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Our Silent Civil War: Debate Over Statues Didn't Come out of Thin Air

In history, suppressed memories, stories half-told or lied about, carry greater power for having been suppressed.
Laura Buckman/AFP/Getty Images

The meanings invested in the Civil War statues of the turn of the century slowly fell silent. Cities of carriages became cities of automobiles. As new wars demanded new sacrifices and new monuments, the Civil War statues faded from view, relics to the passions of increasingly distant decades. The Civil War itself, though more costly in lives than all of America’s wars of the twentieth century combined, became patronized and sentimentalized as a quieter war, a more human war, than the mechanized and anonymous slaughter of modern times.

Though the statues spoke less clearly to white Americans over time, black Southerners remembered what the Confederate statues were meant to say to them. The Civil Rights struggle confronted them with the resurgence of Confederate flags and celebrations of Confederate heroes. One generation of black parents after another had to explain to their children why statues of men who had warred against the United States to create a new nation based on perpetual slavery still stood in public places meant to be shared by all citizens.

Today, many Americans, unaware of the earlier conversations, express surprise at the intense debates over the monuments. The arguments by those who attack and those who defend the monuments puzzle and annoy people who see the blocks of granite and the horses of bronze as quaint, Victorian decorations of public space. To them, the statues seem so much left-over civic furniture, useless and thus harmless. They see no harm in leaving monuments that acknowledge Lee and Jackson as worthy of respect for their character and bravery, their virtues separable from the cause for which they fought.

To such Americans, today’s fights over Civil War monuments seem to come out of nowhere. Instead, those fights rise out of American history, a history full of buried force that suddenly surges to the surface when its plates shift. Suppressed memories, stories half-told or lied about, carry greater power for having been suppressed. History — apparently fixed, solid and settled — can suddenly erupt. When perpetrators of hate crimes pose beneath Confederate flags and march with torches around Confederate statues, hopes of racial justice can suddenly seem as hollow as the long-ignored statues.