The Politics of Memory and Marble


By Tom Lee

I made my first visit to the site of the Battle of New Market 42 years ago this month.

The Civil War battlefield remnant in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley is small and unremarkable. Unlike the broad, spiritual expanses of Shiloh or Antietam, the New Market site today is cleaved by Interstate 81 and studded with a space-age relic of a circular hall.

To an eighth-grade imagination in 1975, however, New Market was a timeless green field of teenaged valor.

New Market draws its legend from the May 1864 emergency callup of 247 conscripted cadets from Virginia Military Institute. The youthful cadets, some only 16, supported the outnumbered Confederate forces in an upset victory over a mismanaged Union corps.

The thought of teenagers contributing in such a fight against a superior force was enthralling to 13-year-old me. I would eventually write multiple school papers on it and revisit the battlefield memorial for many years.

Never mind that the superior force over which the VMI cadets prevailed was that of the United States of America, or that slavery was on the line. It was the courage of the cadets that was the point.

Wasn't it?

"Americans have had to work through the meaning of the Civil War in its rightful place--in the politics of memory," wrote Civil War historian David Blight in his epic, "Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory." "And as long as we have a politics of race in America, we will have a politics of Civil War memory."

In the South, Confederate memory often has been worked out through memorial and monument. A 2016 inventory by the Southern Poverty Law Center found more than 1,300 Confederate monuments and memorials across the former CSA. Most were erected not immediately after the war, but much later: between 1890-1920, as Jim Crow laws spread across the South, and during the Civil Rights era of 1954-1968.

Shelby Foote, the blue-shirted, white-goateed Memphian who starred in Ken Burns' 1990 film, "The Civil War," maintained that such art reconciled the present to the past: "All Southerners who try to express themselves in art are very much aware that they are party to a defeat."

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu was not so sure. In explaining why the city just took down four Confederate monuments, he suggested the statuary were not artistic coming-to-terms of military defeat, but statements of racial and political triumph in the post-Reconstruction period of Southern "redemption."

"After the Civil War, these statues were … terrorism, as much as burning a cross on someone's lawn," Landrieu said. "They were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in the shadows about who was still in charge in this city."

You have to go back 140 years to the Radical Republicans to hear such talk in the South. It is, therefore, worth asking: What political development made Landrieu's speech — and actions — possible?

In 2010, Republicans and Democrats still split the state legislative seats of the old Confederacy. That changed with the Democrats' disastrous 2010 midterm election performance, which installed Republican majorities in chamber after chamber. These majorities, in some cases supermajorities, redrew legislative districts in 2011. In the next election, scores of moderate to conservative Democrats, mostly in rural districts, lost their seats. Republicans built an enormous 30-point margin in Southern legislative chambers.

Republicans got super-Republican districts. But Democrats got super-Democratic districts, too. As a result, virtually every Southern legislator was immunized from a meaningful general election challenge.

Both parties now must confront their voters who are most likely to turn out in a primary — the hardcore partisans. The fringe shifts into the political mainstream. Identity politics take root: younger, more racially diverse voters in the cities and whiter, older, more conservative voters in the suburban and rural areas.

Which brings us to the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017. The new law prohibits relocation, removal, alteration, or renaming of any "monument located on public property and has been so situated for 40 or more years." Governments are forced to maintain and preserve existing monuments. Violators face a $25,000 fine.

With 107 Confederate monuments, Alabama has asserted that neither artist nor audience count. What matters now is what the state thinks. When this happens, art becomes propaganda, and if the history of Alabama is so fragile it requires propaganda for its preservation, I am certain statuary cannot protect it.

What happened at New Market happened. To paraphrase Lincoln at Gettysburg, nothing in our poor power — whether legislative act, mayoral speech, or marble statuary — can add or detract.

What they all can do, however, is mislead, lest we forget that it is the Interstate and its incessant traffic, the space-age architecture, and the values we choose to enshrine that belong to our time, and to us.