“Both parties deprecated war but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”
When President Abraham Lincoln spoke those words in March 1865, the Civil War had been raging for four years. About 700,000 soldiers were dead and, most likely, 50,000 civilians had been killed, too. Perhaps 100,000-200,000 enslaved men, women and children had also died in their desperate efforts to escape and be free.
The people of the 1860s — no matter their race — knew what was at stake and were aware of the political and social winds that swirled around them. Their experiences were not theoretical ones and they were not contained within the character of a tweet or Facebook post. They lived, breathed and died the harsh realities of the mid-19th century.
Monuments to soldiers, both from North and South, were dedicated and unveiled for decades after the Civil War. One that stands in the town square in Bedford, Ohio, is indicative of many monuments to U.S. soldiers who had fought in the war.
The inscription on its base reads: “Erected as a memorial to the men that enlisted in the service of the U.S. during the War of 1861-1865.”
On Nov. 30, 1899, a Confederate monument was unveiled in Franklin’s town square. Words, ones that were carefully chosen, were also carved into its base: “No country ever had truer sons. No cause nobler champions.”
Those who erected the monument here in Franklin believed that. But think about those words for a moment.
In 1899, those who unveiled and dedicated the monument believed that their cause and their soldiers were more noble than those who had founded the United States of America. It was a given that they were more noble than, for example, men from Bedford, Ohio.
Let that sink in.
I believe history is one of our greatest treasures and, at times, one of our greatest dilemmas. The founding of the United States of America, the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution stand in stark contrast to the secession movement that created the Confederacy. It is long overdue that we separate the two and shine a bright light between them.
Some in our community believe that the Confederate monument should be removed. I respectfully and earnestly disagree. I want every person possible — young and old — to read the words on the base of the statue and consider what the Confederacy really was.
The Confederacy was the crystallization of race and slavery, but it also was an effort to dismantle the progressive work of our founding and of our moral compass. It was an effort to throw away the noble words of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and, yes, George Washington.
“All men are created equal” was to be replaced with “Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”
It is time for us to confront these realties directly and without fear.
Let us also not fall into the trap of thinking that all Confederate monuments, especially those to collective groups of soldiers, were put up simply because of Jim Crow. The “lost cause” mythology that reshaped the narrative of the war was the most powerful instrument behind dotting the Southern landscape with monuments. The “lost cause” redefined the Confederacy and redefined education in the South for generations. It made the Confederacy noble and righteous. Slavery was shunted to the side and treated as a benign institution. The North became the villain. Jim Crow was punitive and harsh. The “lost cause” was genteel and romantic.
We are fortunate that we do not have a statue of a Confederate leader in our town square. We are not debating the likeness of Lee, Davis or Forrest. There also is a fundamental difference between a monument unveiled in a town in 1899 and a bust dedicated in 1978 in a state government building.
We also should be aware that there exists a legal and administrative process for change. The Confederate monument must not be removed simply because some think it should be removed.
My fervent hope is that by this time next year, a life-size bronze statue of a Black man in a U.S. Army uniform — a USCT soldier — will stand in front of the historic courthouse. There is no need for him to stand atop a tall stone shaft as if he were immortal and unreachable. He will stand on our level, a person among people. He will represent a Black man who was not a citizen, a man who was not treated equally under the law, but a man who chose to fight for the United States of America. He will embody someone who chose to fight to free himself and the divided country from the sins of slavery.
My other hope is that people who visit and see the USCT statue will then walk to the center of the square and decide for themselves what was noble and what was not. Let them consider both elements of history. Let them read the interpretive markers that were placed in the fall of 2019 and let them consider the true nature of the Confederacy. That has always been the goal of the Fuller Story.
If people who visit Franklin do not go to a museum or a historic site such as Carter House or Carnton yet can still learn something while in our town square, we will all be the beneficiaries. Let us not forget, what we do here in Franklin is not just about Franklin. People from across the country and the world visit here. Let us show them how a community can reckon with its past to better and sincerely understand what we want the future to be.