Thursday, January 19, 2006

Montana's Confederate Dead

Recently I've been revisiting James W. Loewen's, Lies Across America, What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong (introduction here), and I'm reminded of what an entertaining read it is, though the author gets a little too strident at times for the mostly repressed Norwegian bachelor farmer part of my sensibilities, which wants to acknowledge historic lies without embarrassing anyone I know. But it's an engaging book (like the author's earlier, Lies My Teacher Told Me -- see intro here), and as you might imagine, the Civil War period is well represented.

Of course we all know instinctively that America's monuments and roadside markers, like the history books of our youth, are, often as not, studies in myth-making and local boosterism. And for some groups, it was a grand cause. The Masons may have managed to put up the only statue of a Confederate general officer in Washington D.C., but they got it in under the radar by steering clear of The Late Unpleasantness connection. Only the United Daughters of the Confederacy managed to honor the Confederate dead of a place from which no living Confederates originated. Beat that, Masons!

According to Loewen, "by 1916, this [Helena] monument declares implicitly that the Confederacy was somehow patriotic and that whites agreed, even this far north, to honor it nostalgically. Thus this monument also reflects the time when it was erected — the nadir of race relations in the United States, from 1890 to 1920, when segregation gripped the nation and lynchings reached their peak. Most Confederate monuments went up during these years" (103).

As an aside, these incongruous images caused me to think again of Richard Brautigan's, A Confederate General from Big Sur, a novel I read in high school in Iowa, when both the Confederacy and Big Sur were fictional, far off places. I found a cheap ex libris copy online, and am curious to read it again, particularly since those fictional places have become regular haunts in my life. I sure hope my (embryonic) Great California Novel gets a better review.

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