As recorded by John Griep in the Tuesday Spy, the Easton Historic District Commission gave its approval to removing the Talbot Boys statue from the Courthouse grounds. I am disappointed that a commission intended to preserve Easton’s historic character would make that decision.
A very clear and compelling statement of the case for preserving every single Civil War monument is made by one of the most distinguished historians of the Civil War, Gary Gallagher, the John Nau Professor of Civil War History at the University of Virginia. He recounts how he uses Confederate monuments to teach about the Civil War, and he makes the equally important point that Confederate memorials like the Talbot Boys are artifacts that record not only memories about a war fought 160 years ago, but also the points of view of those who put them in place roughly 110 years ago.
Professor Gallagher writes in an article about proposals to remove Confederate monuments from the Gettysburg battlefield: “The presence of Confederate monuments at Gettysburg will upset some visitors, but that is a price worth paying to protect a valuable and instructive memorial landscape.” Later in the same article he writes:
I will acknowledge that some critics have questioned the educational value of monuments. Education cannot reach everyone, they insist, and in the meantime monuments can offend some people—so we should take them down to make everyone feel safe. These arguments are misguided. Education is not just a convenient rationalization in support of retaining some elements of the memorial landscape; it is the only hope for a serious, productive engagement with our past—warts and all. And no education of any value depends on selective erasure of troubling dimensions of America’s story.
History should not be turned into a simplistic morality play juxtaposing good and evil, heroes and villains, and contrived to serve current political goals.
In another paper he writes about how he uses historical monuments as primary sources in teaching history. In it, he debunks every argument that has been made for removing the Talbot Boys monument:
The question of how best to deal with Confederate monuments inspires honest disagreement among well-intentioned, well-informed people, while also eliciting—from both ends of the political spectrum–vitriolic cant that has little to do with monuments, the Confederacy, or the Civil War. I see memorial landscapes as similar in nature and value to literary and graphic sources—all compose part of the historical record and should be interpreted as such. I favor adding text to situate monuments within the full sweep of how Americans have remembered the Civil War. I also support erecting new monuments devoted to previously slighted groups or events. But eliminating monuments is tantamount to destroying records or images, potentially inhibiting a real understanding of our past, warts and all, and obscuring important themes, movements, and eras. I readily concede that elements of the Civil War’s memorial landscape offend some people, which is a useful reminder that history has hard and sometimes unpleasant edges. I will add, lastly, that local communities should have the final say, after an open process of discussion and evaluation such as that followed by Charlottesville with the statue of Lee, about whether to keep monuments in place.
Then Professor Gallagher introduces the difference between “history” and “memory.” I take it that by “history” he means an effort to recreate what actually happened, who did and thought what, and by “memory” the narrative that has been adopted by different groups about the past.
With both students and teachers, I discuss the difference between history and memory and argue that memory often trumps history in shaping how Americans understand the past. … however complicated we think some historical episode might have been, it almost certainly was far more complicated. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to achieving some degree of historical understanding is the strong inclination… to find simple answers or reduce the past to stark black-and-white alternatives.
Following up on his professional opinion that history itself has “themes, movements, and eras,” Professor Gallagher makes the key point that understanding how history was remembered at different points in time is also an important task of the historian. Taken in this light, the Talbot Boys convey not only information about the Civil War – the names of those who fought – but also information about the period when it was erected – the motivations and intentions of those who lived here in the early twentieth Century.
Professor Gallagher then writes that he uses Civil War monuments to point out four very different ways in which Americans have remembered and written about the Civil War (my emphasis below):
Charlottesville’s Confederate … monuments and tablets highlight the Lost Cause, one of four major memory traditions created by the wartime generation. Together with the Union Cause (which celebrated saving the democratic republic fashioned by the founding generation as the war’s most important outcome), the Emancipation Cause (which pronounced killing slavery the most notable result of four years of slaughter), and the Reconciliation Cause (which sought a middle ground celebrating American–as opposed to northern or southern–virtues highlighted during the conflict)…..Charlottesville also provides excellent evidence of the commemorative landscape’s complexity, revealing the danger of flattening out Lost Cause memorialization to fit a single template of intention and impact.
On the latter point, it mattered when monuments went up, who took the lead in creating them, and how they fit into larger trends. A widely held view attributes all Confederate monuments to a white supremacist desire, especially during the Jim Crow era, to intimidate African Americans. I make clear on my tours of Charlottesville that almost everyone who supported erecting the monuments held what we would deem white supremacist racial views—as did almost all white Americans from the 19th or early 20th centuries….
