Contributed by Columnist Dirk Ellingson
For the past several decades if you knew where to look, cars driving into Minden from the west were greeted by a modest statue honoring an anonymous Confederate soldier. This summer, he became a casualty of war.
His lifespan was nearer the average of a human being from our day than his. Yet I’m not sure we can officially post his 1933-2020 obituary. The impetus for his removal was not that he was offensive but rather he was in danger. Is he coming back when tempers have cooled? I am not sure whether to celebrate outcomes or judge motives.
I read in the June 30 Minden Press-Herald that the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy “didn’t decide to remove the statue due to it potentially being offensive to over half of Minden’s local population. Rather, it was to prevent the possibility of malicious vandalism to the monument. They stated the statue will be held in safekeeping until it can be located to a final safe resting place.”
Three elements of the preceding paragraph make me scratch my head. First, there’s a club celebrating the Civil War team espousing slavery? Second, the calculation of over half of Minden’s local population being offended. Is that referring to African Americans? I think there are enough European Americans here too (although don’t ask me to provide a long list) who are also offended. Third, the reason to take down the soldier boy is for his own safety? Not because he’s a symbol of divisive racism?
That reads like disapproval from a northern liberal. Yankee condescension. An agitator. The truth is I’ve yet to work out my position on Confederate soldier statues. I think about it often but can’t emerge from the spiral of analysis. My column about our little soldier statue last year was a sprawling Freudian guess at the motives of an anonymous Rebel representative of countless Confederate soldiers. Unlike Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, he likely wasn’t a real guy. He also probably wasn’t a slaveholder. Not because he harbored moral objections. He was too poor to afford slaves.
I don’t believe in a divine scorekeeper itemizing our faults, but something in me attributes evil intent to some more than others. I can’t provide an empirical scale of measure. I just feel Confederate leaders were more villainous than teen recruits. I can’t prove it and none we are judging remain to explain themselves. I hear arguments for something noble in the cause of secession. But I can’t get over the horror of slavery.
I try to get a handle on people’s views by making a parallel query on passionate subjects. When someone expresses a strong view on Confederate soldier statues, I turn to baseball and ask, “Do you think Pete Rose should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame?”
Rose accumulated more hits than any player. He is denied admission to Cooperstown because he gambled on games. Most likely side wagers and not bets on big contests he played in or coached. Nothing like the 1919 Chicago White Sox, in cahoots with gamblers, deliberately playing poorly in the World Series. It forever left the institution of baseball super sensitive to any peccadillo of wagering.
Sin is subjective but there seems something more unsavory about the man whose hit total Rose eclipsed. Ty Cobb, the reputed rabid racist, was a charter member of the Hall of Fame. In 1907, Cobb supposedly beat up Bungy Cummings, a black groundskeeper he’d known for years. When Mrs. Cummings tried to defend her husband, Cobb reportedly choked her. In 1912, Cobb attacked a serial heckler named Claude Lucker by climbing in the stands and beating him. The handicapped Lucker was missing one hand and three fingers from his other. Cobb was a great hitter but he didn’t seem like a nice guy.
Cobb resented Babe Ruth changing the game from runs produced by singles and steals to prodigious homers. He retaliated with racist remarks about the contours of Ruth’s nose.
Much of Cobb’s legacy is based on a virulent ghostwritten autobiography finished around the time of his death and the Tommy Lee Jones film portrayal three decades later. There’s a more recent biography I need to read, Charles Leerhsen’s Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty. The 2015 book questions much of Cobb’s reputation for racism. A Georgian with some antebellum ancestry opposed to slavery? A major leaguer supportive of integration in baseball and lavish in his compliments of African American players Roy Campanella and Willie Mays? I guess I don’t know as much about Ty Cobb as I thought I did.
Only Rose and Cobb accumulated more than 4,000 hits. I think both belong in the Hall of Fame, warts and all. Outside of Christy Mathewson “The Christian Gentleman” you can likely discover dirt on most players enshrined in Cooperstown.
Tributes to slaveholders are trickier and the scrutiny extends long before the Civil War. Early U.S. Presidents not named Adams owned slaves. Graven images galore of our slaveholding national leaders remain and not just in the south. They adorn our coin and currency.
Plaques providing historical context are one solution. That’s what Jackson County, Missouri intends to place alongside its Andrew Jackson statues. I’ve friends up north who say that’s not good enough and the county needs a new name. Why not Truman County after its most famous citizen? Of course, President Harry Truman was a great admirer of President Andrew Jackson. Truman commissioned those statues back when he was a judge.
Plaque wording would be another fight. Is that a laundry list of statue inspiration’s ethical shortcomings? Or a soft sell of their life and times and what everyone was doing? What about Jackson Square in New Orleans? What about (Thomas) Jefferson City, the capital of Missouri?
The conclusion of the national press statement from The United Daughters of the Confederacy states, “Join us in denouncing hate groups and affirming that Confederate memorial statues and monuments are part of our shared American history and should remain in place.” I’d end that sentence with “remain” as the statues, perhaps undeserving of destruction, need to find a new place. They warrant less a position of honor than a site for study.
Answers are not easy for colossal sculptures like Georgia Stone Mountain or Mount Rushmore, but I think there’s a simple solution for Minden’s soldier on the lam. Put him in the Dorcheat Historical Museum. He was a part of the Minden landscape for 87 years. I never met John Agan but I believe it’s what the Webster Parish historian would have wanted.