Symbols Mean Everything
When we salute the American flag, either with a military salute or by placing our hands over our hearts, we aren’t paying honor and respect to a piece of red, white and blue cloth but rather for what that cloth stands for. Churches, synagogues and mosques contain various religious symbols and rituals and when we pray to those symbols or participate in the rituals we are honoring what these stand for—not the actual act or physical object.
In light of recent racial tensions, common objects we have had for over a century have taken on new meanings. My generation has known the Confederate flag as a relic from the Civil War and something that represents the South, and nothing more. During my college days, while on a trip to the South with a group from church, someone bought the Confederate battle flag and we posed below it. It was not an act of defiance on our part but merely a souvenir of our trip. Today that flag has become a symbol for the alt-right racist hate groups.
The same is true of the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee whose proposed removal sparked the riot in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend. Because of the volatile race relations, Confederate monuments across the country have become lightning rods for mass gatherings and hot tempers. Thus, a movement is beginning to remove all such monuments.
It’s unfortunate these symbols are taking on new meanings and being defiled in the process. These are a part of our history and as the saying goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Politics aside, I ask, “Is this what we want?” To preserve our history why not move these monuments and other war memorials to a war memorial park where veterans from all wars will be remembered.
We need to remember how bloody the Civil War was. When the war began most thought it would last only three or four months but, instead, it dragged into four very long and miserable years. People on both sides suffered unimageable losses including limbs, family members, and their homes and fortunes. It was a war of brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, father against son. Again, I ask, “Is this what we want?”
It is unfortunate that Gen. Lee’s statue became the focal point of the weekend riots. The irony of using Lee’s statue as the gathering point is that as soon as the papers were signed at Appomattox between Lee and Gen. Grant, signaling the close of the war, Lee was the first to call for a peaceful transition. When Gen. Lee’s men wanted to fight on, he urged them to go home.
By definition, all those who fought for the Confederacy were traitors. The Confederate states seceded from the United States and formed their own nation with their own governing laws. At the close of the war many wanted Gen. Lee, his officers, and all officials of the Confederacy tried and hanged as traitors but Gen. Grant interceded and stopped the movement. In turn, Gen. Lee encouraged his officers and men to return to their homes, become responsible citizens and to submit to authority.
In a letter to Capt. Josiah Tatnall of the Confederate States Navy Lee said:
…I believe it to be the duty of every one to unite in the restoration of the country and the reestablishment of peace and harmony….
Perhaps the best advice of all from Lee is found in a letter to Gov. Letcher of Virginia :
…The duty of its citizens, then, appears to me too plain to admit of doubt. All should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of the war and to restore the blessing of peace. They should remain, if possible, in the country; promote harmony and good feeling, qualify themselves to vote and elect to the State and general legislatures wise and patriotic men, who will devote their abilities to the interests of the country and the healing of all dissensions….
Lee knew firsthand the horrors of war. The cries of agony, the smells of gunpowder and burnt flesh, the sights of blown off limbs and lost body parts were all too fresh in his mind and he wanted to avoid any more suffering. Let us take a cue from Gen. Lee and work for peace.
I understand how in today’s world some see slavery, bonds and chains when they view these Confederate statues but rather than using these as an excuse for violence let us use them as visual cues to remember how horrible war is and how our country suffered during this time. No one went unaffected during the Civil War and the same will be true today if we allow events to deteriorate to the boiling point.
To paraphrase some of Lee’s words—all should unite in honest efforts to live together in peace and promote harmony and good feelings, become active in state and federal governments and do what we can to be good, patriotic citizens devoting our abilities to the good of our country.
Love overcomes hate every time.
Sheila Dobbie is the author of Peach Cobbler for Breakfast: Surviving a Life-Altering Event. She is currently writing Letters to Sallie: The Civil War Letters of A. C. McClure. A native of West Virginia, Sheila is a graduate of Marshall University in her hometown. She enjoys driving the West Virginia hills to Hawk’s Nest.