A (non) debate over honoring Confederate generals
posted at 9:31 am on December 22, 2013 by Jazz Shaw
There was an article by Rowan Scarborough this week in the Washington Times which claimed that the US Army War College in Pennsylvania was considering removing portraits and statues of Confederate Army leaders such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The purported reason for the possible “purge” was depicted as being some sort of statement against the CSA.
Nestled in rural Pennsylvania on the 500-acre Carlisle Barracks, the war college is conducting an inventory of all its paintings and photographs with an eye for rehanging them in historical themes to tell a particular Army story.During the inventory, an unidentified official — not the commandant, Maj. Gen. Anthony A. Cucolo III — asked the administration why the college honors two generals who fought against the United States, college spokeswoman Carol Kerr said.
“I do know at least one person has questioned why we would honor individuals who were enemies of the United States Army,” Ms. Kerr said. “There will be a dialogue when we develop the idea of what do we want the hallway to represent.”
She said one faculty member took down the portraits of Lee and Jackson and put them on the floor as part of the inventory process. That gave rise to rumors that the paintings had been removed.
This spurred a rather heated discussion, as you might imagine, but Dr. James Joyner seemed to smell a rat immediately.
Let’s stipulate up front that this is thinly-sourced linkbait. As best I can glean from the story, some unknown person asked a question and the Army War College may or may not be doing anything to answer it; from here, the author conjectures that the debate might spread. It’s pretty much a non-story.
The reason why I even clicked on it from the Defense News daily roundup is that I was amused by the notion that there’s any controversy at all about the paintings of Lee and Jackson when the Army has forts named after both men. Fort Lee, located “alongside the Tri-Cities of Virginia – Petersburg, Colonial Heights and Hopewell – as well as the counties of Chesterfield, Dinwiddie and Prince George” is home to to the Combined Arms Support Command along with the Army Logistics University, the U.S. Army Ordnance School, the U.S. Army Quartermaster School and the U.S. Army Transportation School.
Joyner’s skepticism appears to have been well founded. After a period of time of the “controversy” making the media rounds, Major General Tony Cucolo, the commandant of the War College, felt compelled to address what he saw as a non-issue.
I’d like to address an issue that has come up based on a Washington Times web posting and article in its paper of 18 December 2013.
Even though last night’s posting had a photo at the top of that article showing a picture of one of our entry gates with huge statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. Jackson mounted on horseback on either side of the sign, and today’s posting showed a dignified photo of Robert E. Lee at the top of the article, it might be misleading as to what is in question. For what it is worth, I must tell you there is only one outside statue on Carlisle Barracks and that is of Frederick the Great. There is no statue of Lee, there is no statue of Jackson; that picture is photo-shopped – I assume to attract attention to the article. We do however have many small monuments, mostly stone with bronze plaques, but those are for a variety of reasons. There are small memorials to the service of British units (during the French and Indian War), memorials of Army schools that had been based at Carlisle Barracks over the last two-plus centuries, memorials to Carlisle Indian Industrial School students and significant personalities of that period from 1879 – 1918, a memorial for US Army War College graduates killed in action since 2001 and more. We do not have any public memorials to the Confederacy, but we do have signs on the walking tour of the base that will tell you for a few days during the Civil War, three North Carolina Brigades camped on the parade ground and then burned down the post (save one building) as they departed on July 1st, 1863, to rejoin Lee’s forces at Gettysburg. We also do not have any large stand-alone portraits of Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson.
So, no statues or big portraits, but a recent event here sparked the reporter’s and other public interest in the topic of the article, which I find makes a good point – for topics like this, have a thoughtful conversation before making a decision.
Here is what happened: a few weeks ago, while relocating his office to a new floor in our main school building over the weekend, one of my leaders looked outside his new office location and simply decided to change the look of the hallway. He took down, off the wall, a number of framed Civil War prints that depicted Confederate States of America forces in action against Union forces or depicted famous Confederate leaders. He did this on his own. There was no directive to “remove all traces of the CSA.” Since this is a public hallway with seminar rooms and offices, the sudden new look drew attention the following week. And since there was no public explanation of my leader’s action, some of my folks jumped to conclusions, even to the point of sending anonymous notes to local media. We have since attempted to clarify the action within our own ranks.
The General goes on to explain that the art on display is intended to portray a thoughtful, accurate military history of the United States, both the good and the bad. It is a college, after all, and teaching history is part of their mission. So this looks pretty much like a drummed up media example of link bait, as Joyner suspected, but it does open up an old – but still valid – line of questions. Is it “wrong” to commemorate the leaders of the Confederate forces and the soldiers who fought and died in America’s bloodiest war?
There is an old maxim which reminds us that “history is written by the winners.” Having grown up and studied high school history forty years ago in the Northeast, I can tell you that there are few better examples of that lesson than the traditional school lessons on the civil war. And regardless of how you feel about it, there is a justifiable pride and sense of history among many southerners for their ancestors who stood their ground on their own lands and shed their blood in the war. They answered the call, just as their northern brothers did, and fought and died for what they saw as the defense of their homes and their country. Is it so awful to commemorate that in the artistic portrayal of our nation’s history?
I would argue the opposite. And apparently the War College will continue to remember that these things did happen and those men did fight with bravery and honor, no matter what you may think of their cause.