May 15, 201708:05 AM
The Editor's Room
Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde
The Monuments: What Lincoln Wanted
In the harbor at Copenhagen there is a statue of "The Little Mermaid" from the Hans Christian Andersen story. It has long been a popular photo stop. Unfortunately, the statue, innocent as it is, has frequently been subject to vandalism. Once it was stolen completely. The rock upon which the mermaid rested was empty. Strangely though people would still come by to take pictures of where the mermaid was not. The mermaid, by her disappearance, had become even more legendary.
I was reminded of "The Little Mermaid" on Saturday when I passed by the site where the statue of Jefferson Davis stood for 106 years. He had long sense faded into the scenery, but now by his absence he has a new presence.
Next up to possibly undergo such a fate is the splendid statue of General P.G.T. Beauregard. Had there been an opportunity for an educated public debate about which statues should stay and which should be surrendered to the temper of the times, a strong case for survival could have been made for the general. He was a native and a remarkable post-war citizen who even advocated integration of schools and businesses.
Whenever an article is written in defense of the monuments someone will respond that the figures in question turned against their nation and were guilty of treason. Yet the charge is in the eye of the beholder. Beauregard, like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, were loyal to the their state above the nation because back then loyalty to states was though to be paramount. (That's why the name selected to call the country emphasized than that this was a union of states rather than a nation.) Eventually that thinking would change, first as spoken by Lincoln in his Gettysburg address and eventually by legal rulings, but back then an act of treason could have just as well been to turn your back on your state rather than your nation.
That nation was blessed with a compassionate genius who understood the complexity of the matter, Abraham Lincoln. More than anything he wanted the Union to be preserved, but he also wanted the recovery to be one of brotherhood rather than vengeance. Had the lived, the recovery might have gone better nevertheless the South was allowed some tolerance, even in establishing monuments to it former leaders without fear of a federal gestapo. Amazingly the South became, and still is, arguably the most patriotic pro-American part of the country. Perhaps the mercy of the recovery was inherent in influencing southern attitudes.
Lee (who always opposed slavery) was punished by losing his land to what is now Arlington cemetery, yet he is best appreciated for working to reunite the tattered post-war South. Beauregard was a major business figure in his home of New Orleans and, like Lee, was eventually pardoned and granted full citizenship.
Advocates of removing the statues often say that the monuments do not reflect who we are. No statue from any time does that. All they can represent is fragments from who we were. Statue critics argue that it is backwards thinking to allow such monuments to stand. To me it is forward thinking to better understand the people and the circumstances of the monuments rather than brush them all with the same stereotypes.
There have been many civil wars fought throughout the world since the surrender at Appomattox. It is the American Civil War that, though bloody and often cruel, provides the best global example of recovery with compassion. Ahead would be scavengers from both sides; northern invaders known as carpetbaggers, who plundered the state politically and financially; from the southern woods would come masked riders known as the Ku Klux Klan, who feared loss of control and violently threatened the innocent.
Those were some of the war’s ugly products, but the overall movement was for the unification that Lincoln hoped for and that Beauregard and Lee, among others, strove towards.
We hope that the statues of the two generals can remain standing, if not in honor of them at least in honor of the nation that welcomed them back.
TO THE READERS:
An excerpt from a letter written to Beauregard from Lee about citizenship:
I need not tell you that true patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another, and the motive which impels them-the desire to do right- is precisely the same. The circumstances that govern their actions, change, and their conduct must conform to the new order of things. History is full of illustrations of this: Washington himself is an example of this. At one time he fought in the service of the King of Great Britain; at another he fought with the French at Yorktown, under the orders of the Continental Congress of America, against him. He has not been branded by the world with reproach for this, but his course has been applauded.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book websites.