Voices From The Past

So New Orleans isn’t the only place where monuments to Confederate soldiers are being taken down. In St. Louis, the removal of a monument discovered a time capsule incorporated into the structure:

[W]orkers found a stone tablet that read, “On this spot, a monument will be erected in memory of the soldiers and sailors of the Confederacy.” The monument was dedicated in 1914.

Inside the capsule, Trout expects to find documents, a magazine with an article about the monument, as well as a letter to whomever would access the trove, he said.

Given that the time capsule was placed so far into the monument’s base, the letter’s writer must have known that future readers only would access it if the monument were destroyed or disassembled.

In 1914 there might well have been people still alive who had personally fought in the Civil War, though they would have been in their seventies or older. Such a person seems the likeliest sort to have written something to put in this time capsule. I for one am fascinated to learn what someone in 1914, who thought it was a worthwhile endeavor to put up an elaborate monument to dead Confederate soldiers, would have to say to someone in his future who he knew would have determined to destroy that very same thing. A curse, or at least a rebuke along the lines of “Shame on you!” is my prediction, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

 

Image by Editor B

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57 thoughts on “Voices From The Past

  1. I hate to be the spoiler here, but time capsules in semi-permanent structures are not unusual. Sometimes they are buried with no intention of really being opened, and some are buried with some kind of guidelines that they be opened in 100 years or whatever.

    While I think it’s very likely that someone wrote a letter about the day and maybe included their thoughts on the Confederate cause, the outcome of the war, the memory of fallen friends, etc…I think we would be hoping for a high-degree of forward-thinking to assume they speculated on why the monument might someday be dissembled.

    One thing I think it’s really important to remember is that, regardless of the reasons why people fought, to the living those soldiers were friends and family. So when you donated $5 towards some memorial fund you were thinking of Grandpa, not some faceless Johnny Reb that wanted to keep slavery alive and well. So while these memorials may make some people uncomfortable today, I find it unfortunate that we can’t live with them. Afterall, Caesar is still memorialized and he was a mass murderer. Leaving these things up isn’t necessarily a celebration of their actions but more of a historical artifact IMO.

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    • I don’t disagree with this sentiment, and it was one recognized by Union veterans at the time as well. But these memorials reflect the time and place they were erected, and as time passed they become more and more encrusted with disturbing racial attitudes of a different time.

      Confederate widows began saving money and building memorials almost as soon as the war was over, along with charitable philanthropy for the permanently wounded. I am not sure where I would draw the line, but by Wilson’s Presidency is generally a good place to be suspicious. St. Louis is an odd place though; it was strongly Republican and pro-Union during the War.

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      • Louisville also has a very mixed history. We sent a lot of both Union and Confederate soldiers into the war. There are lots of both buried in our cemeteries. I live about 10 minutes from a Confederate cemetery and DW Griffith (of Birth of a Nation infamy, is about 20 minutes away.

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      • Confederate widows began saving money and building memorials almost as soon as the war was over, along with charitable philanthropy for the permanently wounded. I am not sure where I would draw the line, but by Wilson’s Presidency is generally a good place to be suspicious. St. Louis is an odd place though; it was strongly Republican and pro-Union during the War.

        I’d be a lot more okay with Confederate memorials if a) people weren’t running around waving the flag still, b) doing that in places that were not in part of the Confederacy.

        Look, here’s the simple story of the Civil War: most people who fought on the Confederate side were, basically conned into it, because they didn’t really understand what was going on.

        A majority of the Confederate citizens, especially the poorer sort (Which are always overrepresented in soldiers.), not only had no financial incentive in slavery, but had incentives in entirely the other direction, because slaves, duh, lower wages. Only about 40% of households owned any slaves.

        But the everyone in slave states had been sold the Big Lie. People had been, for years, talking about a slave revolt and how abolitionists were inciting one, and how the slaves would rise up and kill anyone.

        And instead of anyone doing the logical thing and saying ‘Wait, if they’re so dangerous, why are we keeping them around?’, the slave-owning states got more and more paranoid.

        By the time of the civil war, it was entirely possible to believe the Union would come in and free the slaves, and the freed slaves would all immediately murder white people. No, wait. They would immediately murder all white men, and rape the women.

        This entire thing tends to be overlooked by both the ‘The Civil War was about slavery’ people, who simply appear not to know it, and ‘The Civil War was not about slavery’ people, who don’t bother to mention it because it doesn’t fit their narrative.

        And it didn’t make it into a lot of the political arguments, or it is mostly hinted at, so it’s easy to overlook. But you can find them. Here’s Stephen Hale in a letter talking about how Lincoln’s election was inevitably going to resulting in freeing the slaves , he said it would ‘destroys the property of the south, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.’

