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The case for honoring yet another white, Virginia-born Civil War general on Monument Avenue.


A lawyer friend — a conscientious liberal — recently launched a campaign to remove the statue of a Confederate infantryman that guards the courthouse in Loudoun County. His concern is that some of his clients feel intimidated by the presence of that statue outside a courthouse in which they're about to face trial.

While I have the greatest respect for my friend, I cannot bring myself to support his crusade, nor to feel much sympathy for a client who's such a quivering mass of jelly.

The Confederate soldier in question is, after all, merely a chunk of stone. Fifty years ago, all across the South, brave men and women walked past such lifeless monuments on the way to face living white judges and all-white juries whose daddies and granddaddies had been actual Confederate soldiers, and who were absolutely determined to re-create the Old South in the middle of the 20th century.

We've come a great long way, as even the most timorous defendant must acknowledge.

Besides, a weathered old statue of a Confederate soldier — an infantry grunt, at that — hardly is a symbol of racism. It's primarily a commemoration of courage and self-sacrifice, as all soldiers' memorials should be.

Admire their cause or deplore it, the millions of men (and more than a few women) who wore gray or blue mostly fought for what real soldiers fight for: their comrades-in-arms and their homes. The politicians of the time are another matter. Most of the men, North and South, who made the Civil War inevitable were too old — or thought themselves too important — to risk their own lives on the battlefield.

My friend's campaign reflects the troublesome, nostalgic tendency which tends to prevail among today's liberals. They love wallowing in imagined guilt for past injustices in which they played no part, or glorying in such long-ago struggles as the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. They long for the good old days, and for issues which seem, in retrospect, clear-cut.

Nostalgic liberalism is so much easier than shouldering the tougher task of bringing progressive values to bear on modern challenges, such as building a system that provides every child an education that isn't just equal, but also of high quality. Or reining in corporate hegemony over every aspect of our political system. Or taking serious action about the gathering storm of global climate change.

My friend's campaign against the old Confederate statue seems to me a classic case of this type of evasion — and a waste of time.

That said, as we've just celebrated Independence Day — and the sesquicentennials of the Battle of Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg — the Civil War will be on many minds.

So instead of pulling down a statue, how about putting one up?

For some years now, since reading a biography of the man, I've wished to see a new equestrian statue on Monument Avenue, honoring yet another white, Virginia-born general who rose to prominence during the Civil War.

Indeed, some serious military historians rank him as the best of an outstanding generation of battlefield commanders. His name was George H. Thomas. His troops called him Pap. Admirers dubbed him the Rock of Chickamauga.

Civil War buffs immediately will recognize the potential symbolism of adding Thomas to Monument Avenue's ranks. A native of Virginia's Southampton County and the son of a slave-holding family, Thomas fought for the Union.

In 1861, Thomas, an active-duty officer since graduating from West Point, faced the same choice that confronted his good friend and professional colleague, Robert E. Lee.

But Thomas chose differently. He honored the oath he'd taken upon joining the U.S. Army. Enduring the suspicion of his fellow Union officers — to say nothing of the icy silence of his family, which disavowed him — Thomas stolidly performed whatever duty was assigned him.

In January 1862, he won the Union's first major battlefield victory, at Mill Springs, Ky. His 1863 stand at Chickamauga, where his commander fled the field, won Thomas fame, a nickname and promotion to the command of the Army of the Cumberland. Late in the war, his victory at Nashville destroyed the army of General John B. Hood, removing it permanently from the board.

Unlike other Union commanders, Thomas preferred to spare the lives of his troops. Through careful preparation, outstanding logistical planning and brilliant maneuvers, he won victories without unnecessarily sacrificing lives. This characteristic often is put forward to explain his chilly relations with his overall commander, Ulysses S. Grant, who showed no such concern.

I admit that the idea of putting a Union general on Monument Avenue is a strange fancy. But if old-school liberals must devote time to symbolic gestures, erecting a statue to Thomas is a far better cause than dishonoring an anonymous Confederate footslogger standing outside a courthouse.

Besides, it would — in a tiny way, at least — deal with something relevant. Replacing a set of traffic lights with a new circle would make a small contribution to an important, and highly contemporary, cause: reducing our profligate use of fossil fuels.

Thrifty Pap Thomas surely would approve. S


'Rick Gray is a former high-school history teacher. He writes a column for the Village News in Chester and blogs at Gray's Gazette and the Shadow Governor.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.



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