Once, there was a war. In the midst of this war, there was a boy. The boy’s father, a merchant, had moved his family from their home in a now occupied city to a town behind enemy lines. Due to his age, the boy was able to obtain passes which, along with papers attesting to his being below the required age for enlistment, enabled him to travel to the occupied city to conduct business for his father (in most wars in human history, both sides required local merchants with connections.) The boy arrived on Christmas Eve, and though he planned to finish and depart in two days, the merriment of the season and charms of at least one of the young ladies of the city induced him to stay an extra night to attend a party.
Upon leaving the city the next day, a sentry of the occupying army inspected the boy’s pass and, given that the boy was leaving occupied territory and would have no more need of it, tore up the pass but otherwise allowed the boy to go on unmolested. A short while later another sentry stopped the boy because, as the sentry later said, the boy was traveling at a “suspicious angle” which made it appear the boy was headed for enemy territory. This was perfectly true, but now without the pass, the boy could not prove that he had permission to do so, and he was detained and taken back to the city under guard.
When questioned later by an officer the boy freely turned over a memo book which was found to contain, written in Morse code, information on the disposition of troops and defensive fortifications in the occupied city. Also found on his person: his line pass from the enemy army, his proof of age papers, a packet of letters from a number of young ladies in the city to his two sisters, and two locks of braided hair. One of the letters was found to contain the supposedly incriminating line “I shall be anxious to hear how Davie got through.”
A little over a week later, on January 8, 1864, David O. Dodd was hanged as a spy by the United States Army in front of St. John’s Masonic College in Little Rock, Arkansas. He had been tried and found guilty by a military commission, despite his not guilty plea and offer to take the oath of allegiance to the Union in exchange for pardon which Abraham Lincoln had offered just a month earlier to all Confederates, excluding only officers and government officials. The commission ruled that the offer did not apply to spies, and after a six-day trial sentenced Dodd to hang. On that cold January afternoon, as Dodd stood awaiting the noose, the executioner realized he had forgotten a blindfold. Dodd, pale but calm, was reported to have said softly, “you will find a handkerchief in my coat.” *
This story is important in the context of current political events for the simple reason that the Civil War is the one historical event that is allowed no “nuance” in public discussion: the Confederate states seceded illegally, and they all fought to preserve a despicable and uniquely Southern institution, period. Furthermore, anyone not immediately on board with, at the very least, moving all Confederate monuments to museums must harbor some hidden racist feelings. Why else but racism would anyone not consider all memorials to “traitors” as something that should be removed?
If nuance is important in other issues, surely it is important in discussing the defining conflict of our nation. Surely it matters that there are more monuments in the state of Arkansas memorializing David O. Dodd (despite his being a Texan by birth) than to not only any other Confederate but to any person associated with any war from Arkansas, which include Douglas MacArthur and Brigadier General William O. Darby? Surely it is understandable why some citizens of a state which simultaneously approved a convention of secession and sent more anti-secession delegates to it by a wide margin; who immediately elected an anti-secessionist as the convention president; whose elected representatives only voted to secede after President Lincoln demanded Arkansas troops be sent to fight the already-seceded Atlantic states and was refused by the Governor, a governor who would actually later threaten secession from the Confederacy over conscriptions; whose legislature was threatened with military retaliation on the one hand and economic retaliation on the other...surely it is understandable why some of these citizens might look unkindly on all of their ancestors being painted as men who only cared about slavery, that evil institution. Surely one can recognize that, for at least some of them, the issue is no more complicated than outside forces once again telling them what to do.
The answer would seem to be a resounding “no,” it does not matter. A century and a half is a lot of propaganda to wade through from both sides. History is usually ugly and unpleasant, because human beings are usually ugly and unpleasant, at least some of the time. One person says the war was fought over slavery, to which another retorts, yes, but due to electoral politics and not some moral desire to make slaves full and equal citizens, and the truth is that both are correct. The nation’s sin is much easier to address if secession is just declared (illogically) impermissible, and the winners can sweep their own culpability for the sin under the rug by pointing to the dead as the price they paid for absolution, and to the enemy dead as just the beginning of their penance. It is much more palatable to believe six hundred thousand died for a noble cause than it is to consider it was really about a pissing match between monied interests on both sides combined with one man’s desire not to be the man who lost the Union.
The story of David O. Dodd is ultimately not one of secession or slavery, of heroism or virtue. It is, in the end, a story about what lengths men and the governments made by men will go to when they believe their cause is just: the belief that hanging a 17-year-old boy, guilty of communicating a probably inconsequential message on the placement of a small number of troops and artillery (which he may have done merely as a favor to a friend, or for the affection of a girl), when all that is necessary to save his life is to administer an oath which he has made clear he will take, is the right and just decision is proof that even in the service of justice men can become monsters. To say that’s just the nature of war, or that Dodd was a spy for “traitors”...well, tyrants will always find a justification for their tyranny.
The case to remove monuments to government officials of the Confederate States of America seems reasonable, given the fact that the Confederate government did expressly defend the institution of slavery (although the failure to teach the true history of these men, such as that Jefferson Davis graduated from West Point, fought for his country in both the Black Hawk War and the Mexican-American War, served in both the U.S. House and Senate, was United States Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce, and counseled against secession up until he received word that Mississippi had seceded, seems like a concerted effort to obfuscate any possible nuance to the issue of secession.) But the desire to remove monuments to soldiers, to the war itself...well, that smacks of an effort mainly to render illegitimate any belief that states are sovereign, and that siding with your state against Washington D.C. could be a choice made by brave and honorable men. It is largely of a piece with the belief pushed for 150 years that secession was and is treasonous: if the southern states had no legitimate, Constitutional right to secede (if the “Course of human events [when] it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another” was just a historical one-off) then everything done to keep the Union together was wholly justified. If the VMI boys at New Market were traitors, then they cannot be heroes, and the last thing you want a conquered people to retain is its heroes.
There is no doubt that many Confederate memorials were erected not to honor but to intimidate. It must also be remembered that 1911 marked the 50th anniversary of the start of the war, and there still were veterans living, and that Reconstruction had left the South relatively bereft of funds for things like statues, so not every memorial or statue erected in that time frame can be assumed to have been for the latter purpose. The way to honor the dead on both sides, and more importantly to ensure the survival of the system of government their grandfathers and great grandfathers fought their own war to institute on this earth, and most importantly to continue to ensure that all men regardless of race have their say in how they are governed (the insinuation that the ancestors of slaves don’t deserve the right and the chance to vote the statues into museums should be seen as insulting), is to recognize that these issues should be decided only by citizens of the state or locality where the monument in question resides, and not the federal government or outside protesters or rabble rousers of any political stripe. Only in this way is justice truly served. And your fellow Americans, left to their own devices, might just surprise you.
*There is a lot of conjecture, rumor, and Apocrypha in many of the writings on Dodd. To avoid charges of cherry-picking from those that might have a pro-Southern slant I have included only the bare-bones facts, which all appear in one way or another in this post at the New York freaking Times.
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