        There are tons of quotes to that effect, if you look for them. In fact, if you look, you can find surreal examples of southern politicians talking about how white people will never accept equality with black people, or black people holding positions of authority over them…and in the next breath they talk about how black people will attempt to exterminate them. Uh, guys? Can’t be both of those. They can’t be wandering around as your supposed equal, sitting next to you in theatres, holding elected office…and at the same time there’s a race war going on. I have never been in a race war, but I really suspect they do not work that way.

        So when you ask how someone can pick up a gun and defend themselves, there you go. They ‘knew’ what would happen if slaves were freed.

        I sorta find it hard to condemn Confederate soldiers with that sort of nonsense in their head.

        How about we put up some Confederate monuments explaining this and urging people not to believe racist tripe and politically-motivated conspiracy theories?

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    • Afterall, Caesar is still memorialized and he was a mass murderer. Leaving these things up isn’t necessarily a celebration of their actions but more of a historical artifact IMO.

      My first inclination was to point out that nobody really cares about Caesar’s crimes against humanity nowadays, whereas a lot of people are still pretty pissed off about the confederacy.

      On the other hand, there was a time in the distant past when a lot of people would have wanted to take down those monuments to Caesar. And there will likely come a time in the distant future when Confederate monuments don’t really bother anybody that much. Many would argue that we would be the poorer for those monuments to Caesar having been destroyed in ancient times. If this is true, it follows that our descendants may be the poorer for our destroying Confederate monuments today.

      So how to balance preserving historical artifacts for the future against the sensibilities of the present?

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    • If I had been optimistic, I’d have predicted that the time capsule would say “Shame on us” rather than “Shame on you.”

      Most likely, it’ll be some newspapers, maybe a souvenir or two, and as suggests, any specific correspondence to future readers would not have been written with the level of self-awareness my OP imputes to the author. The author might very well have found actually unthinkable the idea that successive generations would morally question the Confederacy to such a degree as to actually dismantle the monument for political reasons.

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      • “I guess this awesome monument to the Confederacy must have gotten damaged due to soil subsidence or something. Here’s a little something to entertain the engineers who will be repairing the pedestal. Why not read it out loud to the negroes on the work crew – they might find it edifying too.”

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  2. The last Confederate and Union veterans didn’t die out until the 1950’s.

    You generally have a few veterans who will die at age 100 to 110 (slightly less for smaller conflicts due to a smaller sample size), and they will have joined up as teens, sometimes young teens, so the last veterans die about 90 to 95 years after a major conflict.

    After the Civil War we still granted a pension from the Revolutionary War. By 1870 they were all gone, though.

    We’ve just lost the last veteran of WW-I (large sample size) and the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s (small sample size).

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    • George is correct. You had some boys serving in the Civil War that were pretty young. In the Revolutionary War, even younger. Check this out if you want your mind blown. Alexander Milliner knew what General Washington’s voice sounded like. Lemuel Cook saw the British surrender at Yorktown. For a historian, that gives you goose bumps.

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  3. This is written on the St. Louis monument:

    To the memory of the soldiers and sailors of the Southern Confederacy, who fought to uphold the right declared by the pen of Jefferson and achieved by the sword of Washington. With sublime self-sacrifice, they battled to preserve the independence of the states, which was won from Great Britain, and to perpetuate the constitutional government, which was established by the fathers. Actuated by the purest patriotism they performed deeds of prowess such as thrilled the heart of mankind with admiration. “Full in the front of war they stood,” and displayed a courage so superb that it gave a new and brighter luster to the annals of valor. History contains no chronicle more illustrious than the story of their achievements; and although, worn out by ceaseless conflict and overwhelmed by numbers, they were finally forced to yield. Their glory, on brightest pages penned by poets and by sages, shall go sounding down the ages.

    Personally, I wouldn’t want to see any Civil War monument removed. I would rather see accompanying signage that discusses the history of the memorial, and how many of the points above reflect Lost Cause myths that emerged at the turn of the century.

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    • It always interests me about Robert E. Lee. His biography seems to indicate he was very uncomfortable with succession but his loyalty to Virginia played an important role in his decision-making. His father was a favorite of Washington and his wife was Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter. Certainly he had to feel some strange emotions there.

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      • Lee is a complex character. In a discussion with a graduate of some Southern college devoted to Lee, I brought up some overlooked points. I said that Lee was actually loyal to the Union and working secretly for Lincoln.

        The graduate was taken aback? “How could you say that?”

        “Well, didn’t the South have the finest cavalrymen, the best artillerymen, the stoutest soldiers, the best officers, and the strongest military tradition?”

        “Well yeah, they did.”

        “Couldn’t Southerners outfight Yankees five or six to one?”

