Why do we remove some statues and not others?

People struggle with a Confederate flag as a crowd of white nationalists are met by a group of counter-protesters in early August in Charlottesville, Va. (CNS photo/Justin Ide, Reuters) People struggle with a Confederate flag as a crowd of white nationalists are met by a group of counter-protesters in early August in Charlottesville, Va. (CNS photo/Justin Ide, Reuters)

In the winter of 1914, the only surviving son of William Tecumseh Sherman, the Civil War general who fought for the Union and burned Atlanta, unexpectedly showed up at the offices of America. Thomas Ewing Sherman was a Jesuit. His mother had converted to Catholicism in her youth (though his father never did) and Thomas, imbued with his mother’s rigorous piety, entered the Society of Jesus. He also entered into a prolonged period of certifiable insanity, apparently suffering from the same psychological afflictions as his father. Father Sherman would wander in and out of the Jesuits for decades before being fully reconciled with the Society just before his death. More about that in a moment.

Ironically, Thomas Sherman and his famous father came to mind recently during a brief stay in New Orleans, where I ventured out of my hotel to see what had become of the downtown park named for Robert E. Lee. An enormous statue of the Confederate general had recently been removed, crated up and transported to an undisclosed location, one of many such iconoclastic episodes in cities across the nation. As I stood in the now inaptly named Lee Circle I thought of the statue of General Sherman that stands a few blocks from my office in New York, which the City of New York recently spent millions to regild. This got me thinking: Why is the statue of General Lee gone and the statue of General Sherman still there? To be more precise, what is the justification for removing one and not the other?

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Why is the statue of General Lee gone and the statue of General Sherman still there?

Is it that General Lee owned slaves and General Sherman did not? This is true, but General Sherman was also a racist. He did not become an abolitionist until the Civil War, mainly because it served the Union war aim; he certainly never believed in equality of the races. Is the justification found in the fact that the statue of General Lee is a painful reminder to African -Americans of a cruel history of injustice? That is certainly understandable. Yet it must be just as painful for a Navajo visiting New York to see the statue of General Sherman, who endorsed the genocide of Native Americans, including women and children, and did his level best to make it happen. To my knowledge, General Lee never did such a thing. Nor can we say that the Lee statue in New Orleans, like many Confederate monuments, is essentially a 20th-century reaction against the burgeoning civil rights movement. The statue of General Lee was unveiled in 1884, almost 30 years before General Sherman’s.

My point here is not that one statue should go and that the other should stay, nor is my point that both should go or both should stay. My point is simply this: What is the point? Is there a coherent justification for removing one and not the other? Or is all of this simply a fight-to-the-death struggle for power? If so, we should just say so. If not, then those who want to tear down the statues need to articulate better why one should come down and the other should not. And if it is decided that General Sherman’s statue should come down as well, then what will be done about Sherman Circle, located in the national capital named for a slave-owner who had even more odious views on race than Robert E. Lee? What are the criteria by which we are going to decide these questions? And, perhaps most important, who is going to decide these questions apart from the elites on either side who dominate the debate?

More important than any of that, however, is this: In light of the fact that our secular country no longer collectively recognizes a higher power as supreme judge of the universe, how are we going to prevent these monuments from being more important than they should be? If we now live in a society in which there are no goals beyond human flourishing in the here and now, then these civic symbols are only going to become more important, not less.

Which brings me back to Thomas Ewing Sherman, S.J., who died in 1933 at the Jesuit novitiate in Louisiana. The next Jesuit to die there was John M. Salter, who happened to be the grand-nephew of Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate States of America. Thus, two descendants of warring sides now lie next to each other in a grove in Grand Coteau, La., a poignant sign, whether we like it or not, that under God we are one nation. That is important to remember, for when a people renders unto Caesar what is God’s, they will inevitably mistake a statue for a sacrament. A pitched and violent battle for dominance will likely follow. But those two graves in Grand Coteau remind us that while every sacrament is a symbol, only seven symbols are actually sacraments. 

