It seems the prospect of digging up the dead unsettles most Americans. The legislation introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren to redesignate military bases named after Confederate generals includes a provision that ensures all graves remain undisturbed.
Another area of our complex past that should be left untouched are battlefields. Like cemeteries, battlefields belong to the dead. When President Abraham Lincoln dedicated the Union cemetery at Gettysburg, he said: “But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” Yes, blood consecrates a battlefield, and it is never the blood of only one side.
Gettysburg, like many Civil War battlefields, is strewn with statues, placards and memorials. Many of these were erected by veterans’ groups, Union and Confederate, who returned for reunions in subsequent years.
The Virginia Monument is the most prominent Confederate memorial at Gettysburg. It marks the departure point of Pickett’s Charge, an ill-fated assault launched 157 years ago on July 3 on the final afternoon of that three-day battle. The monument, which depicts a mounted Robert E. Lee on a pedestal surrounded by seven Confederate soldiers, was started in 1913 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the battle, the last time in which a significant number of Gettysburg veterans gathered together.
Even then, old antipathies lingered. A fight broke out at the Hotel Gettysburg after a Southerner uttered a “vile epithet” about Lincoln, leaving several men hospitalized. On the afternoon of that July 3, though, old Northern and Southern soldiers gathered at a low stone wall called the “Bloody Angle,” where Pickett lost 3,000 men. The soldiers shook hands across the wall. A photograph was taken. It was a remarkable gesture of reconciliation.
Today we speak more in terms of reckoning and less in terms of reconciliation. The former can seed animus while the latter is the root of progress. We are living through a profound reckoning, but if we hope to not pass along today’s battles to our children, we must begin the shift toward reconciliation.
A Confederate monument removal process that respects graveyards and battlefields and acknowledges them as monuments to the dead to be visited by the living, is the quickest way to eradicate painful Confederate symbolism from our public spaces and reconcile the country.
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