But white supremacy as a sole motivating factor does not convey an adequate understanding of Charlottesville’s memorials.
Professor Gallagher goes on to describe how Charlottesville’s five sites include “two monuments to common soldiers (1893 and 1909), a pair of tablets on the Rotunda at the University of Virginia listing students who died in Confederate service (1906–removed in September 2017), and equestrian statues of “Stonewall” Jackson and Lee (1921, 1924).”
He then comments that “The first three of the five, in substantial measure at least, sought to recognize human loss on a scale unmatched by any other white segment of American society.” He cites the fact that the Confederacy lost about 5% of its population in the war, far surpassing Northern losses, U.S. losses in World War II and even the losses of France, Germany, Great Britain, and Russia in World War I.
The two equestrian statues, he writes “in addition to singling out the most famous Confederate military commanders, also bring into play a powerful national impulse toward reconciliation in the 1920s.”
This is a lesson being taught by a distinguished historian, whose knowledge of Civil War and American society in 19th and early 20th century is not only unsurpassed, but calm and objective. He dismisses the simplistic and historically unfounded accusation that this statue was a product of the Jim Crow era intended to intimidate African Americans. He puts in perspective the Lost Cause memory tradition, as he calls it, as an effort to retain collective identity among a population that had lost not only a war but its social structure. He recognizes monuments to common soldiers as an expression of grief that the South lost a greater percentage of its total population than did any of the major combatants in World War I — a carnage that historians recognize affected every aspect of 20th intellectual and social history, as the Civil War did the South.
Most important, Professor Gallagher teaches that to get to the truth about history, we must grapple with how events were perceived by subsequent generations, both ordinary people and historians. The Talbot Boys is an artifact of the time when it was built, and of historical significance for that reason. It records thoughts about the Civil War that were current in the early 1900s. Just like photographs, oral histories, and family diaries, it is a primary source of information about Talbot County in 1911, a product of its times that tells about its times. It is a record of early 20th century life and thought in Talbot County as well as a memorial to local men. Like it or not, that is history.
Let me try to make Professor Gallagher’s point in debate style. If someone is convinced that white residents of Talbot County in 1910 were all racists, and she also believes the Talbot Boys to be an assertion of white supremacy, should she not want to keep it where it stands to prove the existence of racism in 1910?
Many other points made by Professor Gallagher apply directly to the Talbot Boys. He observed that “it mattered when monuments went up, who took the lead in creating them, and how they fit into larger trends.” The impetus to erect the Talbot Boys memorial came from local veterans, after the few remaining ones returned from the 50th anniversary reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg. Men from Talbot County had fought on both sides in that battle, and the 1st Maryland CSA was decimated by the Union 1st Maryland at Culp’s Hill. Union and Confederate veterans returned from the reunion with a desire to create a memorial while some of them still lived. It was decided to create two monuments, one to commemorate Union soldiers and one to commemorate Confederate. Local organizations raised funds for the memorials and came up short for the Union memorial. That in itself is an interesting piece of evidence about how the Civil War was remembered in Talbot County at the time, and about how completely reconciliation between Confederate and far more numerous Union veterans had been achieved.
The statue atop the pedestal bearing names has been particularly controversial. Its resemblance to other statues erected at the same time led to allegations that it was put in place by outsiders promoting the Lost Cause version of history and Jim Crow practices. In fact, the sponsors of the statue had planned to put in place a statue of Admiral Buchanan, the Talbot County resident who achieved the greatest distinction in the Civil War. Another evidence of Professor Gallagher’s point that recognition of leaders such as Admiral Buchanan among the Talbot Boys serves to “bring into play a powerful national impulse toward reconciliation in the 1920s.”
But there were insufficient funds for a made-to order-statue of the Admiral, and a more generic statue was ordered from the foundry supplying other locations. Thus the boy carries the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia and not the battle colors of the 1st Maryland under which the Talbot Boys actually fought.
But this nuanced and complex story about the memorial itself is being ignored. Instead, its detractors have been doing exactly what Professor Gallagher decries: “flattening out Lost Cause memorialization to fit a single template of intention and impact” and turning history into a “simplistic morality play juxtaposing good and evil, heroes and villains, and contrived to serve current political goals.” I expect better of us.
David Montgomery is the President of Preserve Talbot History.