Not so Monumental

In a city where there is no shortage of imposing monuments, the Place Vendome in Paris is often overlooked. It is an immense square, not far from the Louvre, surrounded by imposing buildings that were once part of a royal palace. Its centerpiece is a 60 foot high column with a statue of Napoleon Bonaparte at its apex.

The statue and column have had a turbulent history. It was first erected 1806-1810, when Napoleon styled himself as “Emperor of the French.” Upon the Bourbon restoration after Waterloo, the statue was removed. It was later removed and restored several times. Subsequent to Napoleon III’s defeat in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War and the fall of his Second Empire, the Paris Commune—a terrorist group that took over the city for several months— not only removed the statue, but tore down the entire column. After the newly formed Third Republic took back the city from the Commune, the column was rebuilt and Napoleon restored to the place of honor. The cost of restoration was assessed against a Commune leader, but, as he had fled to Switzerland, little was collected.

Like France during the 19th Century, there is a now a movement here to tear down monuments commemorating events and their participants that happened generations ago, but are now politically out of fashion. The current cause celebre locally is the campaign by some who wish to erase the names of four Confederate generals, Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Albert Sidney Johnston, and John Bell Hood from Dallas Independent School District Schools.

The propensity to name public facilities after certain individuals—there are even street intersections and highway interchanges named after individuals for various reasons —has reached the point of absurdity. Naming a public school, or any public building or facility, for anyone, no matter how revered (by some) or prominent they may be, is pretentious. Numbering schools, for example, “P.S. 1” or naming for neighborhoods where they are located such as  “Lakewood” or “Pleasant Grove” would be more appropriate, neutral, and uncontroversial. Some are already so named. But should any of their names be changed?

What about the four Confederate military leaders in question? Were they villains who deserve to be expunged from public view?

The Southern politicians who brought about secession ill-served their constituencies. They wished to maintain slavery because it was the bulwark of the economic system they knew, and, while becoming increasingly morally suspect, was not the abomination we, with the benefit of hindsight, regard it today. They sought to preserve an archaic system, and, coupled with the clumsy manner in which they reacted to Abraham Lincoln’s  election, precipitated a disastrous war. (For more on this topic, see another recent work: Nelson Lankford’s Cry Havoc: The Crooked Road to Civil War).

Those who actually did the fighting for the Confederacy — the poor men who fought the rich men’s war—were less cognizant of the economic reasons, but they understood the invasion of their homeland by outsiders – foreigners, really. Today, with our instant communications and speedy transportation methods we forget what some historians have called the “tyranny of distance.”  That distance made one much more likely to identify with their locality, state, and region more than with the huge nation America was becoming. The Confederate soldiers, and even those who led the secessionist movement, did not fight to establish slavery—they were defending their homeland against a perceived invasion—which included defending the status quo they inherited, and which only a small minority wanted to abolish when the War began.

It is unjust to vilify those who fought, or their military leaders, in the Civil War—on either side. When it comes down to combat, soldiers do not fight for their country, for ideals, even for money, they fight to stay alive, and, if they can do that, to help alive keep their buddy next to them in the trenches or foxholes.

At the time of the Civil War, there were few so-called “armchair generals.“  The leaders were exposed to danger to the same extent of the front line infantrymen. Lee was lucky that he escaped death or serious injury, but he was constantly exposed. Surviving the war, he urged reconciliation and acceptance of the freed slaves as equal citizens, and admirably served as president of Washington College (re-named Washington and Lee University after his death). Jackson was accidently killed by “friendly fire.” Johnston was killed in battle. Hood lost an arm and a leg. All of these men fought honorably, even if the cause for which they served was flawed. No one has suggested that any of them committed war crimes. They were not villains.

Moreover, because they have had their names for a long time, and have alumni going back many decades who still identify with them, the schools named for Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, John Bell Hood, and Albert Sidney Johnston should not be changed. The students who now attend will graduate, or otherwise leave, after a few short years.

As the French learned with Napoleon’s statue in the Vendome, political fashions and attitudes change. But even if few French citizens would want to live under either Napoleon’s empire, no one today is clamoring to tear down his likeness.

Also see earlier post Blood and Money

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