Easy Chair — From the January 2017 issue

The Monument Wars

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For years, whenever I was in New Orleans, I used to run past an equestrian statue just outside the voluptuously green City Park. Though it is situated at a major intersection, where Esplanade Avenue meets Wisner Boulevard, the statue itself is unremarkable, the usual muscular horse and male rider. It celebrates Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, the general whose assault on Fort Sumter in April 1861 launched the Civil War. Beneath the horse’s raised foreleg, a plaque commemorates the four years that Beauregard served in the Confederate Army; it says nothing about his decades in the U.S. Army. A few miles to the south, at the center of Lee Circle, Beauregard’s Confederate commander and fellow slaveholder Robert E. Lee looms atop a sixty-foot marble column, his arms crossed, a sword at his side. Lee is too high up to be clearly seen, as though purposefully placed out of the reach of anyone who might question why he is there.

Monuments to the South’s Confederate past are not hard to find in New Orleans. On the banks of the Mississippi, a white obelisk pays tribute to the 1874 Battle of Liberty Place, a bloody attempt by a racist paramilitary group called the Crescent City White League to overthrow the Reconstructionist Louisiana government. The administration, which had both black and white members, was defended by a black militia as well as by New Orleans police. During the skirmishes, the White League militants used streetcars as barricades and hid behind bales of cotton. A few dozen people died, including eleven policemen. The insurrection was quashed, but its goal of ending Reconstruction was realized within two years, when the presidential election of 1876 rolled back the reforms of the previous decade and disenfranchised black voters. In 1932, an inscription was added to the monument that praised the overthrow of the “carpetbag government.” the national election, the inscription reads, recognized white supremacy in the south and gave us our state.

“Us,” of course, refers to white people. The history books insist that the North won the war, but in the South it’s hard to find the evidence. If the North had won the war, there would not be statues and street names honoring the defeated leaders. If the North had won the war, our monuments would be to the suffering of slaves and their struggle to be free. If the North had won the war, the Confederate flag would be a symbol of shameful beliefs and military defeat, seen only in museums. If the North had won the war, the war would be over. Or so I thought, coming to the South as an adult unaccustomed to encountering that flag and those monuments as an ordinary part of the civic landscape. And so I thought on November 9, when the United States elected a president who is a successor not to Barack Obama but to Jefferson Davis, who embodies division, who preaches a gospel of white supremacy in a country inexorably evolving toward a non-white majority. George Bush may have been dissembling when he campaigned as a “uniter”; perhaps the only honest thing about Donald Trump’s overwhelmingly mendacious campaign was his promise to be a divider. If the Civil War was a struggle over who was entitled to human rights and human freedoms — a struggle over who counts as “we the people” — our future president casts us directly back into that battle.

In the West, where I currently live, we have our own unfinished wars: the Indian wars. I was reminded of how unfinished they are this fall, when I attended a demonstration led by Native Americans against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The protest took place in front of the statehouse in Bismarck, North Dakota, where on the building’s vast greensward there is a memorial to pioneers. The gray, cast-metal statue depicts a family: a patriarch, his shirt unbuttoned, poised for action; a matriarch, babe in her arms, leaning into her husband; and their strapping son. This is a military monument, despite its domestic subject, one of the many across the West that commemorate the invaders of these lands as heroes and, more than that, as us, while insisting that Native Americans are them.

That the hundred or more young Native people in that crowd in Bismarck had to face a symbol of their status as the enemy seemed as threatening, in its way, as the long line of heavily armed cops who were there. It was impossible not to think of the U.S. government’s military campaigns against the Lakota and Dakota a century and a half ago, which made some — eventually most — of the tribal territory available for white settlement and, of course, for exploitation. Part of the goal was to secure mineral resources. The Indian wars were frequently resource wars; today’s are, too. North Dakota, like Louisiana and Alberta, has become hostage to oil interests, and the state seems to have declared a new war on its original inhabitants, treating as violent aggressors people who have declared peace and prayer as their tactics. When I visited the Standing Rock reservation, multiple roadblocks stopped people from getting near the activist camps. I was told by government security officers that they were turning people back for their own safety.

Plenty of statues in the West depict men who killed and dispossessed indigenous people. Many of the men, including John C. Frémont and Kit Carson, have lent their names to streets and towns as well. Carson led a scorched-earth campaign against the Navajo in 1863, the year before General Sherman’s campaign against the South; a Nevada river was named in his honor, as was the state capital. But most of the memorials depict what followed the initial invasion and conflict: white settlement. In San Francisco, a pioneer mother with her children overlooks a running path in Golden Gate Park; near City Hall towers another, bigger monument, with several groups of bronze figures, including one that shows a Spanish priest and a vaquero standing over a cringing Native American man. They’re supposed to be “civilizing” him, but they look more like cops roughing up a suspect.

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