It is ironic today that the young protesters in the South remember so little history that someone has to show them the statues that they want to take down! For all practical purposes, Stonewall Jackson could have been a bricklayer or a mason. I used to give a test to some of the young employees I supervised years ago. The test was simple and all 24 questions were taken from American history. Yet, only 50% passed the test. Many thought Iwo Jima was a drug and they were not sure if Antietam was a battle in the Civil War or the capital of South Dakota. Sadly, we know so little of our history.
The Civil War was the most devastating war in our history. The 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who lost their lives almost equaled the 680,000 American soldiers who died in all the other wars this country has fought combined. In 1860, the population of the United States was only 31,443,321. Consider two sobering facts about the Battle of Antietam, America’s bloodiest day. The 25,000 casualties were nearly four times the number of American casualties on D-day, June 6, 1944. The 6,500 men killed and mortally wounded in one day near Sharpsburg were nearly double the number of Americans killed and mortally wounded in the rest of the wars fought in the nineteenth century.
It has taken over 100 years for many Southerners to forget the Civil War and many never will. The Civil War pitted brother against brother, cousin against cousin, and even father against son. The consciousness of the Civil War, of the past and the present, continues to be more intense in the South than elsewhere. The symbols of that War surround Southerners as they grow and live. Some of these symbols remain highly controversial and provoke as much passion today as they did in 1863. The song “Dixie” and the Confederate flag, which for many Southern whites continues to represent courage, honor and defiance while to blacks they represent racism and oppression.
Maybe it is time to move on and some of the statues should be removed but violence and hatred will never accomplish anything. The issues that preceded the Civil War were not simple. They were complex. And again in 2017, the issues are not simple. Most people are unaware that even Abraham Lincoln tried desperately to avoid the Civil War and in his inaugural address and again on July 4, 1861, Lincoln stated that “He had no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery in the States where it exists.” Even in 1861, four states that remained loyal to the Union were slave states. For better or for worse, the flames of the Civil War forged the framework of modern America.
Taking down statues, just like the Nazi’s burning books on May 10, 1933, will not change history. To read history is to understand it. And understanding makes meaningful change.
DONALD WITTMER is a retired business executive who held key roles in the automotive and banking sectors. For a time, he also served as a Fiscal Agency Manager for the Detroit branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. He received his undergraduate degree from Cincinnati’s Xavier University, an M.A. in business management from Central Michigan University, and earned certification in bank operations from the School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A husband, father, and grandfather, he teaches part-time at the Kent Place School for Girls in Summit, New Jersey.