        “Well yes, they could.”

        “So Lee must’ve been working for Lincoln.”

        “Where do you get that?”

        “Well then how else did they lose?”

        He had no answer.

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          • Practicable. A word, a word, my kingdom for a word.

            Though as a matter of pure conjecture, I’d lean more towards the finding of Special Order 191 leading to the draw at Sharpsburg as more strategically devastating.

            On Gettysburg, Monuments and SJW… what to do with Custer, what to do with Custer.

            Chamberlain and the 20th Maine get much of the glory on Day 2, but Custer and Michigan’s Wolverines are mostly unsung for saving Day 3.

            By the by, I’d argue that Chamberlain is the North’s true counterpoint to Lee, not Grant or Sherman. I call him “The Yankee” in the sense that Aristotle is The Philosopher or Austen The Novelist.

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            • Custer is another good example. Not a good guy, or at least once he went out West. History is full of people like this. The massacre that I reference above for Caesar was something he was very proud of in his writings. I mean, we have Mt.Vernon, Monticello, the Hermitage, etc. All plantations that are visited by millions and they celebrate slave-holding presidents. It all gets very complicated.

              When I was working at historic sites, three of them were slave-holding plantations. We told both sides of the stories, did archaeology on the slave quarters, etc. That is how you deal with this stuff. Making it go away because it might make people feel yucky is not the right tactic. I recall having a black family touring Locust Grove with me (husband was a Lewis & Clark enthusiast) and they seemed to be enjoying themselves until I told them about the slaves that lived there. The wife was visibly disgusted for the rest of the tour. But I don’t regret telling them. It’s important to not hide the dark stuff.

              I guess the only difference is we weren’t celebrating slavery, simply explaining it. The monuments are taken as celebrations by some, so I understand why it offends. I just think of them more as memorials, and that’s why I am less troubled.

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              • I suppose a bigger question is why we build memorials at all. Especially in this day and age.

                I don’t mean this to be snarky. But given both the technology we have now and what we’ve learned about how quickly thinking on important matters evolve, it seems foolish to erect stone monuments to avoid forgetting important things.

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                • I think it may be more important than ever. The physical structure orients history in actual space. It may offer a sensation of the time involved to some users. It provides a three-dimensional experience unavailable online or via other sorts of communication alone. You can feel the heat, the humidity. Many include sculpture of some sort. The physical monument offers something deeper, something unavailable otherwise.

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                  • But… does it? As noted, this was built nearly after a lifetime after the events it was meant to capture.

                    Funny story…

                    Mayo and I used to walk through Madison Square Park on our way to camp. A variety of statues and monuments adorn the tiny (3ish square blocks). Mayo pointed at one and asked who it was. I read the plaque… “Chester… Alan… Arthur… 21st President? Huh?! Oh! Chester A!!!! Arthur!”

                    Why is there a statue of Chester A(lan) Arthur in a small park in midtown Manhattan? What is gained by its presence?

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              • Don’t worry. Many decades from now, Hollywood tours of the houses of the rich and famous will be in an uncomfortable position when they show the quarters for the illegal, underpaid, Guatemalan servants, and how even the governor of the state knocked one up.

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      • My understanding is that much of Arlington National Cemetery is located on the old Lee plantation.
        He had a lot to lose personal, and did.
        Not as shameful as what happened to Davis though.

        Most of the officers knew each other from the Spanish-American War.
        Lee had served under the same officer as Grant, and had distinguished himself as a scout, earning commendations.
        I’m sure there was little joy in the battle on either side.
        It is fairly certain the people in the draft riots felt little joy.

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        • Yes. Arlington Plantation was originally owned by George Washiington Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s grandson. Lee’s wife was Custis’ daughter and eventually they inherited Arlington. During the Civil War, when the Union needed a place to bury their dead, they used the Arlington Plantation as sort of a big F-you to Lee. The Custis family home is still there on the grounds of the national cemetery.

          Interestingly, the Lee’s eventually got compensated for the loss of Arlington. This is a really good passage:

          The government appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court—which ruled for Lee again. On December 4, 1882, Associate Justice Samuel Freeman Miller, a Kentucky native appointed by President Lincoln, wrote for the 5 to 4 majority, holding that the 1864 tax sale had been unconstitutional and was therefore invalid.

          The Lees had retaken Arlington.

          This left few options for the federal government, which was now technically trespassing on private property. It could abandon an Army fort on the grounds, roust the residents of Freedmen’s Village, disinter almost 20,000 graves and vacate the property. Or it could buy the estate from Custis Lee—if he was willing to sell it.

