RONALD MAXWELL says Americans should treat their contested past with imaginative sympathy
A speech delivered 7 June 2009 at the annual commemoration of the Confederate Monument in Arlington National Cemetery
Greetings. I am humbled when I see the list of former speakers for this event: the great Civil War historian James I. Robertson, former Secretary of the Navy and current Senator from the Commonwealth of Virginia, Jim Webb, former National Park Service chief historian and revered doyen of Civil War battlefield guides, Ed Bearrs. Following in his footsteps, on a hot and humid day at Wilson’s Creek in Missouri as I did a few years back, doesn’t mean I can fill his shoes today.
The history of America is a history of liberation.
Liberation from the dark superstitions of the Salem witch hunts, from ignorance about the native peoples who inhabited this continent before the 17th century, liberation from a domineering and oppressive parent country an ocean away, liberation from the religious wars of Europe by codifying in law the separation of church and state, liberation from hereditary power, from aristocratic noblesse oblige, from arbitrary justice and unchecked political power.
The history of America is a history of liberation.
In the 19th century the work of liberation would continue, slowly, falteringly, but steadily. Before slavery could be ended by law a transformation of the hearts and minds of Americans had to take place. Mammon is a heavy shackle on the soul. When profits are fused with prejudice change is even harder to accomplish. It is argued that the liberation of America from the nightmare of slavery would have happened in time, as it did throughout the rest of the Western Hemisphere, without a savage Civil War. Alternate histories and speculations of paths not taken are of endless interest, but the facts of history cannot be undone. We did have a brutal Civil War. And the work of liberation continued.
Even with a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution protecting the rights of the individual more securely than in any other society, by the last third of the 19th century half of the population, at least in the law, were viewed as 2nd class citizens. It took another liberation movement, led by the Suffragettes, to secure women their rightful place among a free people.
The history of America is a history of liberation.
Pre-dating the American Revolution, the Enlightenment had created a new and initially limited space for intellectual scepticism and inquiry that would lead in time to the great scientific discoveries of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Founders of the great American experiment in self-government were students of the social philosophers and natural scientists of their time. They designed a society that would enable innovation, invention and scientific inquiry. Dogma, the heavy blinders of ignorance, would yield, decade by decade, to the advance of knowledge — or, to put it another way, the liberation of the mind.
No one was prescient enough to anticipate the extent of the horrors of the 20th century. While Americans wrestled with the lingering, festering vestiges of racism, with the repeal of Jim Crow laws and the eventual implementation of integration and Civil Rights, Europe and Asia fell under the seductive spell of the totalitarian impulse — as Nazism and Communism both sought to dominate mankind, to usher in a new dark age of a thousand year Reich or a New Soviet man. Our work of liberation continued. It was hard fought and hard won.
The price of liberty
We stand in the middle of a cemetery where thousands of graves give mute testimony to the price of liberty — for ourselves and for others. These graves stand as monuments not just to the slain — but to remind us of a world that could have been, but for their sacrifice. A world of oppression, a world of ignorance, a world of conformity. One need only look at the images from Pyong Yang in North Korea — the regimented masses offering homage to their supreme leader — to catch a glimpse of the prison camp that could have been our destiny as well.
The work of liberation is not done. Perhaps it is a work that can never end, because as long as there is unjustified prejudice in the human heart society must fashion laws to protect and to defend the vulnerable, the weak, the different or the unpopular. No person can be a second class citizen in America.
The history of America is a history of liberation.
A Nation of Firsts
Perhaps because we are, by world standards, a young country, we pride ourselves with firsts. Daniel Boone crossing the Alleghenies. Lewis and Clark venturing to the Pacific-Northwest, the first man on the moon. This year we are celebrating the first African-American president. Agree or disagree with his policies, one must be amazed and impressed, not just by Barack Obama’s individual qualities and personal story, but by America’s story.
Nearly 150 years ago, this nation was torn apart in an apocalyptic orgy of violence that endured for more than four years, costing more than a half million lives, maiming and crippling many more and laying waste to half the country. Anyone who still thinks violence is a means to redress a grievance hasn’t studied the American Civil War.
