When I was young my parents took me to Gettysburg. Now my son has taken his children there too.
I and they saw Devil’s Den, Cemetery Ridge, the fishhook, the Soldiers National Monument, the Pennsylvania monument, the Vermont monument and its towering column, the statue of Confederate general James Longstreet on his rearing horse, the Virginia and Alabama monuments, and, of course, many others.
I didn’t think much about the Confederate monuments until the white nationalist riot two years ago in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hundreds of white supremacists gathered there under the pretense that they were protesting the city’s decision to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee. They had actually been planning their action and its club-and-gun-wielding violence for months.
The far-right protesters – neo-fascists, neo-Nazis, members of the Ku Klux Klan, and various right-wing militias – carried semi-automatic rifles, beat their drums to racist and anti-semitic slogans, and lofted swastikas and other Nazi flags.
Their torch-lit violence injured many people and caused the death of a 32-year-old woman.
President Donald Trump’s most remembered comment was that there were “many fine people there on both sides.”
That wasn’t so. For white supremacists, Confederate monuments aren’t about the past — they symbolize a racist vision for our future. The alt-right Nazis and neo-Nazis who showed up with their clubs, guns, and torches in Charlottesville were not there because of their reverence for the Confederacy. Many had no Confederate ancestry; nor were they Southerners. They saw the removal of the Lee monument, a statue with historical links to white supremacy, as a rallying cry for their racist movement.
Until Charlottesville, the debate over Confederate monuments was mostly about history, trying to balance the preservation of the South’s heritage, against the Civil War monuments’ ties to slavery. What’s become clear in the past two years is that the monuments are no longer long-dead Civil War relics — they have become symbols of the same kind of violent white nationalism that killed 22 innocent people in El Paso.
As we’ve come to realize, American cities like El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, have seen more than 250 mass shootings since January (that number only counts attacks in which three or more at a time have died), and a government analysis has found white supremacists responsible for all race-based domestic terrorism incidents in 2018.
Roughly 700 Confederate monuments remain across the South. A century and a half after the Civil War, American taxpayers are still helping to sustain lies that white supremacists wish were true – especially that the Civil War was a noble experiment in states’ rights.
The truth is that the Civil War was about slavery, though that was denied even when I was in school. The Confederacy’s founding documents make clear that the southern states united and fought the Civil War to defend and perpetuate slavery.
In the past 10 years alone, according to researchers at the Smithsonian, taxpayers have been charged more than $40 million to maintain marble statues, the homes of Confederate leaders, and museums, and half-truth libraries, and cemeteries and battlefields like Gettysburg.
Scott Hancock, who teaches history at Gettysburg College, rides through the Gettysburg park and wonders if people who don’t know what to think about removing Confederate monuments might feel differently if they knew when and why some of the monuments were put up. “But as an American citizen, as a black man, as a historian, and as someone who sees these monuments almost every day,” he says, “I see these battlefield markers as a constant reminder that the Confederacy keeps winning.”