The past is prologue

March 11, 2001|By Raymond Daniel Burke

WHERE HOWARD Street reaches its northern terminus, and the classical form of the Museum of Art dominates the place where Baltimore's streetscape turns park-like, there stand two colossal warriors from another time.

The impressive equestrian statue of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson re-create their last meeting on the eve of the battle of Chancellorsville, Va., in May 1863.

After the first day of what would ultimately be a stunning Confederate victory, Jackson was mistakenly wounded by Confederate pickets. His arm required immediate amputation, prompting Lee to lament that, while Jackson had lost his left arm, he had lost his right. Within days, Jackson was dead, leaving history to ponder what might had occurred two months later at Gettysburg had his considerable battlefield talents been available.

The site of the Baltimore depiction of these military legends stands in tranquil contrast to the horrors of the war in which they so famously fought and is incompatible with the clashes of philosophies the statues sometimes engender.

The site plays host to a Lee-Jackson birthday memorial ceremony every January that features Civil War re-enactors outfitted with meticulous historical accuracy. This display inevitably begets calls for an end to Confederate hero worship in the name of enlightened race relations.

Similar debates intermittently swirl about our region concerning other remembrances of our mixed past. One such source of division is the Confederate Monument on Mount Royal Avenue. Another is the statue, on the State House grounds in Annapolis, of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the Supreme Court's infamous Dred Scott decision, which held that slaves were property and not persons protected by the Constitution. Most notable, perhaps, is our state song, "Maryland! My Maryland!," the lyrics of which constitute an impassioned call for the state to "burst the tyrant's chain" and spurn "the Northern scum" by joining in secession.

In fact, the Confederacy, for all the charisma of its dashing officers and irrepressible devotion of its foot soldiers, sought independence in order to preserve a chattel slavery system that held African-Americans to be personal property simply because of their race. Although some assert that it was the fundamental dichotomy between state's rights and the power of the federal government that was at issue, slavery was the specific state right that the rebellion sought to perpetuate. That is not a denotation to celebrate.

But before we condemn these memorials as relics of a past of which we ought to be ashamed, we should consider why they are here and what message they offer today.

Baltimore has a remarkably unique Civil War story. It is alone as a large and thriving eastern city that is part Northern, part Southern but still different from North or South. It was torn by our tragic national conflict in a way not experienced elsewhere. Families and neighbors had sons who fought, were wounded or died on both sides. The division ended prosperous business relationships and longtime friendships. Baltimore would never be the same and, in many ways, its suffering epitomizes the agony of our country from four wrenching years of death and dismemberment wrought by Americans at war with each other.

It can be said that the first blood of the war spilled in anger fell on Pratt Street on April 19, 1861, just days after the fall of Fort Sumter, where the only casualties had been accidental. The Sixth Massachusetts Infantry, headed for the defense of Washington, was attacked by a mob as it tried to make its way from the President Street train station to the one at Camden Street. Three soldiers and 12 civilians died. It can also be said that the last act of violence received closure here with the burial of John Wilkes Booth at Greenmount Cemetery.

But there has not been closure with regard to our nation's and our city's wounds.

This is the lesson to be learned from the monuments. They speak to us, not only of our history, but also of how our predecessors chose to honor the past. Those choices are themselves historic documentation of our heredity as a people.

The past glorification of what we may find repugnant is a window into our public soul. The continued honor bestowed by some on what others find offensive is a constant reminder that the work of healing our divisions is a never-ending one.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a partner in the Baltimore law firm of Freishtat & Sandler.

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