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Tim Donovan
3 weeks 2 days ago

Although I'm not an African -American, I believe as a gay Catholic who when growing up as a teen in the 1970's was often ridiculed as a "faggot" (a vulgar term that caused me much pain), I think I can understand why black people want Confederate statues to be removed from public display. Undoubtedly, such figures conjure up much pain. (I should note that years ago, I had sex with men, but deeply regretted my actions, and sought and received forgiveness and consolation through the Sacrament of Reconciliation). However, as Father Malone noted, General Sherman not only was indifferent to the plight of black slaves, but (unknown to me) both "endorsed" and took part in the killing of Navajo men, women and children, which may very well be worse than defending legal slavery. After all, while African -Americans were enslaved and often treated cruelly by their masters, unlike Native Americans, they usually weren't deliberately killed. Native Americans were forced from their tribal lands and often killed, and treated cruelly as mere subjects under the control of the government on dismal reservations. Perhaps the answer isn't to remove offensive statues from public display (after all, we have images of other detestable people in museums: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, and many others). I think the most reasonable and fair response may be to either place statues that are widely offensive into museums, or simply to leave them on public display with signs explaining the history behind the statues.

Vincent Gaglione
2 weeks 6 days ago

The statues controversy regarding Confederates revolves on one issue for me: fidelity to the United States of America. They supported treason and insurrection. They are part of the losing side in the Civil War. There is nothing about those behaviors that deserves recognition anywhere in the United Sates of America.

There is some kind of memorial to Robert E. Lee at West Point. I have no issue with that. It memorializes his service to the United States of America before the Civil War.

As for all the other reasons that people want to take down statues in public spaces, I disagree. Most statues, unlike the Confederates in some states, are not specifically erected to memorialize immoral and/or un-American behaviors, even though the honored might have thought, believed or sometimes acted as such.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 6 days ago

Vince
You might want to see the massive Confederate Memorial at Arlington , authorized by Congress , dedicated by Woodrow Wilson and paid for by the the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It is surrounded by graves of Confederate Soldiers. Presidents (including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama ) have sent wreaths each year on each Confederate Memorial Day and it is generally regarded as a symbol of post war healing. Do you propose to tear that down as well?

Ellen B
2 weeks 4 days ago

There is a difference between a memorial in a cemetery & a statue in the center of town. The statues in this area that have been removed have been moved to Confederate cemeteries or to civil war museums. There is no reason for the celebration of traitors in public parks, statues (that in Missouri anyway) were put up over the objections of Union veterans.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 4 days ago

Ellen
Your distinction does not hold water
Arlington is THE National Memorial to the Union Soldiers.
Union soldiers did indeed object to the erection of the Confederate Memorial. But almost 50 years after the war ended Congress acted to heal the divide. If the people closest to the real pain of that war could put it behind them, it is just astounding that 100 years later present day citizens like yourself would seek to reopen those wounds.
With that attitude you may soon find that all of the statues and memorials to the Union Generals are coming down when the Native Americans humiliated by those same generals in the Indian Wars seek to have them removed.
For contrast note that. In London there are memorials to George Washington......not in a cemetery but right up next to Trafalgar Square! And he is holding 13 fasces representing the 13 colonies that rebelled!

Ellen B
2 weeks 3 days ago

Arlington is indeed a national cemetery. However, Rebel & Union soldiers were buried there prior to it being named a cemetery, while the home was still owned by Robert E Lee. So it is appropriate that a Confederate Memorial be place there among the graves of the Rebel soldiers.

Your argument is that I will object to statues of people who participated in genocide will come down. I do not object. A statue is not history.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 2 days ago

Ellen
The Lee property was seized at the outset of the War because of its strategic position . It was designated byCongress as a Cemetary for the remains of the Union Soldiers brought back by survivors from the disaster at Bull Run.
When it was discovered that some Confederate Soldiers may have been subsequently mixed with the dead from later battles efforts were made to hide the fact and the decoration of all such graves was forbidden.

