Monuments, Names, and History

Source of photo: Facebook.com

The meme that opens this post makes a humorous, but salient point.

History tends to favor the victors. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. One man’s king is another man’s oppressor. The victors typically get to shape how they and the side they vanquished are viewed in posterity.

As the meme humorously points out, we know who won the American Revolutionary War because there are no monuments to canonize the losing side. They were torn down. No states or cities are named after King George III. George Washington is the victor in this chapter of history. We celebrate George Washington as much now as we as a nation did back then.

To the victors go the spoils.

This is why Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant are still held up as heroes of the American Civil War, while Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee are not held in as high esteem. Despite this, there are monuments to honor Confederate leaders as well as highways and military bases named after them.

Why?

It’s not as if Jefferson Davis’ Confederate States of America (CSA) won the war. To the collective point of the people who are tearing down these monuments and demanding that the military posts named after CSA army officers be renamed, why are we commemorating the losers who fought to keep the institution of chattel slavery intact?

It is an excellent point given that history typically favors the victors, not the vanquished.

My thoughts on this subject are threefold:

Firstly, the vast majority of monuments honoring Confederate leaders were erected during the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan had tremendous political power in the United States. The Daughters of the Confederacy leveraged that political power to have these monuments erected in prominent places within cities and towns as a subtle (or in some cases, not so subtle), but effective way to intimidate ethnic minorities, black Americans in particular.

On this level alone, the monuments have stood for far too long. I advocate their removal, but not their destruction. Because…

Secondly, I think these monuments should be preserved and put in museums. We cannot “erase history”, which is the typical retort from those who oppose tearing down the monuments and statues, and I think they have a point, though the point they make vastly differs from the point I think they inadvertently made.

When I was a young Soldier stationed in Germany, I toured the Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich, one of seven concentration camps so preserved throughout Europe.

I can tell you that the immortal words of George Santayana about remembering history or risk being doomed to repeat it, resonated with me the day I toured Dachau.

After that visit, I no longer wondered why these camps of unspeakable horror were preserved for posterity.

The ugly side of human history is just as important and informative as the side of human history that glorifies us.

My last point concerns the towns and military bases named after Confederate generals and Confederate political leaders.

My birth city is named for a Confederate general, one Patrick Cleburne (Texas). I have known this fact for as long as I have been old enough to understand it, yet I never viewed the name of my birth city as something so deeply offensive that I felt it needed to be renamed.

I have fond memories of Cleburne, Texas. It is part of my personal history. I wouldn’t want to see the name changed for that reason alone.

I spent roughly half of my Army career at Fort Hood, Texas, named after Confederate General John Bell Hood. Like my birth city, I have fond memories of my time at Fort Hood. Fort Hood will always be Fort Hood in my mind.

The installations named for these Confederate generals have been so named for more than 100 years in most cases. Many people, including some who lived and worked on these installations, never realized they were named after Confederate generals.

As a black American, my last name is the last name of the slave owner who held my ancestors. My last name is not representative of that slave owner any more than Fort Hood is representative of John Bell Hood or the CSA.

The only purpose changing the names of these places will serve at this point is simply to satisfy an emotional response on one side of the dispute while creating emotional angst on the other side, with neither side willing or capable of seeing what the people who preserved places like Dachau see so clearly…

When history is written only through the perspective of the victors, future generations are cheated out of true history. Viewing history only from a perspective we are comfortable with only ensures that the ugly parts will repeat themselves.

-The Rational Ram

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