There is no way that words alone can begin to convey the suffering of that generation. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I made my two movies, Gettysburg and Gods & Generals. To try to bring that time alive for us and for our children.
Reviving our history
Writing a screenplay on an historical subject requires months, yes even years of research before even a word of a screenplay can be written. How could I, or anyone, write dialogue for Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, for Robert E. Lee or Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson without spending hour upon hour listening to their own voices in their own time? But how can we know what Jackson said or thought, how he spoke or what was in his heart?
As a filmmaker I have to get as close to these men and women as is humanly possible. I have to make the effort. There are no shortcuts. It must be total immersion. Not just in the record of their own words, written themselves or reported by others, but also of the journalistic accounts of the time, the letters and diaries of those in their immediate circle and the literature they read. It’s from the literature of contemporary authors, whether it be Harriet Beecher Stowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Mary Johnston or Sidney Lanier that we catch a flavor of how people actually spoke, the vocabulary they used, the sense of metaphor, of colloquialism, accent or regional flavor.
At some point, and every writer finds this place on his or her own, you gain the confidence to begin writing. It’s as if Lee and Jackson, Chamberlain and Hancock are now, somehow, in the room with you. It’s as if you are now listening to what they have to say and just recording their words as someone taking dictation. This is why there is no room for generational judgment or propaganda in filmmaking. I’m not interested in it. Audiences are not interested in it and our posterity will dismiss and discredit any filmmaker who does it.
Why the South fought
This is how I came to know, through the study of their own words, both written and reported by contemporaries and can say without any hesitation, that Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson were in their own hearts and minds fighting in a war for liberty, or as they themselves called it, a second War of Independence. To fail to understand this or to refuse to understand this is to fundamentally fail to understand the American Civil War.
Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson were in their own hearts and minds fighting in a war for liberty
I’m not saying this out of some misguided notion that we have to feel good about our ancestors or in keeping with 19th century imperatives for reconciliation or to indulge in the futile exercise of trying to justify the present by the past or the past by the present. We can be justifiably appalled at both crimes of commission as well as crimes of omission perpetrated by every generation before and including our own.
As a citizen and as a filmmaker I have no interest in putting anyone on a pedestal or turning anyone into a saint. There simply ain’t no such thing on earth. I am, however, very interested in getting at that elusive thing we call the truth. For two reasons, because it’s important to try, or else why study history at all? And because the closer you get to the truth the more dramatic and exciting it is!
A second War of Independence? Or a war for slavery?
Imagine for a moment the irony, the contradiction. Here you have two iconic figures of American History, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, risking their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honour to defend the independence of a new Southern nation called the Confederate States of America. In their eyes they see Federal armies, more than one, marching across the Mason-Dixon Line into their sovereign state of Virginia to suppress their independence, arrest their leaders and forcibly keep them in the polity of the United States.
But here’s the rub. Although both men are individually opposed to slavery and see in the institution a great moral wrong, they are fighting for a government that seeks to continue the institution into the future and possibly into other territories to the west. From our perspective almost a century and a half later, this contradiction makes the fierce intensity of their courage and the steadfast dedication to their cause all the more difficult to understand.
We must talk about the past
In the spirit of the characters who populated my films I gave the question to Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who in Gods & Generals has this conversation with his brother Tom. The scene is the Federal encampment at Stoneman’s Switch, February 1863. Chamberlain motions across the empty vastness across the Rappahannock River to the south.
Somewhere out there is the Confederate Army. They claim they are fighting for their independence, for their freedom. I cannot question their integrity. I believe they are wrong, but I cannot question it. But I do question a system that defends its own freedom while it denies it to others — to an entire race of men. I will admit it, Tom – war is a scourge. But so is slavery. It is the systematic coercion of one group of men over another. It is as old as the Book of Genesis and has existed in every corner of the globe. But that is no excuse for us to tolerate it here, when we find it before our very eyes, in our own country
We’re all sinners … and potential saints
We know that Southerners were torn over the issue of secession. We know from countless diaries, letters and other original documents that it was a personal struggle to determine where their deepest duty resided. Each story is unique, whether it be Robert E. Lee’s or a foot soldier from the Shenandoah Valley.
