When I was a boy, when I was very interested in the Civil War. I can’t say why, exactly, but at that time, it was an easy interest to feed. The centennial of the war had begun, and there was a constant flow of features in newspapers and magazines, .shows on television, and movies, and toy gun and toy soldiers and trading cards with gaudy, blood-splashed illustrations of battle carnage. My parents indulged my interest; we lived in Baltimore, and on many Sundays, we went on day trips to pretty nearly anyplace that had a cannon and a plaque: We visited Gettysburg, Antietam, Bull Run, Harper’s Ferry and Fredericksburg more than once. And certainly not for any influence from my parents or family or teachers, I was a fan—that’s the only word that works—of the rebels.
As best as I can discern, I attribute that attraction, in part, to art. In particular, two pieces of art.
One is a painting that appeared in Life magazine. The issue that appeared on January 6, 1961 was dedicated to the centennial, and one of the features was a portfolio of pantings and illustrations executed by contemporary artists of impressive moments in the war. Several paintings really made an impression on me, including a painting depicting the battle of New Market in 1864. For having looked at the painting a million times, it’s a shame that I do not know the artist. IN that battle, cadets from the Virginia Military Academy took the field and defeated the Yankee forces. Although I’m sure I could not have articulated my reasons at the time, I was strongly drawn to the painting. Now the reasons are easier to identify: the heroic flag bearer, the determined boys to his left and right with bayonet and sword, and the cackling triumphant ecstasy of the laughing boy with the bandaged head and unbuttoned blouse. In a war filled with beards, I’m sure their youth wordlessly appealed to my eight year old self.
The other piece of art is a monument to Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
In Baltimore, there is a large park, called Wyman Park. It’s not literally in the physical center of town, but it does occupy a place of prestige; it sits amid a pretty brownstone neighborhood, and along its border sits such institutions as Johns Hopkins University, Union Memorial Hospital, and the Baltimore Museum of Art. In that park sat (until last week) a large impressive statue of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on horseback. Double equestrian statues are uncommon, and this one, sculpted by Laura Gardin Fraser, is really quite brilliant. It captures Lee and Jackson on the eve of the battle of Chancellorsville, their greatest triumph. Fraser did a great job depicting the generals’ roles: Lee is still, solid, calm, implacable, unyielding; Jackson is in motion, the thunderbolt ready to strike. Often when we had to venture to downtown Baltimore, my father would make it a point to drive along one edge of Wyman Park, so that we could pass the large, dramatic statue. Even before I really knew anything about the battle or the stakes, I knew those men must have done something heroic.
My emotional attraction for that statue has never entirely disappeared; I suppose it is some kind of learned response, but in later years I would always feel a frisson of excitement on those rare moments when I would see it. My feelings about Lee and Jackson, however, changed dramatically. Long ago I stopped viewing them as a heroes.
Both of these men had admirable qualities. Lee, dignified, dutiful, aristocratic, was a strong commander who took chances and delivered victories. As the confederacy’s fortunes ebbed, Lee became the essential man on whom the Confederacy’s viability depended. Long after the defeats mounted and the civilian authorities lost credibility, Lee’s integrity held the army together, and by 1864, the army was the confederacy. Jackson, too, inspired the south; a deeply religious Christian and dedicated family men, he used daring tactics to win improbable victories. At home and at war, he became a reflection of the way the south saw itself– gritty, unconquerable, blessed by God. But even as generals, the men were not perfect. Jackson did not perform well in the battles on the Peninsula, nor at Antietam. And long before ordering the disastrous charge at Gettysburg, Lee showed a penchant for frontal attacks which bled his men. After the war, both figured prominently in “what if. . ?” scenarios that envision paths to an eventual Confederate victory. It is nonsense. There was no chance of a different outcome. The South never had a chance to win the war, and the best efforts of Lee and Jackson only fed the fantasy that victory was possible. And on top of everything–and at the root of everything–they served an immoral cause and a dishonorable regime.
I never questioned why the statues were standing in Wyman Park. Baltimore long had the reputation as a northern city in a southern state, and that seems to be true. Certainly southern Maryland was always very southern. During the war itself, slavery was legal in Maryland, but there were more free blacks in Baltimore than slaves. And despite pro-souther sentiments, Maryland did not quite succeed in seceding. About 30,000 Maryland fought for the south; more than twice that number remained pro-union. The funds for the sculpture came from J. Henry Ferguson, the banker who organized the Colonial Trust Company. In his will, he left specific instructions for a monument to Lee and Jackson, his childhood heroes, which was gifted to the City of Baltimore. Ferguson died in 1928. Fraser began work on the sculpture in 1936; it was dedicated in 1948.
I don’t know enough about Ferguson to doubt his stated motives, nor to gauge his feelings about race or integration. But it is true that the statue’s commission and dedication coincides with a period when many confederate statues were erected throughout the United Stated, and particularly in the south. This sentiment, moreover, coincided with efforts to deny black aspirations and progress, and to support the cause of white supremacy.
In 2016, a plaque was placed in front of the statues which sought to provide some context. It pointed out that during the same period that this monument was installed, Baltimore City continued to enforce racial segregation housing ordinances and deed covenants, continued to support segregation policies in public spaces and programs, and unequally funded African American school budgets, infrastructure improvements, and public programs.
On August 16th, the statues were removed.
Long ago, St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians. “When I was a child,” he wrote, “I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put aside childish things.”
And so goodbye to childish things. Good riddance.