The controversial plaque honoring Confederate soldiers on the courthouse in Charles Town should be removed not just because it is offensive to black citizens, but to all citizens, regardless of color, who see this plaque as an attempt to pretend that the Confederacy was a noble lost cause instead of an act of treason on the part of the leaders of the Confederacy.
The young soldiers, North and South, as is true of all wars, are the ones who carry out decisions made by those in political power. They fight the wars and they do the dying. This war, with more than 700,000 dead North and South, remains a major signpost in the history of this nation. It always will be.
A plaque that said something like “In honor of those soldiers who lost their lives, North and South, during the Civil War” would be a remembrance of war dead without taking sides. And please, let’s not try to slip in other names for the Civil War, like the War of Northern Aggression, or the War Between the States, which try to paper over the realities of this war.
For the United States to look forward rather than backwards, it is important for us to carefully examine and re-examine our history for its lessons. The Confederate states lost the war—a war fought to preserve slavery. Slavery was simply the single most important investment in the slave states. And it represented a culture and a society built on human bondage.
The leaders of the Confederacy went to war to protect a colossal business investment and way of life. The value of slaves as property and as laborers was going up dramatically in the 1850s. Slavery was profitable and getting more so dramatically. In 1860, the value of slaves was $3 billion dollars. This value represents more cash than existed in all the banks in the United States at the time. The transcontinental railroad, completed shortly after the Civil War, was the largest coast-to-coast infrastructure project ever undertaken, and it cost a mere $50 million.
We cannot pretend that there was another South that was not part of the Slavocracy. Even non-slave owners were part of this economy, with more than one-third of non-slave holding jobs drawing benefit from and being dependent on the slave economy. The eleven Confederate states had a black population that amounted to 40 percent of the total population, which was providing more than 50 percent of the agricultural labor and a good part of the industrial labor, like mining.
Any monument, plaque, or statue to confederate soldiers and their leaders that occupies public land or government buildings should be removed—not all at once, but after deliberation and an understanding of the truths we can find in history. We should strive to seek truth and fairness, and not perpetuate myths about lost causes. What is done on private property or in museums dedicated to understanding this conflict is another matter altogether.
I don’t want any artifact of history to be destroyed. But many need to be relegated to less prominent places. Remembering a loved one who died in war, any war, at any time, is perfectly appropriate. All wars are hellish and brutal, but contain individual acts of bravery and grace. But remembering bravery and sacrifice without remembering the reason for the war is to ignore historical truth and to make remembrance a political statement or a thinly veiled attempt to claim a noble heritage out of a war to preserve slavery. To remember only Confederate dead is to suggest that slavery was not an abhorrent evil.
— Ray Smock, Martinsburg
The writer is the former Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives and director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education at Shepherd University. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the views of the Byrd Center or Shepherd University.