As I watched a crowd of militant Leftists in Durham, North Carolina this week pull down a statue of a Confederate soldier, I was left not only angry but befuddled by the ignorance of it all: the vitriol of the mob focused on this seemingly inoffensive monument depicting a common soldier, seemingly war-weary and tired, not vengeful and triumphant; the wicked glee of the rioters as they danced around and kicked the fallen, twisted metal wreck; their infernal laughter as they celebrated a false victory over racism. My anger at the actions of the mob was heightened for personal reasons—of which more below.
Pulling down statues is a time-honored tradition among revolutionaries in many cultures, its symbolism reflecting opposition to a current regime. Thus American Revolutionaries toppled statues of King George III during the 1770s; Russians destroyed monuments of Vladimir Lenin as communism collapsed in the 1990s; Iraqis knocked over effigies of Saddam Hussein as American forces ousted the dictator’s government in 2003. Typically, as these examples illustrate, the statues chosen for destruction are those of contemporary rulers, or of those who embody the philosophy of power under which those rulers operate. But statues of Confederates? Even in the Jim Crow Era, this might have been a puzzling choice. But in 2017, one must ask: Where does the philosophy of the Confederacy, if there can be said to be such a thing, hold sway? Leaving aside the monumental question of whether the Confederacy was founded upon the protection of slavery and the promulgation of the idea of racial superiority—and Alexander Stephens’ execrable “Cornerstone Speech” gives one ample fodder for such charges—one must ask these “activists,” in what hall of power is this philosophy represented today? It seems to be held only in the fevered minds of a tiny group of white supremacists—”clowns,” as presidential adviser Steve Bannon called them.
Of course, radical Leftists like these can find a racist under every bed. Reckless and fuzzy charges of “pervasive” and “latent” racism are useful tactics for furthering their ends of attacking Republicans, conservatives (these two groups still occasionally overlapping), and “white privilege,” with their clandestine purposes being the seeking of fame, fortune, and power for themselves. Targeting the statues of long-dead and defeated Confederates is a means of promoting the notion that every white person is secretly sympathetic to the racist views of these American ancestors. By focusing their anger on tangible targets, they make real an enemy that exists only in their twisted heads and hateful hearts. By attacking the past, they suggest that racism is deep-rooted in American soil, infecting everything that grows in the land, and that there can be no racial progress until the evil is eradicated by overturning the very foundations of the country.
Too often we conservatives ask the slippery-slope question in reaction to the Left’s attack on our statues and weakly warn, “Well, if they tear down statues of Confederates, what’s next? The Washington Monument? The Jeffersonian Memorial?” Though well-meaning, the problem with the slippery-slope question is that it seems to concede that Confederate monuments are less dear to us, less of a big deal, for these slaveholders—or supposed promoters of slavery—are indeed morally stained. In effect, those asking this question concede ground to the Leftists. This is a mistake.
Men’s souls are neither black nor white, but gray—figuratively speaking. We should not judge historical figures in a vacuum, ignoring the mores of their times. We should not judge them solely by their inability to rise above their times. We should not judge them by their worst faults. Instead we ought to take the measure of a man in his totality. As my colleague John Groves has written in these pages:
The men and women who have shaped [American institutions] possessed virtues and vices, and their vices do not nullify their virtues…. The inconvenient truth is that America, like all other nations, is the product of both selflessness and selfishness, virtue and vice, wisdom and foolishness. If we reject the important historical figures who possessed the latter along with the former qualities, we must ultimately reject them all.
The desecration and removal of statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis are abominable acts, a type of cheap virtue-signaling by the rioters, at the expense of those who not only cannot defend themselves, and whose case cannot be made in the space of the short sound bytes allotted by the modern media. The rioters in these cases have chosen the easiest of targets: Confederate leaders, who were themselves slaveholders and wielders of power.
But the soldier depicted by the upended monument in Durham? Who was he most likely? The base of the monument declaims: “In Memory of the Boys Who Wore the Gray.” He was probably a simple farm boy, the American South being overwhelmingly an agricultural civilization in the mid-nineteenth century. Chances are that his family did not own slaves (72% of North Carolina families did not, according to the Census of 1860). But perhaps he, or his family, did own slaves. And yet did he, and did Confederate soldiers from other states, fight to preserve slavery? As the late, great historian Shelby Foote has said, “Believe me, no soldiers on either side gave a damn about the slaves.” Or as historian S.C. Gwynne writes, if the young cadets of the Virginia Military Institute who followed Stonewall Jackson had been asked why they were fighting,
few would have replied that it was because of their convictions about slavery. Or their beliefs about state sovereignty. Or any of the other great national questions that had been debated for so long. They would have told you then—as most of Stonewall Jackson’s soldiers in the army of the Confederate States of America would have told you later—that they were fighting to repel the invaders, to drive the Northern aggressors from their homeland. That was why Virginia went to war. The great and complicated political reasons for secession, thundered about in Congress and in the state legislatures, were not their reasons, which were more like those expressed by a captive Confederate soldier, who was not a slaveholder, to his puzzled Union captors. “I’m fighting because you’re down here,” he said.
(The statue after its toppling)
Durham’s Confederate soldier might have volunteered to fight for his state, which had not seceded in fear that Lincoln’s election might lead to the ending of slavery, but in brotherhood with her sister Southern states after Lincoln had declared his intention to invade them for the purpose of putting down the rebellion. He might have been drafted and had no choice but to fight. He was likely in his twenties, as most of the Durham rioters seemed to be. Unlike them, however, his daily life did not include air conditioning, a cell phone, a laptop, an iPod, government subsidies for education, food, and medical care, and leisure time for pouting from a pampered perch of privilege. His life was tough before the war—if a farmer, he worked from sunup to sundown, ploughing, harvesting, feeding animals, hauling bales of hay, shoveling manure. He was not well-fed like the rioters, certainly not overfed like some of them. During the war his life was even tougher, as he battled not only the bullets of the enemy, but the bacteria and disease of camp life. He likely suffered often from dysentery; he ate rock-hard, moldy biscuits often laced with worms; instead of $8 Starbucks lattes, he downed weak, black, stale coffee (when he could get it). He had likely already witnessed, close-up, several people dear to him die—certainly a grandparent, uncle, or aunt, perhaps a baby brother or sister, a parent, surely a fellow soldier, and probably after much physical suffering, given the lack of medical knowledge of the day. The Durham soldier was granted no “safe spaces” from death, drudgery, and despair; he was given no “trigger warnings” so as to avoid having his feelings hurt.
Likely this soldier was much like my ancestor Nathan Dail, who hailed from Perquimans County, North Carolina, and who in 1862 as a twenty-seven-year-old enlisted as a private in Company C of the 52nd North Carolina Regiment. Though I don’t know for certain, the probability is that he owned no slaves and was indeed a simple farmer. One thing I do know for sure: Nathan did not bequeath any fortune to his descendants. And like most men, Nathan was surely flawed. But what he and his counterparts stood for—all those represented by the Durham statue—were duty, devotion, sacrifice, principle, courage, tireless effort, and the quiet heroism of the humble who toil for something greater than themselves: for wife, child family, God, country.
Compared to the rioters who pulled down his effigy, that Confederate soldier atop the pedestal in Durham was a moral colossus.
This article has been republished with permission from The Imaginative Conservative.
[Image Credit: Bedford (cropped), Public Domain]