As statues of Confederate icons are removed from public spaces across the South, the common refrain against removal is “You can’t change history.” That’s true to an extent. The established facts of history as they can be best derived typically do not change that much unless new sources of information are discovered. The interpretation of historical events, however, is subject to constant change. And what we think of as “history” is the analysis and interpretation of the historical record by those who have studied what is available. So history does in fact “change” as either new pieces of the record come to light (the Dead Sea Scrolls for example) or the existing evidence actually supports a different interpretation.
As long as we are talking about the Civil War, let’s take U.S. Grant as an example. The long-standing narrative on Grant was that he prevailed in the Civil War by sheer brunt of numbers and industrial might. That ignores the fact that his predecessors were unable to use those advantages to achieve victory and it ignores Grant’s background. He was trained primarily in the Quartermaster Corps. Grant knew exactly what an army needed to fight and win. His armies were well-equipped to fight because he made sure of it. Grant also recognized the unfortunate fact that just being in the Union Army was about as deadly (because of disease) for the average soldier as actually fighting in a battle for that army. The sooner the war ended, the sooner more soldiers would be out of harm’s way and back home where they were much less likely to die from communicable diseases than in the close quarters and rough conditions of an army camp. If that meant more men dying in battle to foreshorten the war, it was a matter of the grim economics of war that Grant faced. Grant’s battlefield tactics were not genius, but neither were they middling or incompetent. He knew that standing and fighting – something he equipped and trained the Union Army to do – would ultimately defeat the South.
The narrative on Grant’s presidency was even more dire. He was roundly considered a major failure who led a corrupt administration. There was corruption but not on Grant’s part and the achievements of Grant’s presidency were considerable. He negotiated the Treaty of Washington which resolved all of the North American disputes between the U.S. and Great Britain and set in place the greatest alliance of the last 170 years. He almost single-handedly stopped for a time the planned extirpation of the Plains Indians. He led efforts to fight the Ku Klux Klan and supported the rights of the Freedmen. Under his leadership, Congress passed the Civil Rights Acts of 1870 and 1875 and the 15th Amendment guaranteeing voting rights for Black Americans (a promise which the Republicans failed to keep after his administration). He brought the country out of the Panic of 1873 with a strong dollar policy. He guided legislation creating the Department of Justice, the Weather Bureau and the first National Park – Yellowstone. He began Civil Service Reform in an attempt to end the prevalent patronage system and professionalize government service. He would have secured the annexation of the Dominican Republic and provided the U.S. with a foothold in the Caribbean but it was rejected by Congress. Yet, he was regarded as a failure until some recent biographies began to rethink his legacy.
Rethinking of the legacy of the Confederacy is why we have all of these monuments to American traitors in our midst. Most of these statues and memorials were erected in response to attempts by black Americans to secure the rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution. The first wave of such monuments largely coincided with the passage of Jim Crow laws institutionalizing segregation across the South in the wake of the Supreme Court’s absurd “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. The second wave came with the growing civil rights movement in the 50’s and 60’s for the end of segregation and institution of full citizenship. These monuments were primarily erected in support of continuing white supremacy and a public warning to those who would challenge that orthodoxy. And the honoree of many such memorials, Robert E. Lee, himself stated that it was “wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”
So is removing such monuments “changing history.” The answer is mixed. It is changing (or attempting to ameliorate) the history of the placement of such monuments in the context of the white supremacist movement that erected them in the first place. It is not changing the history of the Civil War – the time of America’s greatest test. The Civil War will continue to be studied and hundreds of new books will be written every year from many different viewpoints.
You cannot change history – if you mean the fact of the Civil War and its aftermath. You can, however, change who you choose to honor. Do you honor those who fought to tear the country apart, to continue a crime against humanity and who lost that fight? Red says no; you don’t honor those folks on the wrong side of history no matter how bravely they may have fought in a losing cause. Removal of some monuments that were erected in a revisionist attempt to justify the “Lost Cause” have outlived their ignoble purpose and it is time for them to go.
Vintage postcard of Confederate Memorial on the Texas State Capitol grounds.