Viewpoints

Not all Civil War monuments are racist. Take this 1938 memorial in Gettysburg

On Nov. 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of a Civil War military cemetery. Painting by Fletcher Cransom.
On Nov. 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of a Civil War military cemetery. Painting by Fletcher Cransom. Fletcher Cransom

In 1938, the federal government paid the costs of 1,800 elderly veterans of the Civil War to travel to Gettysburg.

Reports from July 3, 1938, show that Pennsylvania Gov. George H. Earl and President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke to an audience the state police estimated at 250,000.

The occasion was the dedication of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial. The spirit was one of reconciliation. The invocation was delivered by a “Reb” and the benediction by a “Yank,” with the full proceedings broadcast on CBS Radio.

Roosevelt posed for pictures with veterans from both armies. The words of Earl and Roosevelt are worthy of our attention as we labor to reconcile our response to the symbolism of names and inanimate objects that cause discomfort.

Earl, whose ancestors fought on both sides at Gettysburg, said: “We are here to tell first ourselves, our states, our nation and the world that for 75 years, these men and their children and their children’s children have bound themselves together in the cause of peace.”

Roosevelt said: “Immortal deeds and immortal words have created here at Gettysburg a shrine of American patriotism. We are encompassed by ‘the last full measure of devotion’ of many men and by the words in which Abraham Lincoln expressed the simple faith for which they died. …

“Lincoln also understood that after such a decision, a democracy should seek peace through a new unity. For a democracy can keep alive only if the settlement of old difficulties clears the ground and transfers energies to face new responsibilities.

“Never can it have as much ability and purpose as it needs for that striving; the end of battle does not end the infinity of those needs. That is why Lincoln – commander of a people as well as of an army – asked that his battle end ‘with malice toward none, with charity for all.’ 

On that day, an elderly soldier from the North and one from the South removed the large American flag that draped the monument and lit its eternal flame.

The message on the monument reads: “An enduring light to guide us in unity and fellowship.”

Almost 80 years have passed since that final rendezvous of the Blue and the Gray. We are again reminded that history is difficult, complex and often ugly.

Slavery was a national disgrace brought to our shores by England, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Arab traders and others. Part of our nation never embraced slavery, and a horrendous civil war ended it “four score and seven years” after independence.

Thereafter, the matter of public Confederate memorials languished as a relatively obscure political issue for generations. The rioting and deaths in Charlottesville changed that. Predictably, elected officials are striking in all directions to demonstrate their new-found concerns.

A full range of voices are being heard, from the most sincere to craven political opportunists. Some feel such memorials are rallying points for hate groups.

They may be, but some also are worthy symbols of the sacrifice and ultimate reconciliation of the combatants, and of the country, from that civil war.

Whatever we choose to do about any memorial, let that decision be fully informed by history.

Steve Helsley is an author and historian living in El Dorado Hills, schmjh@pacbell.net.

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