Our Beautiful Monuments

Who would have believed it was possible?  Yet, for a moment, images of hate and horror from Charlottesville were eclipsed by the sight of a grieving mother, cherubic and white-haired, stepping up to a microphone to deliver a message of love and understanding.   Her words were nearly as moving as that other celestial event a few days later, when the sun’s full fury was blotted out for a few minutes, and the country exhaled a collective “Oooh!”

I’ve learned that a further grace note struck at Charlottesville may have been an uptick in online queries as to who Robert E. Lee was, and why people put up statues of him in the first place.  Strangely enough, Lee had long been a figure of veneration far beyond the boundaries of the old Confederacy.

Growing up in northern Kansas, by the age of six I assumed that he had commanded the Union Army during the Civil War, convinced by the cover of a handsome booklet about the conflict that one of my older brothers had brought home from school.  The text was beyond my first-grade reading skills, but I gathered that the Northern side had been triumphant in the nation’s bloodiest conflict, saw the adoring pen and ink sketch of General Lee seated astride his noble steed Traveller on the cover of the pamplet, and reasoned that Lee must have been on the winning side.  

While my family set me straight on the matter, they continued to speak of Lee as if his feet never touched the ground, even when he dismounted from his wonder-horse.  Nothing was said about any Union general, except the one time I overheard Aunt Irene snarl at an ice cream social that “Grant was a butcher.”  Only a few minutes ago, after looking him up on Wikipedia, I discovered that Grant also had a horse which was famous in his day, a thoroughbred stallion called Cincinnati.  While statues of Grant often depict him seated on Cincinnati, Grant himself never looks like a thoroughbred.  Instead of a model of equestrian grace like his genteel rival, Grant looks like a cowboy hunkered down in the saddle for a long, joyless ride. 

Some three decades ago the first history book I ever read purely for pleasure was an account of Robert E. Lee’s career after the Civil War.  Of all the opportunities open to the former general, most of them crass business ventures trading on his name, the one he selected was the presidency of Washington College.  Lee evidently threw himself into the task of modernizing the curriculum of the old Latin school, even instituting a course in journalism.  However, my own most vivid memory from reading about Lee’s activities there, is that, as enrollment grew from 50 to 400, he continued to greet each student by name every morning.  After making his life a model of reconciliation, Lee lived only five years beyond the end of the Civil War, dying at the age of 63 following a stroke.

Although Ulysses Grant was fifteen years younger than Lee, the two men died at the same age, Grant perishing from throat cancer in 1885.  Concerning Grant’s two terms as President of the United States, the less said the better, although Grant also redeemed himself as his life ebbed.  He was already suffering from the ailment that would kill him when he took up Mark Twain’s offer to publish his memoirs.  Fleeced by a business partner, Grant would have left his family with little except debts if the book had failed.  The former President completed his manuscript a few days before dying at his cottage; the memoir was peddled by an army of Twain’s agents, became an instant classic, and has remained in print ever since.  Some critics go so far as to call it the greatest work of non-fiction from 19th century America.

I daresay “Stonewall” Jackson, whose bronze images are also on the endangered list, is best known these days for having been shot by Confederate sentries near Chancellorsville, their bullets shattering his left arm.  Dead from pneumonia a week later, Jackson was buried separately from the amputated limb, giving him two monuments already.  Although Ken Burns and Civil War buffs in general surely carry around much more information about him in their heads, many of us lump General Thomas Jackson with President James A. Garfield, another 19th century figure we remember chiefly for who shot him.  In Garfield’s case it was a disappointed office-seeker, as stand-up comedian Robert Klein used to remind us, concluding his riff on the subject by suggesting that the encyclopedia entry on Garfield consisted of the words, Garfield, James A. - see: office-seeker, disappointed.

A few days after the clash at Charlottesville, officials with Chuck E. Cheese announced the imminent retirement of the kiddie pizzaria’s animatronic band.  The happy coincidence allowed Twitter-wits to pair the news item with President Trump’s lament about “the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.”  Sometimes these things just fall into place all too easily.

According to his biographers, General Lee disapproved of Confederate monuments, believing that the country would heal more quickly without them.  True to his wishes Lee was not buried wearing his Confederate uniform, nor did any of his former soldiers walking in the funeral procession wear theirs.  

However, turning people, causes, and events into statuary seems to be part of our nature.  Given the opportunity to pick which Robert E. Lee to memorialize in bronze, my own choice would be the postwar Lee seated at his desk, peering over the top of his spectacles at a student who’s been called into his sanctuary for a talking-to.  If I had to choose a pose for Ulysses Grant it would be the former President hunched in a chair on his porch, bundled in blankets and a woolen cap, scribbling away at his memoirs.  There you would have each man as I want to remember him, one humbled by war, the other by an embattled presidency, each one making the most of the time he had left.

© Dale Switzer 2016  dale@lovewellhistory.com