fighting for the Union, they did go to war for their homes, and we fought a war to make sure those homes were part of the United States. The Union won, which means the Union still has title to the states that had seceded and all that goes with them. A general pardon for these soldiers was issued in December of 1868, and that was the end of it: They were declared American dead, and they deserve their grave stones.
There is a movement afoot to pull down the old monuments — not on both sides, just those raised to the losers. The justification (as I understand it) is that the Confederacy was a government dedicated to the preservation of slavery, and that by extension every man who fought to defend it fought to enslave. The reasoning behind this is a bit thin; following it to its logical conclusion, we’d do as well to remove any monument to the fallen of 1812 and the Revolution, since the United States before 1861 was a nation which kept slaves. This could be stretched to some truly absurd extremes, but it’s immaterial: In any nation where the will of the many has power, there’s no requirement that this collective will must be either logical or reasonable.
Personally, I find it distasteful to remove monuments to the fallen. And yet, I know of one interstate highway which was driven squarely through a Catholic cemetery in order to avoid expense. On Revolutionary battlefields that should properly be sacred ground, we now have cheap housing and Wal-Marts. At monuments in our nation’s capitol, protesters spray paint and burn flags. Vandalism aside, this is as it should be; we’re a free country, with property rights, free expression, governed by election and referendum. Public land should be used as the public wishes, and if that means small towns take down their tin soldiers, so be it.
I believe some of these monuments and battlefields ought always be preserved no matter how much we need cheap housing — or, for that matter, how much we may dislike what they stand for. They’re physical representations of our history. And, while books can be burned, rewritten, erased — it’s tough to erase physical relics. This is one reason that we established national monuments, as permanent reminders for a functionally illiterate populace. Today we’re as deeply divided politically as at any time since the Civil War, and it’s vital that we remember its lessons now more than ever. Unfortunately, it’s clear as crystal that most of America doesn’t know much history.
There’s a marker on Little Round Top covered with the names of the fallen, raised by the survivors of those who fought and died there — my own ancestors among them. Across the field stand monuments to the Confederate dead. During the four years of war, more than a million died because of it, and at the end the nation was united again by force of arms. That the cost was so high was and remains tragic; we should forever remember the price with which Union and Emancipation was so dearly bought.
And as for the dead… they’re dead, past caring.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
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