When in 1906 the Confederate Memorial was authorized a special area was set aside and all locatable Confederate burials were relocated to concentric circles at the center of which a 32ft bronze Memorial was placed. Prior to that time it was forbidden to decorate or tend to the graves of any known Confederate soldier. The act of Congress establishing the Confederate Memorial was a break with the tradition of ignoring or denigrating the accidental burial of Cinfederates. There was no need for Congress to permit the erection of the tallest Memorial at Arlington except as n act of healing and closing the book on the great divide.

As to your willingness to remove all the US Generals involved in Indian genocide, you can start with the Grant Tomb in NY as well as the great Gaudens' Sherman Statue. Look to Grants portarait being removed from the WhiteHouse as well, along with equestrian monument to Sheridan in Washington's Sheridan Circle. The Greatest Union Civil War heroes will be consigned to oblique by this mindless iconoclasm!

rose-ellen caminer
2 weeks 5 days ago

The Civil War is part of US history . The south was part of the US prior to the Civil War, and after the Civil War. Since their attempt at seceding failed they were always Americans, their failure also means. Therefore monuments to that war are American monuments to an American war; to American history. Slavery was not un Constitutional at the time of the civil war. The government could have outlawed slavery at any time; it could have kicked out any state that kept people enslaved. But it didn't. Many presidents owned slaves. The federal government passed a law mandating that escaped slaves had to be returned to their southern owners. This was not a southern law but US law. Slavery was therefore an American institution.
The north benefitted from the institution as much as the south did. Northern ship owners transported slaves to Cuba and Brazil after it was outlawed to do so to the US[1804]. Northern ship owners and traders also traded in ivory which was harvested from elephants by enslaved Africans in Africa.Every respectable middle class Bostonian and New Yorker had to have their piano .Even abolitionists who were ship owners and got rich off of this business, rationalized that since it was possible to get rich procuring ivory harvested by enslaved Africans into the US ,and transporting slaves to Cuba and Brazil, well it must be God's will; if you are rich you must be favored by God, is the Puritan northern capitalist mindset.
The Civil War was a Cain and Abel story; Puritan Northerners with their hyper capitalism, vs., the easy going laid back beaker full of the warm south joie de vivre southern mentality.[ for whites]. Northerners were white supremacists as much as southern plantation owners were. Removing Confederate statues is removing US history . General Lee was a west point graduate who was torn but chose loyalty to his state over the country. Like George Washington was a loyal to Virginia , not England. Much as today states will defy federal laws.
The South has become a scapegoat for what was the original sin of the US, comprising both North and South. Whether one owned slaves or didn't. More northerners got rich off of enslaved Africans then southerners ever did. The south was exploited by the north much as today the global south has been by the wealthy countries. Erasing history of a war that was an American war, is sanitizing the history of US including racism which both north and south were guilty of. That a civil rights movements and civil rights laws were needed for the north as much as for the south a hundred years after the civil war, is because this sin was pervasive.
Slavery was on its way out as most countries had already abolished slavery by the time of the Civil war. That the north fought to stop the south from seceding show that the north needed the south economically ,[ northern wealth was in large part due to exploitation of the south] and freeing the slaves was the result of the war, not the cause. Expansion of slavery into western lands and the abrogating of treaties was the cause.

Ellen B
2 weeks 4 days ago

The reason the South remains the "scapegoat" as you put it & the portion of your response that is patently wrong, the articles of Confederation ALL said that the reason they were seceding was slavery.

