Thoughts about Confederate monuments

I pulled out a tissue at each box placed in the dimly-lit room. The sounds of sniffling surrounded me. The exhibit at The Rooms—a St. John’s, Newfoundland, museum—used artifacts, letters, and families’ remembrances to tell the story of the Caribou Regiment. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1916, World War I), the Caribou engaged the enemy at Beaumont-Hamel. As part of the British Empire, Newfoundland sent 780 men into that battle. The next morning 68 survivors reported for roll call. A hundred years later the loss of a generation of men remains a deep sorrow in Newfoundlanders’ collective memory.

A young German woman was staying at the same B & B as my husband and I. What would she think of the exhibit at The Rooms, I wondered, her ancestors having been the enemy? Had her great-grandparents also mourned the death of a brother, a father?

The victors of war have permission to publicly grieve our fallen. We have symbols and monuments, holidays even. How do heirs of those who fought for unjust causes deal with their grief? How do they reconcile sins of the past with a profound sense of having lost thousands, if not millions, of lives?

My husband’s great-uncle fought for the Confederacy and at 18 died of dysentery as a prisoner of war. We know little about him. Like many on both sides of the Civil War, he was probably a farm boy who had never killed anything other than animals for food.

Isn’t that who fights most wars? Young men and women, some barely adults. They are conscripted, indoctrinated, and sent to kill an enemy designated by the powerful. In the 1860s owners of large plantations bought and sold human beings, worked them mercilessly to increase the owners’ wealth. Seeing their way of life threatened, prosperous slave holders sent young men who had nothing to gain to fight their, the land owners’, war.

I return to my earlier question: How do descendants of those who fought for unjust causes deal with a grief that time does not heal?

I’m not defending the Confederacy. Neither do I want to defend our “heritage.” Our white Southern heritage is embroiled with enslavement, Jim Crow laws, lynching. The list of atrocities is endless.

As we tackle the Confederate monument controversy, we need to think creatively. Perhaps we can find a way to grieve the deaths of young farmer-soldiers, denounce the treason of the region’s political and military leaders, and build monuments that recognize the contributions of slave ancestors of African Americans.


Nancy Werking Poling is author of Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987).

6 thoughts on “Thoughts about Confederate monuments

  1. Excellent points. I’m a northerner. Never expected to live in the south and to feel so deeply at home here. We weren’t taught history in our northern schools, not truth history. I spent a good 30 years of my adult life trying to understand the angry southern white, who hated me, a northerner. I was raised Mitakuye Oyasin (We are ALL Related), this remains the truth I believe. I totally agree there needs to be a time and place for the honoring of both sides of the Civil War. I know now, there were more deaths from disease than gunshot, that in it self confuses my simple mind. (I’d prefer neither to be true.) In the wonderful historical museum in Old Fort NC, there is a wall of honor to the locals, on both sides, who gave their lives – this moves me every time I see it and each time I read each story to remember and honor.
    I grew up and spent most of my adult life either in or close to Philadelphia…a town of many statues and monuments. I could tell you more about the artists than the meaning of the ‘man on the horse.’ I’m sure I missed many lessons presented.
    I saw a video featuring Tina Fey this morning on the Charlottesville topic, she made mention that our historic predecessors stole this land from the Indigenous Tribes. When and how does it all end?

    • Roberta, thanks for commenting.
      Even family histories vary according to who tells them. I have a friend from the South, valedictorian of her class, who graduated from high school not sure who won the Civil War. Like many American kids, I grew up thinking Indians were the bad guys.

      I doubt that the truths of history are ever taught.

    • Roberta,
      I too am moved when I see names on memorials to war dead–from any war. Real mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, lovers, mourned the loss.

      Trump speaks as if the Confederate statues need to stay because they’re so beautiful. Anyone who’s been to Brookgreen Gardens south of Myrtle Beach, SC, recognizes amazingly beautiful statues are created even now.

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