The date was April 9, 1865. The place was in the parlor in the home of Wilbur Mclean at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Confederate General Robert E. Lee met with his Union Counterpart. Together they ended the civil war ... or so we thought. At least that is what our history teachers tell us.
The recent ugly events In Charlottesville, Virginia have many asking the questions, “has the Civil War ever really ended”, and “could it still be lost?” Like so many events have taught us, our history is never truly only history.
When Grant and Lee met, they had lots of excuses to be bitter and angry. Over two percent of the U.S. population had died. Lives, property, families, and so much more had been destroyed. Each side used brutal tactics that had rarely been seen in warfare before.
Thankfully, they made the choice to be conciliatory, kind, and humble. Grant let Lee’s men keep their horses, their personal firearms, and he ordered his soldiers to share their rations with their former enemies. The immediate attitude of the two leaders was, “we have to put this behind us, and begin the healing as quickly as possible. We must begin the difficult task of putting this country back together again.”
Fast forward to the summer of 2017. On the fifty year anniversary of the summer of love, we are feeling everything but. As a nation, we watched aghast as an unfathomably ugly battle took place over the removal of a statue of General Lee on the campus of the University of Virginia.
My question: 152 years after Appomattox, why are we still fighting over statues of a war that was supposed to be over? When can we stop untangling the knot that was created long before any of us drew our first breath? How can we put this behind us? How can we focus our energies on issues like health care, the environment, infrastructure, terrorism, education, and so on instead of fighting over statues.
Granted, the fight was about a lot more than statues, flags, and monuments. Will resolving the issue of statues completely alleviate all of the long smoldering problems that erupted into an inferno last weekend?
No, not even close, but it feels foolish that we can’t come to some sort of an agreement on this issue. We are better than this. We have to be. It is time to get leaders from all sides into a room, and not let them retire until a compromise is reached. The issue is complex, and can’t be solved in 140 characters.
One side wants all statues honoring the Confederacy forever removed. They site the fact that the southerners fought to form a country based upon the idea of owning other humans. They feel the Confederates were traitors who drew arms against their country. In their minds, these statues are a constant reminder of the heinous and embarrassing parts of our history. They feel it is racially insensitive, and every time the descendant of a slave has to see these statues it pushes us further away from moving forward. They see those statues as a constant reminder of the yet to be healed wounds to the soul of our nation.
The other side feels that the removal of these statues and monuments is concealing history. They feel it is part of southern heritage. They feel these men were brave leaders who fought bravely to defend their states' rights against the imperial north. They claim they are not symbols of disrespect or hate, but symbols of pride in the warriors of a region’s history.
Who is right? We will never all agree. But perhaps we can all agree on one simple thing: the constant battles fought over a war that was supposed to be over are holding us back, and keeping us from ever truly being the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
So this is a call to our leaders. Civil rights leaders, governors, the President, historians, southerners, northerners, etc., to be Americans. What would a proper compromise look like? I don’t know, but maybe:
* An agreement to move Confederate statues to certain areas designated for learning, like museums.
* Having parallel statues that describe the massive tragedies that were slavery and the civil war.
* Anything that allows us to put this issue properly in the rear view mirror.
As I said, I’m not sure what the correct answer is, only that we need to figure it out and turn our focus from the past to the future. We owe it to our children.
One more step back in time, over two and a quarter centuries ago. This time to Philadelphia where smart men of different backgrounds gathered to write a rule book for the infant country that would become known as the Constitution of the United States. They argued, they fought, but they always remembered they shared the same goal of forming a more perfect union.
Compromise is difficult, and most often everyone walks away feeling disappointed that they didn’t get everything they wanted. But compromise built this country, and must continue to do so.
The best way to prevent the next Charlottesville is to remember and to invoke the spirits of Appomattox and Philadelphia, and to let them guide us forward.
Bob Hammitt is a high school Social Studies teacher from Canby, Oregon.
Bob draws on his knowledge and love of history to
teach valuable lessons for our present and future.