There is a song about a Scottish soldier who perished during WW I in the trenches. It goes like this (with English translation):
Lay me down in the cold, cold ground
Where before many more have gone
Thoughts of home take away my fear
Sweat and blood hide my veil of tears
Once a year say a prayer for me
Close your eyes and remember me
“Sgt. MacKenzie” by Joseph Kilna MacKenzie.
Every veteran wants to be remembered. The biggest fear when you serve in some far off land is that the folks back home have forgotten about you. Even in Iraq, as closely tied as we were to the home front, we wondered, usually after six months or so in country, whether the folks back home had moved on with their lives and forgotten us.
Now, some folks in San Antonio want to forget the Confederate veteran. Things have changed so much since 1900 when the Confederate monument was erected. Many people find the monument offensive. The monument does not recognize some great general. It represents the common soldier, with his rifle at rest, he points skyward recalling his departed comrades.
It is wrong to suggest the statue was erected to keep African-Americans in their place or to show who controlled the Jim Crow South. Yes, even San Antonio had some Jim Crow laws. But, the statue was built not to overwhelm others, but to recall the sacrifices of those Confederate veterans. Veterans were dying in greater and greater numbers in the 1890’s. A movement spread across the South to recall their sacrifices. The San Antonio monument specifically asks us not to forget the Confederate veteran. It says, “Lest we forget.” It was nothing more than an attempt by the families of veterans to recall their departed loved ones. The state government did not erect the San Antonio monument.
My ancestor helped erect the Robert E. Lee monument in New Orleans. In his diary, he wrote about the public entertainment put on by volunteers to raise money. He said “thousands” came and had to be turned way because the hall was so full. Paula Allen in the Express News explains in today’s paper that bake sales and subscriptions by San Antonio businesses paid for the Travis Park Confederate monument. The city government donated the land. So, no, these monuments were generally not erected by Jim Crow governments. They were erected by average people, like you and me.
In a recent editorial, Josh Brodesky of the San Antonio Express News, and others, have suggested the Confederate veteran was motivated by racism and a desire to maintain slavery. That is not accurate. The veterans are long gone. We cannot now ask them to take a survey and study their motivations. But, James McPherson in his book, For Cause and Comrades, (Oxford Univ. Press 1997), accomplished a pretty decent survey by reviewing the personal letters and diaries of some 400 Confederate soldiers. He looked at the contemporary correspondence and diaries of some 647 Union soldiers and 429 Confederate soldiers. In his career, he explains that having looked at perhaps 25,000 such records, he believed this was a representative sample. For Cause, p. viii. Dr. McPherson is a well known Civil War historian.
According to Dr. McPherson’s study, some 57% of Confederate soldiers espoused patriotic fervor for the South. That is, their service was motivated by patriotism. For Cause, p. 102. Just some 20% of Confederate service members espoused pro-slavery views during the war. For Cause, p. 110. That is still too large a number for us today. But, it pales when compared to Union soldiers who referred to slavery as a motivation for serving in the war. The number of Union soldiers who espoused anti-slavery views was much higher. As the author explains, slavery was a political issue among the Union army. It was discussed and debated more. It was not such an issue among the Confederate army. So, perhaps, if there was more actual debate, then the pro-slavery view might have been higher among Confederate soldiers.
But, the point remains, if they fought to “own people,” they did not discuss it much. And, I can speak from experience. When you are hungry, tired, hot, far from home, you devote much of your free waking moments to why you are here. Why are we in this god forsaken land? If the Confederate soldier was concerned about continuing slavery, he would have said so.
Should it matter what motivated those Confederate soldiers? When I went to Iraq in 2005, I did not stop and say to my commander, “please explain to me the basis for this war?” Sgt. MacKenzie, it is said, died protecting a wounded comrade in the trenches. At those moments, you do not ask why. You simply react. In the song, Joseph MacKenzie, the great-grandson of the sergeant, did not ask for bugles and flourishes to commemorate the death of his ancestor. He simply asked that his great-grandfather be remembered. That is all any veteran can hope for. Say a prayer for those who fell. Recall the rest of us when our times come. We answered the call. We did not hesitate.