The war was already well into its second year when Moses Ezekiel entered his class at VMI, the first cadet of Jewish descent to do so. In May, 1863, one of VMI’s most beloved teachers was brought back to lay in repose in his old classroom, before his burial in Lexington. Moses Ezekiel stood as a Corporal of the Guard by the casket of the slain Confederate hero.
In the spring of 1864 the VMI Cadet Battalion was called on by Major General John C. Breckenridge to come to the aid of their Southern comrades. Of the 257 cadets who marched out of Lexington, the average age was 18, but several had just celebrated their 15th birthday. Their commander was Lieutenant Colonel Scott Shipp, a 24 year old graduate of the Institute. Ezekiel, at age 20, was a private in Company C.
The first battle of the 1864 Shenandoah Campaign occurred on 15 May, 1864 at the village of New Market, some 80 miles north of Lexington. Union Major General Franz Sigel was attempting to control the terminus of the Manassas Gap Railroad and capture New Market to control the only road across Massanutten Mountain to the east. Breckenridge’s Confederate force numbered about 5,500 troops while the Union force was close to 8,500, spread throughout the region.
On that Sunday morning, as rain began to fall, the armies engaged. At one point, as combined Union artillery and musket fire forced a break in the Confederate line, General Breckenridge gave the command, “Put the boys in and may God forgive me for the order.” The cadets spearheaded the Confederate charge across a rain-drenched wheat field into the Union line.
The butcher’s bill
Almost 60 years later, writing about another war, Wilfred Owen could have been describing the Cadets of VMI in this very moment.
So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them: and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space
Charging directly into one of the Union artillery positions, the cadets captured a Federal cannon. Soon after, the men in blue were forced to retreat. Ten VMI cadets were killed and forty seven wounded. It remains until today the only time in American history that a college student body engaged in pitched battle as a single unit. After the battle, Ezekiel was detailed to recovering his classmates, the dead and wounded. It wasn’t long before he found his roommate, Thomas Garland Jefferson, a descendant of President Thomas Jefferson. He had a serious wound to his chest.
Taking him to a nearby home, Ezekiel tended to his suffering friend. On the evening of May 17th, fully two days after the battle, this young Jewish soldier read to his dying Christian brother-in-arms, his requested passages from the New Testament. “In my Father’s house there are many mansions…” Moments later, Jefferson died in Ezekiel’s arms.
A month after the battle, Union General David Hunter’s 18,000 troops marched into Lexington. In retaliation for the VMI Cadets’ role at New Market, Hunter ordered the Institute burned to the ground.
Commemorating the dead
When the war was over VMI reopened in makeshift circumstances and Ezekiel returned to finish his education. Robert E. Lee, appointed president of nearby Washington College, encouraged Ezekiel’s burgeoning artistic talents. Although he had thoughts of becoming a painter, his interest soon turned to sculpture. His studies and subsequent work led him to Cincinnati, to New York City and eventually to Berlin.
In Berlin he met Rudolf Steimering, a well known sculptor, who offered Ezekiel a place in his studio. While there, he produced his first statue, Virginia Mourning Her Dead, which, some 30 years later, he cast in bronze and presented to his alma mater, VMI. She keeps vigil over ten inscribed stone tablets, one for each of the cadets who died at Newmarket.
In 1873, at age 29, Ezekiel won the coveted Prix de Rome with his bas relief, Israel. Previous recipients included Delacroix and Ingres. This award allowed him to study in Rome where commissions and fame soon followed.
Ezekiel’s regard for his native South and the Confederate cause never wavered. On a trip to the United States in 1910 he was present at the unveiling of his Stonewall Jackson monument at Charleston, West Virginia and his Thomas Jefferson monument at the University of Virginia. President Taft invited Ezekiel to make a social call to the White House. While waiting for the President, Ezekiel sat in an outer office sketching his thoughts for a new commission he had received from the Congress the day before — a Confederate monument for Arlington Cemetery.
