Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Battle of the Battle of Liberty Place

White League propaganda. These are the fellows honored by the Battle monument.... (Wikimedia Commons)
When the Battle of Liberty Place monument, a memorial honoring those who died in an attempt to overthrow the city government after the Civil War, came down two weeks ago, contractors did the work in the middle of the night wearing kevlar and face masks.
WaPo: Tensions rise....

8/16:  I wrote the following in January.  While I think what I originally wrote is more nuanced, honest and well-meaning than what I've heard from various "unite the right" types in Charlottesville, I'm bummed to hear some of the same things I wrote coming out of those hate-twisted mouths (that Vice video for example).  Unlike the POTUS, I will not hesitate nor mitigate, I thoroughly repudiate those neo-Nazi über-trolls, and any similar arguments are coming from and heading towards an entirely different place than those dudes'....

It irks me a bit that this article conveys the message that everybody against removing Confederate memorials are either racists and/or apologists for slavery.  Camo-clad, pistol-packin', Trump-lovin', flag-wavin' good ole boys sittin' on the porch with a moon-pie in one hand and a Mason jar of RC Cola in the other.  That said, take a good look at that cartoon.  One would hope that the Liberty Place monument's defenders are ignorant of exactly what it was they are defending when it comes to this particular chicken-fried obelisk.  Sadly, I can't escape the fact that many of them know exactly what it means.  David Duke certainly did when he tried to hold a rally there.  And I'd bet the phoned-in threats that made spiriting it away like thieves in the night a necessity weren't made by kindly old ladies dividing their Golden Years between the Daughters of the Confederacy and the flower-arranging club.

I think that somehow contextualizing these kinds of monuments would be better than just taking them away in the dead of night.  Are we eventually going to take down any memorial to the Confederate war dead?  If you look at the history behind the Liberty Place monument, and the literal white supremacist messages inscribed upon it, it's hard to lament its removal.  But its presence at least reminded people of the events which it honored, and those are events worth remembering.  I would suggest a kind of counter monument that incorporated the original, a way to re-interpret both the event itself and the earlier monument that sought to glorify it.  Becoming a kind of monument about a monument.  A meta-monument.  Or shit, just take it down and put it in a museum.  But doesn't stealing it away under cover of darkness send a message of fear, or give the impression that there's more support for it than there actually is?

It's like the KKK gravestone in Deland, Florida I've written about.  It would be a forgotten bit of local folklore if removed.  As it is, the stone radiates a kind of forlorn air, covered as it is with the stains of piss and beer bottles, perhaps other effluvia.  It reeks of defeat.  At worst, neglected; at best, covered with marks of loathing for what it represents, pooh stains on a white sheet.  The dank drapery of a defunct douche-bag.  But trying to erase history is always a bad move.  That grave inspired a lot of research on my part, edging me me towards investigating many facets of African-American history I might not otherwise have been motivated to learn about.  I felt I had to counteract a monument to the despicable.

Some kind of interpretive stelae for the Liberty Place monument may have been more powerful than a midnight removal.  Imagine coming across a glorious obelisk and then learning it carried blatant messages of white supremacy and sought to honor a white supremacist army?  A good number of people would check it out, learn something about how the end of the Civil War didn't necessarily mean the end of racial bloodshed and armed civil strife.  About how the League operated in the open, explicitly agitating for the overthrow of the Reconstructionist government and then trying to make it happen through intimidation, murder and in Liberty Place, armed insurrection.  And where they failed in violence, they succeeded through democracy.  Democrats regained control of the state legislature in 1876, two years later.

So now they're preparing the removal of statues to Generals Lee and Beauregard and President Jefferson Davis, and the situation is fraught with tension, primed for some kind of violent reaction.  Interesting story.  I wrote about the decision to remove the statues back in 2016 and had some more cogent comments.  As a historian, I'm simply loathe to cover up the past, no matter how loathsome.  Although I'm not really torn up about it, I do think it would be a shame if the next targets are monuments to Confederate war dead.  People should be able to honor their ancestors.  I know, why would I bother to defend these people?  I just don't "get it".  I do get it, but this kind of controversy doesn't do nuance very well.  Some of those soldiers were despicable men, but many of the grunts were just kids, protecting their lands and their sovereignty.  Call me naive, but I've always been in the "better to let ten guilty men go free than convict once innocent man" camp.  One of the pitfalls of actually believing in the ideals of the Founding Fathers.  Beauregard and Lee I could care less about.  History will remember them.  But who will remember those poor young dudes they led to the slaughter?

In any event, the people have spoken, the monuments will fall.  I really do hope they do something though, to explain the story of Liberty Place.  That was pretty messed up.  The White League that initiated the insurrection was a nasty bunch.  The whole business had started in 1872 over a disputed election and had already led to one conflict, or massacre, at Colfax, where 150 freedmen were killed by a white militia.  At least 50 of them had been killed after having been taken prisoner.  These were not the gallant warriors of myth, and many of these militiamen were part of the White League that later tried to capture New Orleans, and succeeded, until Federal troops moved in and ousted them.  No one was ever prosecuted.  The 1891 monument interpreted the ensuing events in order to honor the insurrectionists and in 1932 the city added an inscription stating that the election of 1876 vindicated the insurrectionists, recognizing white supremacy in the South.  No tears here to see it go, but mightn't it have served a better role as a kind of elaborate public urinal?

If the vow to set these statues in a museum is honored, I think the public would be better served than placing them in secret warehouse next to the Ark of the Covenant and the alien cadaver.  The monument is a powerful shock to our modern sensibilities, which is a good sign that times have changed.  That they had to take such extraordinary precautions to remove it shows just how much times haven't.

So I guess this is a contradictory mass of feelings about the issue after all.  Many people want them removed and I think I want them to stay for the very same reasons.  A question, then, not of the goal, but of the strategy on how to attain it.  Or maybe not.  I don't want people to forget this stuff.  I want them to remember....


  1. Interesting debate, I like the angle. Haven't made up my mind yet. Meta monument, museum, why not ?... Cheers, miji.

  2. I second the first comment...very interesting debate and I like and agree with the angle, too. With your permission, I would like to share excerpts of your work with my 8th grade U.S. History classes since we are studying the Civil War now and I like to address from "past to present" issues about the topics we study. Thank you...excellent read!

    1. Hey, thanks both! Of course you can share what you like Mel! Hope you are doing well

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  4. Mississippi state Rep. Karl Oliver (R) was far from pleased with the removals and wrote on Facebook that those responsible for bringing them down should be [all caps] LYNCHED! His colleagues were not amused....


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