I was going to write about memories of school days, but the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia brought memories of a different kind.

I was going to write about memories of school days, but the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia brought memories of a different kind.  

Much of the commentary has focused on the fights, the auto assault on peaceful protesters and Donald Trump’s early silence and then his flip-flop responses. (What a president!)

Almost forgotten is the very local issue being decided by the town council of Charlottesville, namely to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee.  Many towns have been considering similar actions in the wake of the white supremacist killing of black Christians in Charleston, S.C.  The alt. right forces correctly estimated that their protest of Lee’s removal in a college town would be met by counter-demonstrators, some radical, so they came prepared to fight and to reap the publicity that might attract more members.  

Later a group in Durham, N.C., another college town, pulled down and trampled on a statue honoring Confederate soldiers, not waiting for any town action.  In reaction, Jo Davis posted the following on Facebook: “I am not proud of the people who destroyed the Confederate statues.  The statues belong in a museum not under someone’s boot.”  Her post ignited an  interesting discussion of such statues.

Predictably, some were all for simply destroying the statues: “Smash them all to smitherins (sic).” [The statues] “belong in Hell..”  Or let’s leave them, but “paint them black.” (A Rolling Stones’ tune comes to mind.) After all, they were originally installed to create “intimidation and fear.”  

Less extreme were those who felt they must all be taken down  or put in a museum because the figures all fought to retain slavery and to destroy the republic.  Moreover, they were all white supremacists.

I tend to agree with Jo: if they must be taken down, put them in a museum.  We are not (yet) a war-torn society recovering from an oppressive dictator who put statues of himself all over place.  Hopefully we will never devolve into a country where mobs pull down statues, while the police cower or overreact.

It should be noted that not all of Confederate soldiers were big slave holders or necessarily defenders of the institution.  I’m thinking particularly of the common soldiers from small towns and small farms in the hills and mountains of the border states.  Many, including Robert E. Lee, chose their side based on loyalty to their state, particularly when it was to be invaded.  

And if we are going to take down monuments based on whether the figure depicted was a white supremacist or not, we’d better include the Northern figures as well.  Overwhelmingly whites on both sides of the conflict believed in the supremacy of the white race, even many who were abolitionists.  

I spent my teen years and later in a land of statues, a Northern Virginia suburb of Washington, DC.  

DC was laid out with wide avenues, named for the states, diagonally crossing a grid of alphabet and numbered streets, creating many circles, squares and little islands where several streets converged--ideal for statues. I suppose the fact that one had to fight one’s way into circling traffic and then fight one’s way to an intersecting street was a kind of homage to the figure placed in the middle,  even if you didn’t know who he or she was.

Do you know these bronzed notables? George Henry Thomas on a horse at Thomas Circle, Jean de Rochambeau at Layfayette Square,  General John A. Logan at Logan Circle, General James McPherson on a horse at McPherson Square, Dr. Samuel Hahnemann at 16th St. and Massachusetts Avenue.  Hahnemann, if you’re wondering, created the field of homeopathy and wrote an attack on coffee.  

There are over 110 of these statues.  For some, the claim to fame resides in the statue itself and the traffic it disrupts.  As a youngster, however, I liked to imagine that these statues would come to life, brandishing their sabers, to defend the Capitol, should the British ever return to burn the place.

In Virginia, it was impossible to escape the Civil War.  I lived ten miles from the Battle of Ball’s Bluff and 15 miles from the Manassas Battlefield.  Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville were an hour away.  Antietam was a couple of hours away and Gettysburg a couple hours more.  

I remember when we moved to Virginia from Oregon in the 1950s, the kids my age were not playing cowboys and Indians.  They had blue or grey campaign caps and played Civil War.  

I was asked which side I was on.  As a certified 10-year-old, I had to prepare a retort:

“While you guys were fighting the Civil War, we were digging for gold.”  What a smart put-down that was!  Of course,I was wrong: the gold rushes had not occurred in Oregon, but in California and Alaska, before and after the Civil War.  But I believed it was true and stuck to it, which, I guess, put me ahead of my time.

Arguing that all such statues in the South were meant to intimidate ignores its long reverence of the medieval warrior tradition.  Mark Twain even quipped that the novels of Sir Walter Scott were responsible for the war.  VMI, Virginia Tech, the Citadel and many private high schools were all-male military institutions until the late 20th Century; many liberal arts colleges and public universities had strong ROTC programs, sometimes required for the first two years.  The military schools helped provide careers for many second and third sons, the ones who would not inherit the plantation.

So if a town has a statue honoring a local hero or wants to honor the military tradition with a common soldier monument, let them.  Let the town decide, not the state or federal government.

My wife’s hometown of Stuart, Va., named for J.E.B. Stuart, decided to remove his portrait from the main courtroom, but kept a statue of an officer in front of the courthouse, rationalizing that it did not specifically honor J.E.B.  Richmond, Va. has added statues to its Monument Avenue to honor notable black dignitaries, such as Arthur Ashe.

Or, if we are going to remove or destroy statues of officers on the moral grounds that they were not merely defending their home states, but defending slavery itself, what should we do with the statues of Union generals who relied on superior numbers and expended men as if they were cattle, sending wave after wave across long open fields against well-entrenched Confederate positions, with artillery firing canisters of metal balls that would shred the ranks within 500 yards.

Read accounts of Fredericksburg, Antietam or--on the other side--Gettysburg and you will be struck by the senselessness of the mass charge across open ground in broad daylight, a Napoleonic tactic stupidly adhered to in spite of the advances in artillery and rifled long guns.  (European officers continued the practice in World War I, with even more horrific results.)

No, with few exceptions, I’m not usually for honoring the officers on either side, except on their home grounds or in battlefield parks.  But monuments to the common soldiers who died or were maimed in the tens of thousands? 

I’d be for leaving them up.

Either way, let the locals make the choice.