Healing the wounds
The cornerstone was laid on 12 November, 1912, at a ceremony featuring well known orator and presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and James A. Tanner. A former Union corporal who lost both his legs at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Tanner was the national commander of The Grand Army of the Republic, the largest organization of Union veterans in the country.
Two years later, now Sir Moses Ezekiel (having been knighted by the King of Italy), the aging sculptor participated in the 50th anniversary of the Battle of New Market with veterans of both sides. Then, on 14 June, 1914 this monument was unveiled before a large crowd. President Woodrow Wilson delivered an address and veterans from North and South placed wreaths on the graves.
We cannot wish our ancestors away, nor should we
During World War One Ezekiel was not able to travel out of Italy. The great artist died of pneumonia on March 27, 1917. The New York Times reported,
The death of Moses Ezekiel, the distinguished and greatly beloved American sculptor, who lived in Rome for more than forty years, caused universal regret in the Eternal City
Ezekiel’s body was finally shipped back to the United States in 1921. On 31 March that year he was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, at the foot of this monument. The Marine band played Liszt’s “Liebestraume” and a eulogy was read from President Warren G. Harding, praising Ezekiel as “a great Virginian, a great artist, a great American and a great citizen of world fame.” Flanking his flower-bedecked and American-flag covered casket were six VMI cadets. At the grave site next to the Confederate memorial, a small headstone was placed with the simple words:
Moses J. Ezekiel
Sergeant of Company C
Battalion of Cadets
Virginia Military Institute
Obama honoured fallen Confederates
A few weeks ago a group of more than 40 college professors and historians sent an open letter to President Obama asking him to break with tradition, imploring him NOT to send a wreath to this statue on Memorial Day. In no uncertain terms their argument is that we should not honour the 20 year old Moses Ezekiel who fought so bravely at New Market. We should not honour the boy who cared for his wounded roommate in his dying hour. We should not honour the boy who would spend a lifetime of apprenticing and study to master an art which would bring him prominence on the world stage. We should not honor the artist who was visited in his Rome studio by President Theodore Roosevelt as well as the luminaries and artists of Europe. We should not honor the man who is buried at the foot of this monument, nor any of those whose deaths he commemorated in his magnificent work of art.
President Harding said more on that blustery March day in 1921. He said:
Every line and curve and expression of this monument carries the plea for a truly united nation that may be equal to the burdens of these exacting times. It speaks to us the ardent wish, the untiring purpose, to help make our people one people, secure in independence, dedicated to freedom, and ever ready to lend the hand of confident strength in aid of the oppressed and needy. Its long drawn shadows of earliest morn and latest evening will always fall on sacred soil. The genius that produced, the love that gave, the devotion that will cherish it, will forever be numbered among our ennobling possessions
Moses Ezekiel accepted the verdict of the Civil War’s arbitrament with all that fine generosity that has been characteristic of both the North and South; and the splendid product of his art, that here testifies to our nation’s reunion, will stand from this day forth as guardian over his ashes.
Wishing our ancestors away
We cannot wish our ancestors away, nor should we. In the act of designing and erecting these monuments and statues they are telling us what was important to them in their time. By leaving for us, their progeny, a record in stone, they are expressly calling upon us, their grand-children, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren to remember.
Shall we do as the professors who signed the letter to our president asked him to do — shall we heap scorn upon these monuments and chastise those who will not? Should we do as their doctrinaire kin in Afghanistan did? Shall we, like the Taliban, destroy our statues with dynamite because they offend a prevailing dogma? Shall we disinter the bones of our ancestors like the radical Jacobins of the French Revolution did, scattering their unearthed remains to the winds — first to be reviled, then ever to be forgotten?
Unless we’re prepared to tear down every statue and monument in America we must instead take stock. What are these statues? Who cared so much to place them in the village green, the town square or the local cemetery? Instead of behaving like censorious cultural commissars or inquisitorial accusers, can we not instead meditate on their meaning for our country and in our own lives? Can they not be seen as invitations of rediscovery, of sacred places set aside in the quiet corners of our lives, for communion with our ancestors — for a portal to understanding who they were and who we are?
