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Opinion | The Confederate Monuments We Shouldn’t Tear Down


Then as now, controversy erupted around the issue of Confederate memorialization, and not always in predictable ways. Although objections came from groups that believed Confederate traitors had no place in a national cemetery, opposition also came from groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy that, reluctant to support any gesture they felt appeased the federal government, wanted full control over Confederate graves so they could be used to galvanize sustained interest in Lost Cause mythmaking. Nevertheless, against a tide of controversy, McKinley’s initiative succeeded, and in 1901 the Confederate section was dedicated at Arlington.

Arlington, like our nation, is defined by its contradictions and flaws. I’ve always felt ambivalent about my own space reserved there, granted because of the nature of my combat service in Iraq, where we waged a far-from-popular war. Despite the honor of an Arlington burial and a desire to be close to my friends buried there, I’ve often wondered what peace exists in ground consecrated by the eternal, often violent chapters of our American experiment. When I imagine someone disinterring a grave at Arlington today, I can’t help but imagine a future generation disinterring my grave or that of one of my friends.

It seems the prospect of digging up the dead unsettles most Americans. The legislation introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren to redesignate military bases named after Confederate generals includes a provision that ensures all graves remain undisturbed.

Another area of our complex past that should be left untouched are battlefields. Like cemeteries, battlefields belong to the dead. When President Abraham Lincoln dedicated the Union cemetery at Gettysburg, he said: “But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” Yes, blood consecrates a battlefield, and it is never the blood of only one side.

Gettysburg, like many Civil War battlefields, is strewn with statues, placards and memorials. Many of these were erected by veterans’ groups, Union and Confederate, who returned for reunions in subsequent years.

The Virginia Monument is the most prominent Confederate memorial at Gettysburg. It marks the departure point of Pickett’s Charge, an ill-fated assault launched 157 years ago on July 3 on the final afternoon of that three-day battle. The monument, which depicts a mounted Robert E. Lee on a pedestal surrounded by seven Confederate soldiers, was started in 1913 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the battle, the last time a significant number of Gettysburg veterans gathered together.

Even then, old antipathies lingered. A fight broke out at the Hotel Gettysburg after a Southerner uttered a “vile epithet” about Lincoln, leaving several men hospitalized. On the afternoon of that July 3, though, old Northern and Southern soldiers gathered at a low stone wall called the “Bloody Angle,” where Pickett lost 3,000 men. The soldiers shook hands across the wall. A photograph was taken. It was a remarkable gesture of reconciliation.


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