By Chip Prehn
September 17 triggers a powerful memory in my family. On that day in 1862, a beloved member of the family was killed on the bloodiest day in U.S. history, the Battle of Sharpsburg or Antietam Creek.* That terrible day was a long time ago, but in my family we keep it close by. A small silver goblet sitting on a shelf in my niece’s house is a memorial to Farr Stribling (1843-62) who died in Hood’s counterattack at Sharpsburg. The 18-year-old Confederate soldier won the goblet in a regimental shooting match and sent it home to Mississippi from Virginia. In our family it is called the “Rebecca Cup” because its first owner was my great-grandmother Rebecca, and the precious artifact goes to the Rebecca in each generation.
I was weaned on a paradox. My mother Rebecca and her people did not mind saying that Farr did his duty for his “country.” Yet mother also taught us that the Southern Cause was immoral and that slavery was a hideous and intolerable crime against humanity. She was a Southerner with roots in colonial Virginia and South Carolina, but she was quite progressive about race. She was also critical of the historiography that made the Civil War mostly about states’ rights and modern economics and not about its true cause, which was slavery. As she followed the building momentum of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and taught her children to admire Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she welcomed the many new books that accompanied the Centenary of the Civil War. When mother pointed to King on the black-and-white Zenith television set, the Rebecca Cup was sitting in its special place in the breakfront. King’s courage and Christian eloquence would be admired alongside Farr Stribling’s battleground valor a hundred years before.
A history teacher before she became the mother of five, my mother was a grand storyteller of the past. She was careful to teach her children that slavery was a curse on all Americans because all (white) Americans benefitted from it. She taught us that the precious fiber grown in the warm Southern soil enriched mill owners and cotton brokers in New England and Great Britain. In her mind, all Americans were complicit in the peculiar institution. She made her children know that the family blood spilled in defense of slavery was an unfortunate chapter in the family history; that the Lost Cause was colossally lost; and that the real motive for the war was human greed, devilish pride, and hotheaded Southern politics. Yet it is a fact that mother never wanted us to forget that Farr Stribling offered the supreme sacrifice for his country.
As mother wanted us to know that King was one of the greatest Americans and true to Thomas Jefferson’s principles, she taught us to revere Robert E. Lee. She assumed that Lee was technically guilty of treason against the United States, just as she knew that King was all too human in some ways. But at no time during my childhood was the name of Lee allowed to be sullied by association with white supremacy, Jim Crow oppression of black people, or segregation. We were taught that Lee — who had an obvious hand in the deaths of 750,000 Americans between 1861 and 1865 — was somehow better than white racists and presumptuous Anglo-Saxons. How could she pull this off?
Recent iconoclasm against Confederate memorials has left me pondering my youth and my deepest attitudes. As the old icons have come tumbling down all over the South, I am driven to ask if my mother bequeathed to her children a serious moral confusion: My revered great-great-uncle died a heroic death fighting for an immoral cause. I believe both parts of the equation. The contradiction is part of who I am. It formed my sensibility. How should a boy have dealt with this perplexity? How does a man? I feel profound and sincere sympathy for my fellow Americans and friends for whom the memorials are and have always been a menacing reminder of a bitter time, and I want to do something about the injustice. But why does the iconoclasm also trouble me?
The uneasy history of my family leads me to ask hard questions about history itself. History is not always neat and tidy. In the face of trending views about any historical epoch or process or person, the historian must be critical, even suspicious. Good historical scholarship will always force us to face the tragic side of human nature, even if many preachers in America no longer go in for that sort of thing. If we still believe in Heaven, the moral perplexities that good scholarship will present to us in bold relief — and history is a great long lot of time — are surely good for us. I would guess that such reality therapy even helps a society grow up. Could the dispute about Southern memorials be good for soul-making?
I’m okay with the decision in Charlottesville to leave the statue of General Lee undisturbed. I am not okay with racism or alt-right petulance, but I believe in the moral value of owning our past. Taking the long view of history and the sober view of human nature cannot stymie our desire for justice. Human beings are a mixed bag. We need to be reminded of this in the age of rampant secular righteousness.
