American Elephants


History Is What Happened In The Past by The Elephant's Child

I have been distressed at the attempts to rename buildings, tear down statues and monuments, and in general to make any history that doesn’t meet today’s more refined sensitivities — just disappear.  One of the greatest problems for historians is that people have often destroyed the evidence that tells us of their times, and they have to guess at what really happened. We live in an age of political correctness, the party line of the day, and the politically correct are trying to expunge any evidence of those in the past who did not agree with today’s notions. Of course, for most it is simply a campus fad that sweeps from one college to another. Protesting is the in thing, and if they can’t find anything else to protest, perhaps the donor of a building once owned a slave so the building should be torn down.

Today we mostly universally agree that slavery is and was a very bad thing, But before somewhere around the mid 18th century, slavery was the norm. Many college students are astonished to find out that slavery existed in other places besides the United States. Because we ended the slave trade, had a great Civil War and freed the slaves and are such an open society the world is familiar with America and slavery. Because of that history present day virtue seekers are anxious to destroy all traces of the Confederacy. New Orleans is currently engaged in a great battle to tear down statues and monuments.

They are wrong. Millions of Americans today have ancestors who fought for the Confederacy.  Two of my great great uncles lost their lives fighting for the Union with Grant, and two lost their lives fighting for the Confederacy, one in the battle around Richmond and the other at Snicker’s Gap. The Southerners were brothers, the Union soldiers were members of families who had established a station of the underground railroad in their meeting house. To be interested in the stars and bars or the Confederate battle flag does not insinuate a fondness for slavery, only an interest in history.

Max Boot, writing at Commentary, approves of the actions of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in tearing down statues honoring Confederate war heroes. He finds the idea of honoring the losing side of the war disgraceful, and believes that Army bases in the Southern states named after Confederate generals should be renamed.

Historian John Steele Gordon, also writing at Commentary, deeply disagrees. “The Past is a Foreign Country” is his headline, and he says “Subjective and fleeting standards are no way to judge.” I’m with Mr. Gordon. If I am deeply interested in both sides of the Civil War and its effects on the nation, it does not indicate approval or disapproval. The past is what happened. So much of the artifacts of the war were simply destroyed, or thrown away, that what we can know about the war is diminished.

Here is a page from the Smithsonian’s Civil War history that shows the uniform of the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry (Duryee’s Zouaves). Bet that would surprise you. Both sides had volunteer units that adopted Zouave uniforms based on an elite battalion of the French Army in Algiers in the colonial war of the 1830s. Follow the arrows on that page to see some of the other artifacts that the Smithsonian thought important to save.

John Steele Gordon ends his piece with these lines:

The country did a magnificent job of binding up those wounds, as the deeply touching pictures taken at the 50th-anniversary reunion at Gettysburg in 1913 testify. Now some people on their high horses want to pick open those wounds, for no better reason than so they can virtue signal their own moral superiority to those who lived in a different world and a different time.

It’s a disgrace. Historians, especially, should understand the profound truth expressed by L. P. Hartley in the opening line of his masterful novel The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

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3 Comments so far
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The Confederacy were traitors. I can see a case for taking the statues down and putting them in Confederate museums.

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Comment by Faceless commenter

Many Southerners believed the industrial North was trying to impoverish the South and destroy their means to make a living. Remember that roughly up until about that time, slavery was the norm in much if not most of the world. It was really only Britain and the U.S. that were making a big deal about it. Most of the South American countries freed their slaves only much more recently. Today we find slavery repugnant, but that was then, and they thought they were doing right. Calling them traitors is way too simplistic.

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Comment by The Elephant's Child

If we aren’t constantly reminded of what happened in the past then those, in the future, will never understand why the same thing is happening all over again.

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Comment by alkidya




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