Mark Washburn

Icons of past, including Civil War, mark progress, too

Facing forever North, a Confederate sentry stands high outside the old Cleveland County courthouse in Shelby.
Facing forever North, a Confederate sentry stands high outside the old Cleveland County courthouse in Shelby. mwashburn@charlotteobserver.com

Do they stay or should they go?

Sprinkled across our region – in cemeteries, public squares and on courthouse lawns – are dozens of memorials to the Lost Cause. A few are more contemporary, but most were erected within living memory of the Civil War.

My travels took me to Shelby a few weeks ago, where I discovered a Confederate memorial beside the old courthouse, now a museum.

“In honor of the Confederate heroes of Cleveland County” says the memorial, erected in 1906. Atop a granite column stands a bronze statue of a Confederate sentry on perpetual watch, facing north.

I wonder if there’s a county seat anywhere within 500 miles that doesn’t have one.

Whenever I find such a thing, it strikes me as an anachronism, a relic of a distant period where nearly everything – fashion, technology, social thought – was a product of an ancient culture.

I find them provocative, in a positive way. Their words, etched in stone or cast in bronze, were meant to endure, to carry a message deep into the unfathomable future that says, “This is who we were. This is what we valued.”

You don’t have to value it. You don’t have to support the Southern cause in the Civil War or the peculiar institution of slavery that tore the nation asunder to respect the message our ancestors were sending.

They were tending the last embers of the great conflict and measuring the sacrifice it brought, as alive to them then as the scars of Vietnam are to us today.

War for war, Vietnam also tore the nation along cultural and moral fault lines. But no one calls for the removal of monuments to its heroes.

We revere them as courageous men and women who served honorably in what is widely viewed as a dishonorable conflict.

Some can’t see the difference between the Confederate battle flag flying over South Carolina’s Capitol and monuments to the war.

There is a big difference – the flag rose daily in ceremonious glory and insulted many of the state’s citizens. Memorials rest silently and their sentiments are frozen in another age.

Some say the Civil War monuments should fall because they honor those who rose in rebellion.

But so do statutes to Revolutionary War heroes. Our nation was hatched in rebellion, and many in the cause never knew whether they’d he honored in bronze or hanged from a bough.

I think we make a mistake when we assume those who defend old monuments are defending the intellectual causes the structures represent.

Monuments are merely milestones tracking the march of civilization. They tell us where we’ve been and remind us how far we’ve come.

They don’t tell us where to go. That’s up to us.

But they do serve to remind us of something worth remembering: At some point, as a culture, we will send a message to the future that says, “This is who we were. This is what we value.”

That’s what we should be debating.

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, @WashbumChObs

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