Columbus, the Pilgrims, the Founders, the Confederates
Yes, Christopher Columbus’ discovery hearkened the demise of native civilizations. But he was also the bold navigator and explorer who discovered a New World.
Yes, the Pilgrim Fathers of New England brought the medieval darkness of witch trials to the Massachusetts Bay colony. They also founded a culture that gave birth to the great institutions of learning at Harvard and Yale.
Yes, Peter Stuyvesant was a ruthless administrator who meted out arbitrary justice and dispossessed natives from the Hudson Valley. He was also at the center of a Dutch-American culture that introduced religious tolerance, free trade and innovation to the American colonies.
Yes, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. They also founded a new country which enshrined liberty in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Yes, Robert E. Lee and Thomas Stonewall Jackson fought on the side of a fledgling nation that practiced the indefensible and intolerable institution of slavery. They were also men of great honor, impeccable integrity and extraordinary personal courage.
Yes, the migration to the West following the Civil War caused death and destruction to the Native American populations from the Mississippi to the Pacific. It also forged the pioneer spirit, built the transcontinental railroad, fostered the economic development of vast natural resources and laid the foundations that became the world in which we live.
Yes, the greatest generation fire-bombed Dresden and Leipzig and dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. They also liberated millions and won a war against evil on a scale the world had never seen before.
Shall we imitate the Taliban?
Perhaps we should, as these professors imply, tear down all the statues. Far fetched? Didn’t Bill Ayers, who signed this letter, already do this very thing in the sixties and seventies? Blow up statues with explosives? In an interview that was published in the New York Times, would you believe, on 11 September, 2001, Bill Ayers is quoted as saying, ‘’I don’t regret setting bombs, I feel we didn’t do enough.’’
Why then would we want to remember or commemorate any of our history? Why indeed? Why pay homage at monuments to World War Two veterans or Vietnam vets? As I remember it, back in the day more than a few signers of this letter were less than friendly, to put it charitably, to returning vets from Vietnam.
And what about our brothers and sisters risking their lives today in Iraq or Afghanistan? Surely, the requirement to honor their sacrifice must be reconsidered in the light of the scandal of prisoner abuse. Why honour or remember anyone or anything at all? In fact, why should our descendants, living a hundred or two hundred years from now have any interest at all in what we said or did in our time? That is of course, assuming they’re still living with the blessings of liberty.
Name and shame the vandals
I think there’s a solution to this quandary. The American people should subscribe to a national monument to the professors who signed this letter. Their names should be prominent, engraved in stone for eternity. Can you just see it now, in letters four feet tall, William C. Ayers, James M. McPherson. All 48 heroes. Then, the inscription below:
Behold, the learned scribes. They showed us the way to our true humanity. Before this, the one and only true monument was erected, there were vile statues in every town, in every park, in every corner of America. Thanks to these saviours from academe, the false idols were struck from their pedestals and erased from memory. Now there is only this, the monument to the Holier Than Thou
Edmund Burke, political philosopher, member of Parliament and friend to the American Patriots of ‘76, of whom, incidentally, there stands a statue in Washington DC, penned these words:
Society is an open ended partnership between generations. The dead and the unborn are as much members of society as the living. To dishonor the dead is to reject the relation on which society is built — the relation of obligation between generations. Those who have lost respect for the dead have ceased to be trustees of their inheritance. Inevitably therefore, they lose the sense of obligation to future generations. The web of obligations shrinks to the present tense
President Barack Obama, to his everlasting honour, and in keeping with the tradition of his predecessors, on Memorial Day just two weeks ago sent a wreath to Moses Ezekiel’s monument to the Confederate dead.
Shall we dig them up and kill them again?
Can we not now, finally and at long last liberate ourselves from this dark night of political correctness, from sectarian ideologues who refuse to see those with whom they disagree as human beings? Will we liberate ourselves from this stultifying, sanctimonious self-justifying moral righteousness — this need to demonize, to condemn and to desecrate? How many times must we exhume these corpses to kill them again and again and again? Can we not see our ancestors, finally and unequivocally, as the flawed imperfect men and women they were, trying desperately to do the right thing and often risking their lives to do so? Black and white, man and woman, north and south — they paid in their blood. They paid in their sorrow and in their loss.
