Civil War News
The Personal and the Public, the Importance of Memorials By Cain Pence Nearly twenty years ago I graduated from Georgetown University. The colors of Georgetown are blue and gray because at the time of the Civil War many of her sons fought on both sides of the conflict. It was the hope of school fathers that the colors together would represent the Union of North and South. Fresh out of school, I took a different course from my fellow graduates. Law school or working on Capitol Hill was not in my future. Instead, I took my Rand McNally Road Atlas and Michael Barone’s Almanac of American Politics and set out to visit every congressional district in America. Without funding, the journey took me half a decade as I worked various jobs, bummed gas money, and a spare couch from everyone and their cousin. It was a great rite of passage and education for a young man interested in politics and American history. Throughout my journey, I loved to stop and read historical markers. Military and Civil War sites were of particular interest. I soon noticed that the South commemorated the War Between the States far more than the North did. Nearly every Southern city had a memorial, markers, or a plaza dedicated to the War of Northern Aggression as it was sometimes called. It wasn’t that the North did not remember the Conflict to End the Rebellion as some Northerners referenced it. Indeed, most major Northern cities and cemeteries do have memorials to those who wore the
Blue, yet it certainly seemed that the South remembered it more. Why? First, in terms of devastation, the South certainly paid a greater price. With the exception of major battles like Antietam and Gettysburg the vast majority of the War was fought on Southern soil. With a smaller population and economy, the Civil War’s casualties and economic losses fell much harder on the South. The physical landscape was changed by battles and events like Sherman’s March to the Sea and the political landscape was forever altered by the end of slavery. The side that lost paid a greater price and that led to a greater desire, one could say need, to commemorate and recognize the suffering and loss not just of life, but of an entire way of life as well. My journey through America was not just political; it was deeply personal as well. Early in my travels, my mother, who long suffered from a mental illness, died. My travels were a way to escape my family demons and find some semblance of meaning. Many years later, my family still struggles with the loss of our mother and we feel a need to mourn her death in a way much deeper than other relatives we have lost. The need to commemorate tragic loss is both personal and public. It is also true that in families and society we mourn our tragedies more than we celebrate our victories. That is why the South remembers the Civil War more than the North, that is why in Washington, D.C.,
we built the Vietnam memorial before a World War Two memorial and yes, that is why the anniversary of my mother’s death brings about much stronger emotions than the anniversaries of my Grandmothers’ deaths. Memorials are not just for remembering the dead; they are for comforting the living. As a proud Minnesotan who had the gift to travel every part of America, with a personal interest in memorials and the Civil War, I have watched with great interest the removal of Confederate memorials from Southern public spaces. I believe the debates on this issue are important and essential. What we choose to celebrate with public memorials is as important as who we remember in our prayers when we gather at church or temple. Thus, I offer a couple of reflections on the removal of Confederate Monuments in New Orleans. First, it is up to local citizens to decide these matters. Here in Minneapolis, hundreds of miles up the muddy Mississippi, we built a memorial to the people who lost their lives when the Interstate 35 Bridge fell. As much as we love our neighbors down the river, the people of Minneapolis had to decide how to memorialize that tragedy, not the people of other states. New Orleans, like all Southern cities, must decide how to remember the great loss her citizens endured during the Civil War. Public spaces should remember what the local public holds dear. New Orleans had many commissions and hearings on this topic and it was decided by the City Council action of
duly elected representatives. The public should decide what the public should commemorate. The speech by New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu on removing the Confederate monuments was eloquent and important. Landrieu appeals to what is best about New Orleans and offers a candid yet hopeful view for his city, indeed for all of America. That said, I believe it is false to imply that all Confederate memorials were placed in public as symbols of white supremacy. Robert E. Lee was a great man, and his gift to America was in what he did both before and after the Civil War. Due to his service as a brilliant officer in the MexicanAmerican War and having served as Superintendent of West Point, Lee was offered the leadership of the Union’s armies and refused. Lee would not take up arms against his beloved Virginia. He most certainly was a patriot in his mind. His duty to his native state was greater than his duty to the United States. When it became apparent that the North was going to win, Lee surrendered with honor and dignity. Many Confederates wanted to wage guerrilla war in the Appalachian hills and rural Southern strongholds. Lee refused and orchestrated an orderly surrender that saved America a protracted and ugly conflict. Despite the struggles that certainly followed, Lee’s graceful and complete surrender laid to rest the ideas of an armed resurgent Confederacy. Lincoln was graceful in victory, Lee was magnanimous in defeat. After the War, Lee spent his last years in the service of education
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at Washington and Lee University where he is buried. Having seen enough young men die, Lee wanted to see young men educated. New Orleans can honor Lee just like we can admire and learn from Washington and Jefferson despite the fact both men owned slaves. I understand the desire to remove Confederate memorials from public space, yet Robert E. Lee can teach all Americans many lessons. It is wrong to assert a memorial to Lee is simply about racism. The commemoration of tragedy is both personal and public. It is psychological and I would argue spiritual. And above all else, it is necessary. June 28th marks the worst day of my life, the day my mother’s mental illness led her to jump off a bridge near the Mississippi River. A week later, July 4th marks the birth of our nation. Our families, like our nation have both triumph and sorrow. Both joy and tears. I took a long walk this holiday weekend past the place where Mom died, up the river to where 13 people died when the Interstate 35 Bridge fell. A beautiful memorial remembers the tragedy of the bridge falling; a small grave marker in a Catholic cemetery in Minneapolis marks my mother’s grave. A thousand miles to the South down that flowing river, the good people of New Orleans know well that that river brings life and death. It is important to commemorate both. How we choose to remember those events, where we choose to remember our history and why we choose to remember the events that shaped us as a family and a nation is up to us and our local communities, but remember them we must....all along that Mighty Mississippi. Cain Pence is a Minneapolis based writer. Mr. Pence is a graduate of Georgetown University and has traveled extensively throughout all 50 states. Mr. Pence’s writings have appeared in numerous publications including The Washington Times, The Hill, The Washington Examiner, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Santa Fe New Mexican, The American Thinker, The MinnPost and others. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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