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?
“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.”
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.”
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.