To Bind Up the Nation

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October 17th 2003
Published: October 17th 2003
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I started off my day in the western suburbs of Richmond, and even though my host had warned me against riding down Monument Avenue in the morning, I couldn't resist seeing such a shrine to the Confederacy. Well, most people in Richmond would not admit that Monument Ave. celebrates the Confederacy, but would rather insist that it memorializes Virginians. But the vast majority of those memorialized happened to wear Confederate grey.

Of course, Monument Avenue has, in the opinion of some, been desecrated by the inclusion of a statue of Arthur Ashe, the great tennis player, who just happened to be African American. The opponents of the Ashe monument just happened to be White Americans, and vociferously denied that their opposition to the Ashe monument had anything to with protecting the memory of slaveowners such as Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, Richard E. Lee or George Washington.

After riding past a glorious procession of militaristic white guys on horseback, I decided to try to find a more humble monument: a year or so ago a statue was installed in Richmond showing Abraham Lincoln sitting on a bench with his son Tad. On a wall behind Lincoln are carved his words "To bind up the nation's wounds." But my journey to the monument was a bit circuitious. I rode over to the Richmond Civil War Museum and asked a couple of guys wearing Confederate grey uniforms for directions to the statue. While their directions weren't exactly wrong, they did send me down one hill, back up another and finally down the same hill again, and included instructions to travel west on what turned out to be a one-way, eastbound street. Perhaps I should have asked for directions to the Lincoln monument from Union Civil War reenactors.

After an hour or so of riding, I finally found the statue, and was amused, but not surprised, to see a little Confederate battle flag, no larger than a cocktail umbrella, stuck in the ground at the base of the monument. While Lincoln may have professed a desire to bind the nations wounds, I wonder if all concerned want the wounds to be bound. The reenactment movement, where people dress in period costumes and march about old battlefields nonfatally reliving old engagements, seems to have exploded in popularity since the enactment of civil rights legislation. It is as if the Jim Crow laws were made a living heritage on the battlefields, the one place where White Southerners could still forbid their former slaves equality.

I was raised in the North, Vermont to be precise, and so I look at the Civil War in the same manner as I was taught to look at World War II: they were wrong, we were right, they lost, we won. But perhaps such a view is an over-simplification. In the past few years I've learned that I had ancestors on both sides of the conflict: some of my family owned a plantation in Sheperdstown, (West) Virginia. While I don't know for a fact that my ancestors owned slaves, it's a fair assumption that they did since most plantation owners did. So my heritage is complicit with the pain caused by both sides of the Civil War.

There's a popular bumper sticker in the South that shows a Confederate battle flag, known more commonly as the "stars & bars," with the words "Heritage, Not Hatred." I guess my question to the people displaying such bumper stickers is this: what exactly is your heritage, and why are you proud of it? Are you proud that your ancestors fought to preserve an economic system dependent upon the enslavement of an entire race? Most of the world reacts with horror whenever pride is espoused for the Nazis and their enslavement of Jews. Why should we react any differently when White Southerners speak with pride of their ancestors? If our neighbors dressed up in Nazi uniforms and marched about reenacting Kristalnacht or the Blitzkrieg of Poland, we would be horrified. Yet somehow it is acceptable for our neighbors to create historical fantasies at Gettysburg in which Pickett led a successful charge over the Union lines.

As long as someone feels to compelled to plant a Confederate flag next to a statue of Lincoln, the Civil War is still being fought. But we will know it is at an end when Martin Luther King Jr. High School can stand on Jefferson Davis Avenue, and nobody blinks an eye.


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