Monument's rededication a civil dilemma

September 27, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SIX SCORE AND 13 years after the organized killing ceased, the Civil War and its lingering emotions return today to Howard County, where the Sons of Confederate Veterans intend to hold a memorial service honoring vanished men and vanished yesterdays, and maybe not-so-vanished values.

It isn't so easy to tell about the values.

The Confederate loyalists will rededicate a Civil War monument placed before the Howard County Courthouse half a century ago and claim it has nothing to do with favoring the enslavement of human beings, while those actually descended from the enslaved will generally find this an outrageous and painful reminder of America's historic racist instincts.

What's worse, the ceremony's being conducted with the official benediction of Charles Ecker, the moderate, reasonable Howard County executive who two weeks ago issued a proclamation endorsing the event -- and has since caught considerable criticism.

In his mind, Ecker said at week's end, this isn't about slavery, and it isn't even about the war itself. It's just about a time in history when young men marched off to perform what they imagined was their patriotic duty, and thus they ought to be remembered for such simple devotion.

"We can't forget history," Ecker said, sighing deeply. "The Civil War happened. Slavery was bad, no doubt about it. America stands for treating people fairly. I'd just like to see us bridge feelings on this."

Many will remember that we've been here before. A year ago, there was controversy over license plates with a Confederate flag logo. The Motor Vehicle Administration issued them to some of the 600 members of Maryland's chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, but then tried to rescind them after complaints of racism -- until a federal judge said the MVA was trying to violate free speech rights by pulling them out of circulation.

It's a fair legal point, but a heartless one. To those who believe slavery a vile institution, and to those whose family pain has been passed by word of mouth through the generations, the Confederate flag represents almost everything that a swastika does to those who find Hitler monstrous.

What's never been clear is why anyone -- federal judge or direct descendant of a Confederate soldier -- would tolerate inflicting so much emotional pain on people as to invoke its most lasting symbol, whether the excuse is free speech or honoring those who did their duty as they imagined it in a different, crueler time.

Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans disclaim any loyalty to slavery. The memorial service is described as a "social activity." All are welcome. It's not about hate, it's about heritage, we're informed.

It's hard to understand how heritage is defended in that spirit, since it's a heritage of slavery. But let's try. Let's turn to Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain," last year's National Book Award winner.

Frazier writes of the Confederate soldier Inman, in the dying days of the Civil War:

"He told her what was in his heart. The shame he felt now to think of his zeal in '61 to go off and fight the downtrodden mill workers of the federal army, men so ignorant it took many lessons to convince them to load their cartridges ball foremost. These were the foes, so numberless that not even their own government put much value to them. They just ran them at you for years on end, and there seemed no shortage. You could kill them down until you grew heartsick and they would still keep ranking up to march southward.

"He guessed the promise of [change] was what made up the war frenzy in the early days. The powerful draw of new faces, new places, new lives. And new laws whereunder you might kill all you wanted and not be jailed, but rather be decorated."

That's a piece of it, isn't it? It's young men caught up in a frenzy, and not stopping to figure out the details. Or going off to war because somebody ordered them to or their buddies have all signed up, and never figuring that they might not come back alive.

We've seen it in our own time. Germany honors its war dead -- but doesn't wave the dishonored swastika over their graves. Americans sent their sons off to Vietnam, many of them hating the war, and knowing much of the world hated us for fighting it. But we honor our own war dead because they faithfully did what their country asked -- or told -- them to do.

We can honor the human beingand the life that was cut short -- but we draw lines that seem to honor such a cause as slavery.

The Civil War was like every other war, in that old men sent young, impressionable, naive kids off to fight without necessarily knowing, or caring, what the fight was really about.

All right, honor such wasted lives. But honor those enslaved by the cruel laws, too, and pay tribute to their ancestors' pain by simply obliterating all Confederate symbols of that enslavement. And then we'll know that important distinctions have been made.

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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