The Thundering Curmudgeon

Statues and understanding history


By Charles Winslow

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Standing silently on its granite base, as it has for well over 100 years, is the weathered statue of a great Civil War leader sitting atop his horse, the steed rearing up as if ready to rejoin a battle fought long ago. This figure led his troops through the darkest days of that bloody conflict and inspired his men to fight on when defeat was all but certain.

To the foes he vanquished, he was seen as the devil incarnate and despised. For those he fought for, and the soldiers he commanded, he was a hero worthy of commemoration and a grateful state erected the statue as a small token of its appreciation. And there it will stay, as it should, an inspiration to future generations to make a determined stand and persevere when they believe their cause is right and just.

The statue is not of Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Longstreet or any other Confederate soldier. The monument, standing in front of the New York State Capitol in Albany, is that of US General Philip Sheridan.

As a Civil War leader, Sheridan largely-and rightly- deserves credit for the ultimate Union victory and the defeat of “the Southern Cause.” It was through his leadership that the Shenadoah Valley fell and his cavalry later forced the surrender of Lee at Appomattox.

As a man, however, Sheridan was far less of a heroic figure and was, like all heroes, deeply flawed. He was quarrelsome, tended to be dictatorial and single minded, and according to Abraham Lincoln, was “a brown chunky little chap, with a long body, short legs and not enough neck to hang him.”

But, instead of focusing on all of his many flaws, the state of New York chose to honor “Little Phil” and his contribution to the Union war effort and his dedication to service.

Recently, and primarily in the South, there has been a movement to eliminate reminders of the Confederacy and anything else that may offend the delicate 21st Century sensibilities of some people. Instead of trying to understand history in its context they want to eliminate it and pretend as thought it never happened. This shallow, simplistic and intellectually dishonest approach is wrong and will ultimately diminish us all.

We are a nation with a very complex and rich heritage. It is that shared fabric of history, the good, the bad and the ugly, that makes us whole, brings us together and makes us mature as a people.

The attempts to shred part of our shared past, of which Lee, Sheridan and the Civil War are parts of, cheapens the progress that we have made since slavery was finally ended.

If these vandals of history are successful would future generations look back and understand the historical impact of Dr Martin Luther King’s “I had a dream” speech? Would our children and grandchildren be as inspired to work towards a better future if the reminders of our past are gone?

There is another point to made in this discussion. If the Confederate monuments were simply about glorifying slavery and promoting racism then they should all be pulled down, busted into little chunks and thrown into the nearest river. But history is never that simple.

It is easy for us to look back some 160 years and, through the filters of our own modern beliefs, say that one side fought to keep human beings in slavery while the other went to war to end this repulsive institution. But that would also be over-simplifying the complex causes of the conflict.

Not everyone who fought for the Union did so to free the slaves, and not everyone who fought for the Confederacy did so to keep them.

Men on both sides fought valiantly for what they believed in, as well as their homes and families. We should honor what was noble in their character and sacrifice and we can do so while still taking issue with the greater issues. We should cherish and embrace our shared history, not bury it.

Several years ago I had an American History professor assign a highly subjective essay to our class for the mid-term grade. Instead of the usual exam, which I could ace in my sleep, we were given a week to produce a scholarly work, complete with citations, on the topic of ‘why do we study history.’

At the time, I figured that one of my classmates had probably angered Dr Shanley and assigning an essay, where the good professor could grade our opinions, was his retribution. Now, finally- and thanks to the non-sense over Confederate statues- I finally understand.

We study history to understand ourselves. That part is simple.

Charles Winslow is a prominent hotel owner and newspaper publisher from Sistersville, W.Va.