rose-ellen caminer
2 weeks 4 days ago

Slavery was always a moral issue in America and yes the north wanted to keep that institution going. However the Emancipation Proclamation was an edict made by a US president at the end of the war, after the South surrendered and agreed to stay in the Union. The emancipation of Africans could have been made at any point prior to the South's cessation.[Again, presidents owned slaves].The South did not secede as a result of the abolition of slavery by the US government, and the North did not war with the south to liberate slaves as they could have been liberated at any point prior to cessation and war. The north was financing southern plantations, enabling slaves owners to buy more slaves and enlarge their plantations . And even if they were not owning slaves by the time of the war, the North was complicit with the slave trade outside the US [see above post] and in the US [ivory].So white supremacism was part and parcel of America even at the time of the war,and after. An "underground" railroad was needed only because the law of the land required escaped slaves in the north to be returned to the south. Northerners were aiding and abetting the capture of escaped slaves. Only those, both northern and southern people ,who opposed slavery flouted this American law. So yes, the narrative of the pro slavery south vs the abolitionist north belies the reality that it was legal to own slaves according to US law and it was ILLEGAL to hide escaped slaves according to US law, And it belies the fact that both north and south whether abolitionist or not participated directly in white supremacism exploitation of Africans. White supremacism manifested itself in the manufacturing north even as it was the agricultural south that used slaves. The[ federal] government chose to not count an enslaved African as a person which was exploitative. So it IS scapegoating the South to have a narrative about the civil war that makes like the North warred to liberate slaves that the South illegally held.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 4 days ago

Ellen B
Read both the Provisional Constitution and the final Constitution of the Confederate States before you make such statements. The statement you attribute to those documents is inaccurate. Certainly many of the sponsors were so motivated but the documents do not make that statement.

Ellen B
2 weeks 3 days ago

Georgia - 2nd sentence - "...For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery." Mississippi - 2nd & 3rd sentence - "... Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.'" South Carolina "...But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution...." Texas - "...In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color-- a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law."

I could go on, but you get the idea and can look the others up for yourself.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 3 days ago

Ellen
You originally referenced the Confederate Constitution....you are now changing your references. I conceded the motive but disputed your source.
Your original source reference remains inaccurate. You are now apparently quoting the reasons various (uncited) parties gave for their joining the Confederacy. As noted I conceded that motive.
I still suggest you read the actual Confederate Constitution which leaves the issue of slavery to its member states and only prohibits the Confederate Congress from prohibiting slavery. You may recall that at the time of the secession the United States Constitution also left that issue to the States and the precipitating factor was the terms of admission of new States and territories....could they decide for themselves or would slavery be outlawed as a condition of admission.

Ellen B
2 weeks 2 days ago

I should have said articles of SUCCESSION not Confederation. You are correct that I made an error. It changes my argument not one whit. The bigger question is why do people believe mass manufactured statues are important? Why are statues that seem to honor more important than the insult they offer to a sizable portion of our population?

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 2 days ago

Ellen
It seems that it is a process of rediscovering insults long since laid to rest but revived for crass political purposes. The list of history's insults is incalculable and to revisit them is to halt all progress and reconciliation by tearing open healed wounds. But it seems these episodic revivals will now be the terrible new normal hiding under various rubrics such as "teachable moment".

John Walton
2 weeks 4 days ago

Thanks for writing this.

New York City removed the statue of J. Marion Sims, the "father of modern gynecology" from its perch on 5th Avenue. Sims was the inventor of a procedure to deal with a serious problem occurring in childbirth for African American women. The reason for the removal was that he "experimented on slaves". A respondent accredited from the American College of Gynecology Surgery responded to the removal, to wit. these women would surely have died without Sims intervention and that the procedures developed, are successfully used in Africa today.

Go figure, can one look into the heart, mind and soul 100 years later?

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 4 days ago

John
"Iconoclasm " it seems is a contagious disease.......perhaps even a communicable mental disease.

Looking Forward
1 week 6 days ago

The strange logic of this piece is confounding. No statue of an infamous figure should be taken down so long as a statue of another figure, infamous for other reasons, remains standing. The only solution, I take it, is to locate every statue of every infamous personage, count to three, and pull them all down at once.

Or, remove the statue of Lee because he was a traitor and a slaver. Then, if deemed desirable, take up the case of figures like Sherman.

Our first commandment cautions us against idolatry, citing graven images as particularly dangerous to our soul's well being. Examining our icons, even one at a time, seems a useful spiritual exercise.

Wilson Fujinaga
1 week 4 days ago

^ i like Looking Forwards' response

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