In 1800, a North Carolina Congressman made the bold statement, “Monuments are good for nothing.” During the founding years of the United States, many people argued that democracy and the spread of literacy had made commemorative rituals and monuments obsolete, leftovers from the days of monarchy and superstition
. Congress was reluctant to fund a monument to George Washington, prompting John Quincy Adams to make his famous remark, “democracy has no monuments.” Many Americans during that time period believed that “true memory” did not lie in a pile of stones, but in the living hearts of its people. It took the Vietnam War Memorial Wall to help Americans truly recognize the importance of memorials and their significance in society. After the Civil War, Walt Whitman in his book
struggled to determine what role memory should play as the war became more and more remote from contemporary society.
Whitman worked as a nurse in field hospitals during the war and witnessed intense suffering that was surely very hard to forget. Whitman saw war at its most visceral level, that at the core of war is pain and causing pain and dying and inflicting dying. Whitman wondered if society should have a responsibility to bear this memory. William Dean Howells, an American realist author, and his good friend Oliver Wendell Holmes had similar feelings about the issue of public monuments and their responsibility to society. Howells made it very clear that the reality of warfare had no place in public monuments.
Howells based his argument on photographs he had seen of battlefield corpses at Antietam. He was living in Venice, Italy during the time of the Civil War. Howells believed that the Civil War was evil and that the best way for society to return to its senses was to forget all things military and commemorate only the noble “ideas” that had justified society’s descent into violence and destruction.
According to Howells, the only thing worth remembering was the “idea of our war,” which was “our immutable destiny, as God’s agents, to give freedom to mankind.”
The Civil War began to change how people viewed monuments. Today, we as a society assume that there
a war memorial to commemorate the war in a public venue. It’s almost taken for granted that the dead in particular deserve a lasting recognition of their sacrifices in public space. We even have basic expectations about what the memorial can and cannot say, and what a memorial can and cannot show. However, after the Civil War, none of these expectations were yet set. Before the Civil War, the basic monument that one would find would honor and celebrate commanding officers. The idea of commemorating monuments to ordinary soldiers and veterans had not reached wide public acceptance. It was only in the aftermath of the Civil War that the common soldier monument became a customary type of monument.
Memorials can be used to tell a story, to mark a time or event in history, but, from whose point of view? The French used memorials to build civic pride and redevelop their fragile national identity after losing the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Since 1865, there have been literally tens of thousands of military monuments erected in this country based on various wars. However, how does one look at a monument that recognizes the losers of a war? There were many monuments erected to honor the Confederate soldier and Confederate leaders in the south. Just like the French, they were used to build civic pride and forge an identity. The Civil War was largely about the South’s right to secede, more so than it was about slavery. However, it is usually taught that the Civil War was over the issue of slavery. Thus, anything that has to do with the Confederate army is usually associated with slavery. In today’s society, African-Americans and non-southerners look at Confederate monuments with a jaded eye. In 2006, the University of Texas was debating about what to do about the statues that honor Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. Many people believe that Confederate monuments belong in museums. Some feel that in a museum, these monuments can be interpreted properly. Leaving a Confederate monument in a public space could be interpreted as wanting to glorify slavery. Many feel this way about the Confederate Flag. However, by removing these items, is a message being sent that the original interpretations of the past are no longer valid or relevant?