Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

A Piece of My Mind: Hallowed Ground?

Louisiana Monument

A Millennial friend of mine, touring the Gettysburg battlefield, asked “Why are there all these memorials glorifying people who fought for such a terrible cause?”  It was a question I had never considered despite many visits to the battlefield. 

Yes, Gettysburg is a historical site. Yes, the statues and memorials mark where generals actually stood and watched the battle, where particular battalions fought, and what contribution they made to the course of the battle.  Some of the Confederate monuments, such as the one designed by Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mr. Rushmore, have artistic merit in themselves. But some are cringe-worthy.

The scripture on the Mississippi monument, for example:

            On this ground our brave sires fought for their righteous cause; In glory they sleep who give to it their lives

Who can read this today without gritting their teeth?

Mississippi monument

“I read that most of these Confederate monuments were put up in the 30’s at the height of the Jim Crow era, funded by the Daughters of the Confederacy,” my Millennial continued.  “What kind of euphemistic name is that?  If they called themselves “Daughters of Slaveholders”, would they have been allowed to put up monuments in a national park?  Does Germany put up battlefield monuments funded by Daughters of Nazis?”

My Millenial friend went on to wonder “Why is the monument to General Lee the largest on the battlefield?  He was supposed to have been such a great strategist, yet he sent his army to attack a stronger force in a fortified position uphill.  I’m told the professors at West Point use Lee at Gettysburg as a textbook example of what not to do strategically.

“Why does he get a giant statue when he basically did what Tennyson condemned in “Charge of the Light Brigade,” sending his forces into withering artillery fire in the Valley of Death?  Only there were a lot more than six hundred who died for his hubris. And Longsteeet – the only general who had the guts to stand up to Lee and tell him the charge was a bad idea – he only gets a 1/4 life- size statue hidden away from the street in a thicket.”

Virginia Monument

I tried to answer.  “Lee was supposed to be the best general in the Army at the time.  He was offered the leadership of the Union Army and agonized over turning it down. His uncle signed the Declaration of Independence. He symbolized the agony of having to decide between Country and State loyalties.”

“Yes, I know he graduated at the top of his class from West Point,” countered my Millennial. “But what did he learn, except to believe his own hype? He betrayed the oath he took at West Point when he defected to the Secessionists.   Yes, he was descended from Revolutionary War aristocracy.  But he was a still a slave holder, and defended slavery.

My millennial friend went on to ask “Why set aside all this land to commemorate warfare and dying?  The National Military Cemetery and the monument to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address up on Cemetery Ridge say everything one would want to say about the men and boys who died to eliminate slavery in the US and to keep the country together.  The cemetery is what Lincoln called “hallowed ground”, not the battlefield.   These Matthew Brady photos of dead soldiers at Devil’s Den, and the informative signs about the Bloody Angle and the Slaughter Pen –  it’s like a theme park for carnage.”

Confederate sharp shooter at Devil’s Den

We continued along Confederate Avenue, then drove across the valley to the sites of the Union lines from Little Round Top down to Cemetery Ridge.  I was trying to think of a good counter to my Millennial friend.  I’m still working on it.

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4 thoughts on “A Piece of My Mind: Hallowed Ground?

  1. Michele on said:

    Allyson, your friend’s comments are very thought-provoking. To answer: there are no statues to famous Nazis in Germany– the German people did their soul-searching and made the decision to learn from and erase all semblances of honor from this period of their history. I wish our country could do the same.

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  2. Winifred Bellido on said:

    It’s complicated. Should all statues of the conquered be demolished? That would mean that there should be no statues or commemorations for the indigenous. They lost too. Thanks for ‘a piece of my mind’ Allyson. It reads well.

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  3. Cindy R Speakman on said:

    It is complicated. It’s not only about the vanquished, it’s about what these people did and what they fought for. The Civil War is part of our history. We can memorialize it without idolizing the individuals involved, which is what your Millennial friend was saying. The statues are still there because the issues really haven’t been resolved. There are still many who idolize these men for fighting to preserve slavery and the status quo. There still exists a strong pride in being part of the Confederacy. The loss of power that many southerners and especially white men experienced and continue to experience is a hard pill to swallow. When people agree that the values of the men being honored are not those to emulate, things may change. Think about the change in attitude about Fr. Junipero Serra and Christopher Columbus, and even Dr. Seuss. At least these men did some good, but their histories now include the negative things they did. At least more historical figures are being held accountable. Can’t we admire the good and acknowledge the not so good? We can’t just erase them from history. I personally loved reading Dr. Seuss and many students continue to learn to read using his books.

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