The South Carolina division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans hit a roadblock in their plans to erect a monument to commemorate the December 1860 signing of that State's Secession Ordinance. This Tuesday it failed (by a split decision 3-3) to win approval for placement at a public site under the jurisdiction of the Patriots Point Redevelopment Authority.
Brother Grant and I thought this would be a good inaugural topic for our occasional series of posts for the Civil War Sesquicentennial - no shrinking violets, we - so I will leave it to him to give us the inside perspective from the local SCV in which he is a proud member. I'll offer my thoughts from a less proximate, though not necessarily strictly Northern perspective.
Memorials are for the benefit of the living. The problem with the words we etch in stone, as with all symbols, signs and signifiers, is that they really are artifacts of the present. They say more about what some of us want remembered than the people and events themselves. When these involve monuments intended for public viewing, they are by their very nature meant to inform public understanding and shape collective memory. They help some of us bond with each other and identify with the past, and may alienate others (whether by intention or inadvertently).
They may also be provocative, like the staring faces of servicemen on the black, mirrored wall of the Korean War Memorial on the National Mall. One cannot view this monument and fail to see it in counterpoint - in response, really - to the Viet Nam wall on the other side of the reflecting pool: two raw 20th century wounds at the feet of Abraham Lincoln. You cannot explain the different between them as a simple matter of one having names and the other faces, or their placement as simply a matter of the mall running out of room. You cannot see them in isolation from the time of their creation.
Is it important for Charleston visitors today and in the future to know the names of the 170 men who signed the Ordinance of Seccession? Maybe Grant can give us his take on that question. Meanwhile, let's turn it around and look outside this specific circumstance. After all, during the Revolution's Bicentennial, folks in my parents home town of Andover, Massachusetts felt it was important to publicly list the names of everyone in the community who had turned out for the Lexington Alarm. That is the seminal moment in the collective history of Massachusetts towns in four counties surrounding Boston. If Andover can do this for its big day, how is it different for Charleston?
Let me up the ante. I had an ancestor in one Andover minute company that marched when they heard the Regulars were out, and another who fought at Concord's North Bridge with the Bedford Militia. That is information I am glad to know that helps connect me to the past. I'm not sure it matters to most modern residents of these communities, though, that someone named Nathaniel Abbott or Samuel Lane was there on that April morning. Nice to know about these individuals, perhaps, but not something they feel the need to know that intimately. History is many things, not the least of which is personal.
Nobody in Massachusetts erects monuments to the Shayites, however. We may stick a marble rock in the ground by some country road in the Berkshires where the last fight of Shay's counter-revolutionary rebellion took place, but we did so a couple of generations ago because folks at that time thought it worth remembering that their local militia put a stop to it.
I would have no objection to an interpretive display that tried to make sense of the causes of Shay's revolt, of its significance as a goad to forming a strong federal Constitution, and of the way it has been remembered as part of our regional and national narrative and been given meaning by subsequent generations and historians. That is a lot to ask of one sign or stone.
But I would not be enthused to see an uncritical monument erected on public ground to pitch a one-sided, partisan version of the conflict, or one that was insensitive to the need to address what the very existence of such a monument might represent to a public audience. Words matter, but sometimes it is what we do not say that is the most telling, and leaves us open to other interpretations.
For me this is not a question of the 1st Amendment, or political correctness, or whether the winners or losers get to write the history books. It is about the importance of finding the best way to share and learn from the past. It is about finding better words, perhaps, or broadening the initial vision. My line of work is all about collaborative action. Although there is nothing that would require them to have done so, I wonder whether the SCV might have found other partners, with other perspectives, willing to work with them to find a fitting, credible way to acknowledge the events in the months before the onset of the war. Might that have met their needs, been a bit less polarizing and perhaps even resulted in site approval? It might have been harder going initially, but maybe the outcome would have been something greater than the sum of its parts.
Not unlike our federal Union.