          He was. Both sides agreed on a price of $150,000, the property’s fair market value. Congress quickly appropriated the funds. Lee signed papers conveying the title on March 31, 1883, which placed federal ownership of Arlington beyond dispute. The man who formally accepted title to the property for the government was none other than Robert Todd Lincoln, secretary of war and son of the president so often bedeviled by Custis Lee’s father. If the sons of such adversaries could bury past arguments, perhaps there was hope for national reunion.

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      • I am less and less convinced that it was Lee’s “loyalty to Virgina” that swayed him. Based both on Elizabeth Pryor’s biography of him, and one other source I can’t recall, I think it was two factors:

        First, both his sons had already enlisted in the Confederate Army, joining the Confederate Army in Richmond.

        Second, when Winfield Scott tried to hire him to command Federal forces in the East, Lee told him he didn’t want to have to face his own sons in battle. Scott told him, “You are equivocating Lee. I have no room for equivocators in my army.” Lee went home and without much deliberation, resigned his commission and signed up for the Confederate army.

        I consider this a colossal mistake by Scott to goad Lee on a topic that Scott knew nothing about, since he had never married and had no children. He could have said, Ok, I’ll give you a command in the West. But no, he had to call Lee a coward.

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      • Mike,
        The way I heard it (and this from a researcher friend of mine), there was a certain amount of armtwisting and hostageholding on Virginia’s part.
        Lee was too good of a general to not know he was signing up for something doomed from the start.

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        • I don’t think Lee thought it was a lost cause, I just think he knew it had to happen relatively quickly and be brutal enough that the Union lost its resolve. There’s the famous line from Stonewall Jackson in Gods and Generals where he says they need to give the Union the black flag, because it was the only way they could win.

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  4. I think we need to remember the Civil War. I think we need to figure out how and why all those good men served such a terrible cause (to paraphrase Grant). And I think we need to remember that and pass it on.

    I don’t really know how to do that in a monument. I’m pretty sure most of the current monuments don’t do that.

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    • There is a lot of truth to this.
      The big thing is that the people seeking secession were relative outliers. Lincoln was presumed to be a pacifist at the time, due to his position in Congress during the Spanish-American War. The withdrawal from the Union was certainly not expected to be met with military action.
      But there were many, Alexander Stephens among them (Congressman from Georgia, VP of the Confederacy, part of a delegation from the South sent to negotiate an end to the war, later Congressman from Georgia again), who seem to have went along with things they didn’t agree with due to the fact that others had won out in the democratic process.
      How the democratic process out-voted such men is the prescient warning from history, and I don’t believe it is well understood, in no small part due to the abhorrence of slave-holding– which is sort of humorous in an odd, wish-they-could-pull-their-heads-out-of-their-asses type of wistful irony amidst impending doom kind of way.

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  5. I did some research on the St. Louis Confederate Memorial over the weekend, and it’s probably worth pointing out that the Memorial was controversial at the time, and initially voted down by the City Council before it was approved two years later.

    The Daughters solicited a design that would not have any soldier uniforms or modern weaponry that they feared would be antagonistic. The design that won was of a father leaving wife and child to fight under the Confederate Flag. The inclusion of the flag was controversial as to whether it met the solicitation requirements and whether it antagonized Unionists. Discussion was had about removing the flag after approval was rejected by the City Council.

    Following the vote, the head of the State’s Grand Army of the Republican organization gave a public statement of neutrality, though they preferred such a memorial be placed at a national cemetery where Confederate dead are buried, many members are indifferent so they did not protest the location in the park. Before the second vote, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (the liberal paper) ran an editorial expressing anxiety that the vote would alienate the city from the South, with whom it does a lot of business. The monument, with flag, was approved with at least one council member mentioning the concerns raised by the editorial as decisive.

    When the monument was unveiled, an official with the GAR speaking for himself, gave a counter-speech, arguing against the Lost Cause mythology inscribed on the monument, supplying quotations from Washington and Jefferson to bolster his case. His final wish was:

    There remains the hope that this monument, with its inscriptions, may indeed be truly educational far beyond the most ardent expectations of its founders, from the very fact that the indefinite and vague character of its inscriptions may excite sufficient curiosity or interest to lead many to a studious investigation of the indisputable facts and circumstances upon which these monumental abstractions and conclusions are predicated.

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    • Wow! Thank you for that, !

      The forms of the language are a bit dated, but it’s clear that the debate we are having now is the continuation of the debate then.

      This is reassuring in its own way.

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          • St. Louis was historically a Republican and Unionist city though. This is what interested me in looking at the background. It had a Republican mayor in 1858; its voters supported Lincoln in 1860 (though by a plurality) and in 1864 by a majority. None of these things could be said about New York City, which was much more sympathetic to secession. My operating assumption is that 50 years after the War, migration had brought more people with Confederate relations to the City.

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