Using large cranes, New Orleans has been physically removing from prominent public places three venerable statues honoring the Confederate Civil War heroes Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard.
Also taken away was a 1911 obelisk celebrating the Battle of Liberty Place, where a white militia rioted in 1874 against integrated police forces.
In December 2015, New Orleans’ City Council voted 6-1 to remove those monuments. In January 2016, a federal judge dismissed an attempt by preservation groups and a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to keep them.
African-American leaders had argued that the statues were intended to send a message to black citizens to “stay in their places.” In New Orleans, 60 percent of residents are black.
A spokesman said the city favored “a more appropriate place to display the statues post-removal, such as a museum or other site, where they can be displayed in their proper historical context from a dark period in American history.”
The nighttime removals have outraged Confederate sympathizers and given the likes of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke fuel for his machine of racial hatred. The memorials were removed under strong police security after workmen doing the first removal job were physically threatened. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has kept removal dates secret for public safety reasons.
Although I can sympathize with those who consider Confederate memorials as purely symbols of slavery, oppression, hatred and secession, I see them quite differently.
I view them as important historic monuments that symbolize misguided patriotism and rebellion, along with a common human courage that was shown by young Americans on both sides.
The removals have aroused strong emotions with many, who see the monuments in the same dark light as the Confederate flag — symbols of slavery, segregation and the long persecution of African-Americans in the former Confederacy.
The debate about Confederate symbols is nothing new. It was further dramatized in June 2015 when a white racist murdered nine innocent people in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Only after that horrific event did the state of South Carolina remove the Confederate battle flag that had flown at the State House for over 50 years. Currently, other Southern cities are considering the removal of prominent Confederate symbols.
Will similar actions be taken by public officials in North Carolina? Many more soldiers from North Carolina died in the Civil War than did from Louisiana. Thus one might expect stronger opposition to monument removals here than occurred in New Orleans.
In the Battle of Gettysburg alone, Tar Heel losses totaled one out of every four Confederate deaths. A total of 32 North Carolina regiments were in action on July 1, 2 and 3. One of the most beautiful and moving Confederate statues is located at Gettysburg. Created by Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum, it portrays four rebel soldiers charging forward, with one carrying the Confederate flag.
In North Carolina there are public Confederate memorials in Asheville, Chapel Hill, Concord, Durham, Louisburg, Oxford, Raleigh, Rocky Mount, Salisbury, Wilmington, Winston-Salem and Yanceyville. The lone rebel soldier on his pedestal at Chapel Hill is known as “Silent Sam.”
The first such statue was erected at Cross Creek Cemetery in Fayetteville in 1868. A monument to Gen. Joseph Johnson was dedicated on private land in 2010. There are even a few monuments to Union soldiers in the state located in federal cemeteries.
As one who has been writing the “Secret Civil War Diaries of Abraham Lincoln,” I believe that if President Lincoln were alive today, and asked about it, he would favor preserving these ancient symbols of nobility, foolishness and sacrifice.
When Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Lincoln asked that “Dixie” be sung by those who came to the White House.
Unfortunately, Lincoln was assassinated before the humane and positive reconstruction which he favored could take place. He believed that the men who fought against the Union and their leaders should be accepted back into the Union as honorable citizens to be treated as brothers, not as perpetual enemies.
His assassination resulted in punitive Reconstruction, causing long-lasting bitterness in the white South, while fomenting generations of misery for former slaves.
His second inaugural words deserve rereading:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all … let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”