Most of us slept through at least a few high school history classes. If you had a teacher who could make history more interesting than a shopping list or the back of a cereal box, then you were one of the lucky ones. While the study of history may have a bad reputation among high schoolers, the lessons it affords cannot be ignored or forgotten by society.
We’ve all heard George Santayana’s famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Sometimes it seems like, even when we do remember the past, we repeat it. If not, then mankind’s first war would have been its last, and we would have found a way to overcome hatred, repression and subjugation as soon as we saw how they poison a society and tear at its seams. But after many thousands of years, some of us still hate, and some of us are still repressed and subjugated.
That’s why it is so important to understand our history, our real history, warts and all, and resist the temptation to ignore the unpleasant or unflattering facts that make our society what it is. Mankind is terribly imperfect. To pretend otherwise one must revise history, re-writing it in favorable but untrue terms. And that, unfortunately, is what we often do. To find a perfect example of such historical revisionism, we need travel no further than our own McDonough Square.
In the square, in front of the courthouse, stands a Confederate memorial statue. It has been there, commissioned and paid for by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, since 1910. Lately, like many other such memorials, it has become a matter of controversy. Some want it removed. Some say it should be allowed to stand right where it has been for the last 110 years because it is “history” or “heritage,” and that its removal would amount to “destroying history.” If we are really interested in preserving, not destroying, history, we should take a good look at the inscription on the McDonough Square Confederate monument:
“To our Confederate soldiers, those who fell in fiercest fighting and sleeping beneath the sod of every southern state, those who have passed away in the after years of peace, and whose ashes now hallow old Henry’s hill sides, those who like a benediction, still limp in our midst. May God preserve forever in our hearts, their memory and in all minds, a knowledge of their motives and their cause.”
That is a beautifully written epigraph. As an English teacher I can appreciate the talent it took to pen those lines. But it is also a lie, and as a rational human being I can only regret the sad legacy of its deception. The statue’s epigraph begins as a tribute to fallen Confederate soldiers, but ends with something much different. It is the very last word that betrays the true purpose behind the statue: “Cause.”
This is a reference to a peculiarly Southern concept known as the “Lost Cause.” Briefly, the “Lost Cause” is the Southern re-interpretation of Southern history and the Civil War. It is propaganda disseminated by a number of groups, including the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the very organization that placed the monument under discussion. Lost Cause propaganda is intended to convince people that the Civil War was not about slavery, that slaves were happily dedicated to their owners, that the South was an honorable land victimized by evil Northern forces, and that the war was a noble Southern cause.
If the Lost Cause was just a curious relic from the past, this issue might be nothing more than a water-cooler topic that evoked mild interest and little emotional energy. But as we have seen, Confederate symbols generate anything but mild opinions and reactions. That is because the idea of the Southern Lost Cause is more than just history; it still exists. You might say that the Lost Cause is not lost, it still lives in the South. There are still people telling other people that the Civil War was not about slavery, that slaves were better off without freedom, and that the South is morally superior to the North. The statue is not dead history, it is living history, and it embodies ideas and values that are still promoted in our county.
For 110 years Henry County citizens have looked at that monument in McDonough Square and read its lie. Some know it’s a lie, some don’t. Some preserve the lie and pass it on. We are all part of history, and believing in a Lost Cause is easier than facing our own weaknesses and our own misdeeds.
One hundred ten years is an awfully long time to recognize and correct a mistake. The statue needs to go. Surely we can find something in our history that deserves to be memorialized in stone in the most important public place in our county. Let’s dedicate the next 110 years to creating and displaying a memorial that tells the truth about Henry County and celebrates all of her people.