If we take the long view of American history and a realistic view of human nature, we might find ourselves possessed of as much circumspection, mercy, and magnanimity as Lee and King. I see these very virtues in Julian Hayter, professor of history at the University of Richmond. An American of African descent, Professor Hayter told the 60 Minutes audience last spring that the Confederate memorials on Richmond’s Monument Avenue should remain. Like Thucydides and most of America’s founders, Hayter believes that history is always a moral tale. Dr. Hayter wants Gen Stonewall Jackson and Lee to remain but, for the sake of good learning in the younger generations, he wants the subject of each statue to be explained in greater detail. Historical explanations should be added to the memorials. Hayter wants students and visitors to know that many of the memorials appeared at a time when white racism was gaining and not losing momentum. Hayter does not want to erase the past. There’s too much at stake. This professor would surely subscribe to the maxim of George Santayana (1863-1952): “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
When it comes to assessing the appropriateness of Confederate memorials, I fully understand what is called “the Yale Test”: If it can be proved that the memorial was erected by Jim Crow whites and there is solid evidence that the memorial was intended to be a fearful symbol of Lost Cause white supremacy, then the memorial should perhaps be moved to a less public space. Greater enlightenment about and deeper appreciation of a historic symbol can cause good people to see that the symbol is no longer useful and could be threatening to some of our fellows. The Confederate battle flag is a perfect case in point. When a 12-year-old student sees the flag behind glass in the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond (that flag actually belonged to the 11th Mississippi Regiment), it does not mean to him what it meant to Farr Stribling. In our day the flag has become a symbol of not only valor but bigotry, racism, and hate. The passage of time really does transform some icons into symbols working against the ideal of brotherly love.
When at the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg the Union and Confederate veterans rushed to each other and embraced in tears, it was not only consensus racism that explains their reunion. The Union vets jumped the wall and ran to hug the Confederate survivors because the old men had together learned a lesson or two from the bitter experience of their youth. They shared a moral awakening. They knew that human beings are not perfect, that it’s all too easy to kill each other, that history is complicated, and that innocent men and women get pushed into situations they did not ask for and which they later regret. There is a devil in every human heart and the angel sometimes fails to subdue it. When men and women recognize this doctrine, they tend to leap walls to show their love for one another.
If outstanding historical scholars are helping Americans better understand the warning of St. Paul that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” then we can be glad for their admonishment. We can grow into greater understanding, wisdom, and holiness as we better understand the past.
Human beings tend to be ethnocentric. Will anyone deny this? This tendency can become very ugly and, when fleshed out in an individual’s life, can lead to heinous crimes very hard for subsequent generations to believe and impossible to stomach. Abolish the symbols? But then people may forget that only grace can help us overcome our fallen nature.
Sin is not episodic. Sin is our condition as human beings, a disease we’re born with if we are descended from wayward, disobedient Adam and Eve. Only Jesus Christ escaped the disease, and only Jesus is qualified to cast the first stone. Can anything of Christ’s original innocence rub off on us or blot out our offenses? The gospel gives us hope. We are promised that by grace through faith we can become associated with and healed by the Innocent One — the Righteous One who invites us to become members of his body and share in his glorified human nature.
Love, mercy, and magnanimity are the virtues we need to face the peculiar and I think ugly legalism informing our society. This is the good example set by Prof. Hayter of Richmond. I was weaned or perhaps warped on the paradox that good men can do bad things. I have also been taught that with God’s grace bad men can do good things. This my mother taught her children long ago. She faced a complicated family history but knew her duty to train up her children in the way they should go. She reached for the examples of Lee and King to illustrate her points. By their example, side by side, we learned about love and courage in the face of strange and unwelcome events. We learned about duty in the face of public opinion. We learned that mercy is not the same thing as tolerance, and magnanimity does not require that we forget our crimes. But we need mercy and magnanimity to counter the growing secular righteousness. Since it is uncertain what the piety of our post-Christian American culture can teach our children about true justice, mercy, and magnanimity, we ought to be circumspect about what we destroy.
* The best current scholarship puts the casualty count at about 23,000 men killed and wounded on that single day in stunningly beautiful western Maryland. Stribling was in Company H, 11th Mississippi Infantry, which was assigned to John Bell Hood’s division for the Maryland Campaign. The 11th formed the spearhead of the counterattack effected between 7 and 7:30 a.m. on September 17. After the war, Hood described those 30 minutes as the most horrible fighting he witnessed in the entire war.