While passing through Mississippi back in 1987, I took the opportunity to spend a day visiting the Vicksburg National Military Park there. I’ve long been a student of the Civil War and its impact on our country. I knew a fair amount about the Siege of Vicksburg and its importance in the War; and was excited at this, my first opportunity to visit an actual Civil War site.
It wasn’t what I expected. In those days before the internet, getting detailed information and images for places of interest was not easy or straightforward – especially when driving across the country on a more or less random vacation journey. So, I was a bit taken aback by what I saw there: a long trail looping around both sides of the siege tench that surrounded the hilltop that is the heart of Vicksburg. Every few feet along that trail is a historical marker – some small, some large: telling where and when particular military units and individuals were at that spot during the siege, and any actions of note that occurred there.
It has the feel of a huge cemetery, which is what it is: a monument to all those who bravely fought and died on both sides in a bloody and prolonged battle that was a major event in a war that has been over and done with for more than 150 years. Over 1400 monuments, memorials and commemorative plaques can be found in the park.
Many of the Civil War battlefields I’ve been to in the years since have a similar feel, such as Gettysburg, but none of those I’ve seen provide a detailed and profound narrative that comes close to what I found at Vicksburg.
I do not recall seeing any heroic statues there. No Generals on horses, no political leaders (although the Kentucky Memorial, dedicated a few years after I was there, added statues of both Lincoln and Davis in recognition of that state’s split loyalties during the war).
Vicksburg Memorial Park was conceived as a way of bringing healing to those on both sides of the Civil War: to bind us together again. It was (and still is) a joint effort, with individuals, organizations and governments from both North and South contributing. It helps us remember the high price paid by those who served on both sides, and also remembers the civilians who suffered and died because of that siege. It remembers the pain of those who lost loved ones, friends, comrades. It remembers the terror and deprivation. It remembers the wounds and the blood and the months of living in muck-filled trenches or damp caves, always wondering if the next shell or bullet had your name on it.
It remembers those who bore the real burden of fighting in the Civil War, those who did most of the suffering and dying.
That’s what we need to remember: The high cost of that war. The high cost of any and every war. Too high. Too high for Confederate and Union alike. We must remember how the people of the South paid dearly in that war that was fought mostly in the South in places like Vicksburg and Manassas and Antietam and Chancellorville (to name a few).
And so I wonder, when we look at the monuments of Generals and Politicians like Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson or Jefferson Davis, what are we remembering?
In 1915, C. Helen Plane (1829-1925), a founding member of the openly racist United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), wrote: “I feel it is due to the KKK that saved us from Negro domination and carpetbag rule, that it be immortalized on Stone Mountain.” Mrs. Plane conceived and led her organization’s effort to create the bas-relief carvings of Confederate Leaders Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on the face of Stone Mountain in Georgia – the “Stone Mountain Memorial“.
In that same year, and inspired by D. W. Griffith’s film “Birth of a Nation” the so called “Second Ku Klux Klan” was founded on that mountain. A KKK altar was part of the original design, and for many years the KKK held a “perpetual right” to hold meetings there. What is perhaps the best known monument to the Confederacy was undeniably conceived as a symbol of white supremacy and a determination of some that the white man’s place at the top of the South’s social, political and economic hierarchy would never be forgotten, or challenged.
There is no doubt that many such memorials built in the early 20th century, particularly those celebrating prominent white leaders of the Confederacy, are statements of Racism and White Power. Like Mrs. Plane’s correspondence, evidence of this is abundant in the documents that those who built them left behind. In fact, many memorials to the Confederacy still to be found along the roads and in town squares throughout the South were placed there by the UDC itself in the first half of the 20th Century.
Yes, we must remember the Civil War, and the great suffering and loss that it caused for so many on both sides of the conflict, particularly upon the South. But that is different than memorializing the glorified (one might say “whitewashed”) symbols that have been manufactured out of our collective memories of men like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis.
Stone Mountain, and the statues of “Confederate Heroes” like General Lee and others that are now being challenged and removed in towns and cities like Charlottesville and New Orleans, do not help us mourn what has been lost, nor were they intended to: their purpose was to reinvigorate and strengthen the divisions that once nearly destroyed our nation. They are intended to bolster the myth of “The Lost Cause“, and so are monuments to terror, division, and oppression. They are not intended to help heal the rifts that split the nation almost 160 years ago.
We need our Vicksburgs.
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