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).