I myself am neither a Confederate nor a neo-Confederate, whatever that means. I am simply an American — and that’s enough for me. I belong to no organizations, clubs, round-tables or societies related to the Civil War or indeed to anything else. But I will not be intimidated from speaking at memorials for Confederate or Yankee soldiers — nor silently stand by as others heap insult and scorn on anyone who does. I am no one’s mouth-piece or propagandist. I have no axe to grind or grievance to nurse. I am no more and no less than a free man.
I spent 25 years making two films on the Civil War. I know I have fallen far short of my own aspirations and the expectations of many others — but it was not for want of trying nor of making anything less than the fiercest effort to get to the truth of the matter — to the mysterious heart of the human condition with all its paradoxes, contradictions and complexities.
The line through the human heart
It’s only because some folks have appreciated these movies that I’m called upon to speak at Civil War events across the country — at colleges, high schools, civic groups, history fairs, film festivals and commemorations like the one today. For James McPherson to lend his name to this cheap personal smear, a man whom I have met with mutual friends and colleagues at Civil War events over the past 17 years, says more about him than me.
This is what happens when actual people are dehumanized for ideological reasons. This is how a good man like Moses Ezekiel gets turned into a war criminal deserving of no respect.
In The Gulag Archipelago Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote:
If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and to destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being
One people, under God
This monument is dedicated simply to, Our Dead Heroes. Let us today, rededicate ourselves to a renewed healing for ourselves and for our posterity. I believe President Obama when he calls us to move and grow beyond our sectarian or regional differences. Not blue states or red states but the United States. Isn’t this just another way of saying not North or South, but America? Isn’t his voice, shaped on the south side of Chicago in the Twentieth Century, the same as Ezekiel Moses’s voice, shaped in the Shenandoah Valley in the 19th — calling us to be one people under God?
We cannot get there unless we get right with all our ancestors. We cannot get there as a people until we recognize that Frederick Douglass and Robert E. Lee are our fathers, that Harriet Tubman and Anna Jackson are our mothers. We cannot get there until, in Lincoln’s words, “with malice towards none and charity towards all, we bind up the nation’s wounds,” even the lingering wounds of memory, even the festering wounds of prejudice, even the self-blinding wounds of moral narcissism. Can we, even we here, become the better angels of our nature?
I will close my remarks with a poem by Walt Whitman, entitled “Pensive On Her Dead Gazing,” written within days of Appomattox. It is a poem I kept tucked in my breast pocket or taped to the motion-picture camera on each and every day of filming on Gettysburg and Gods & Generals:
Pensive on her dead gazing I heard the Mother of All,
Desperate on the torn bodies, on the forms covering the battlefields gazing,
(As the last gun ceased, but the scent of the powder-smoke linger’d,)
As she call’d to her earth with mournful voice while she stalk’d,
Absorb them well O my earth, she cried, I charge you lose not my
sons, lose not an atom,
And you streams absorb them well, taking their dear blood,
And you local spots, and you airs that swim above lightly
And all you essences of soil and growth, and you my rivers’ depths,
And you mountain sides, and the woods where my dear children’s
blood trickling redden’d,
And you trees down in your roots to bequeath to all future trees,
My dead absorb of South of North—my young men’s bodies absorb,
and their precious precious blood,
Which holding in trust for me faithfully back again give me many a year hence,
In unseen essence and odor of surface and grass, centuries hence,
In blowing airs from the fields back again give me my darlings, give my immortal heroes,
Exhale me them centuries hence, breathe me their breath, let not an atom be lost,
O years and graves! O air and soil! O my dead, an aroma sweet!
Exhale them perennial sweet death, years, centuries hence.
(Selected research text by permission of Keith Gibson, from Moses Ezekiel, Virginia Military Institute Museum, 2007)
RONALD MAXWELL is the director of the US Civil War films Gettysburg, Gods and Generals, and Copperhead