As the director of a historical society that owns a Civil War-era historic house museum, the controversy in this country surrounding the removal of Civil War monuments is much on my mind.
In the aftermath of the deadly violence last month in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white nationalists and counterprotesters clashed over the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, other cities have subsequently removed or considered removing their own monuments to the Confederacy.
In Brunswick, Bowdoin College moved a plaque listing 19 alumni who fought for the Confederacy — including Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who received an honorary degree from the college before the war — from a public space, where it hung near a plaque listing alumni who fought for the Union, to its special collections in the college library.
Some prominent figures would suggest that removing these monuments is akin to blindly erasing history — if we take down one monument, we might as well take them all down.
I disagree, and I trust many of my museum colleagues feel the same. We all have items in our collections deemed offensive. That doesn’t mean we will deaccession them or pretend they don’t exist. Instead, we will use them to educate people about history — about a society that once was but grew up (in some small way) and moved on.
The problem with many of the statues, like the one of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, is the lack of context. Many people don’t realize a number of these monuments were erected in the early 20th century during the creation of racist Jim Crow laws. What message is being driven home to a person of color — to anyone — who must daily drive around such statues?
Museums, archives, libraries and the like can be more appropriate repositories for some of our world’s historical symbols of hate and divisiveness than a city center or community park. In a museum or archive, researchers and visitors can study such symbols within a larger context of cataloging records and exhibit labels. Here, they are teaching tools instead of threatening symbols.
While the white nationalists clashed with counterprotesters in Charlottesville, the Pejepscot Historical Society was hosting Chamberlain Days in Brunswick to celebrate the legacy of Maine’s most famous Civil War hero: Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.
The sad irony was not lost on us. The Civil War continues to be fought throughout this country more than we would like to admit.
During a guided tour of Bowdoin as part of Chamberlain Days, a group stopped to see the Confederate plaque, then still on display in the lobby of Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin campus. It prompted several questions. Fortunately, an interpretive panel nearby helped explain it, and a guide put it in greater context.
Without those teaching tools, the plaque could have been little more than a controversial list of names, inviting ire and causing offense. Because it hung in the same space as a larger plaque commemorating alumni who fought for the Union (which remains in the lobby), it could have suggested, minus the context, that the Confederate cause deserved honorable recognition, too.
That’s essentially the message of the Lee statue and other such “on a pedestal” monuments that stand tall in our city and town centers, marked by little more than a name and a set of dates — that the cause of such figures was righteous, and still worthy of celebrating.
Chamberlain went off to fight in the Civil War to save the Union. But many years later in his memoir, “ Passing of the Armies,” he wrote:
“Slavery and freedom cannot live together. Had slavery been kept out of the fight, the Union would have gone down. But the enemies of the country were so misguided as to rest their cause upon it, and that was the destruction of it and of them. We did not go into that fight to strike at slavery directly; we were not thinking to solve that problem, but God, in His providence, in His justice, in His mercy, in His great covenant with our fathers, set slavery at the forefront, and it was swept aside as with a whirlwind, when the mighty pageant of the people passed on to its triumph.”
None of us can know with certainty what Chamberlain would say today about Civil War monuments coming down. After all, he is well-known for having his men salute the Southern soldiers when he accepted their surrender at Appomattox.
One thing seems fairly certain, however. He wouldn’t want us — these United States — to fight the same demons all over again. He would want us to learn from history and continue triumphing over it.
Larissa Vigue Picard is the executive director of the Pejepscot Historical Society in Brunswick.