One of the most stirring moments in Ken Burns’s excellent documentary on the Civil War was his treatment of the 1913 reunion at Gettysburg. A reenactment of Pickett’s Charge, the bloodiest battle of the war, was staged back then in which the boys who had clashed in mortal combat 50 years earlier, now old men, rushed at one another as best they could given their advancing years. But this time when the former Confederate troops met the former Union troops on the battlefield, they came not with bayonets fixed but with open arms to embrace their “opponents.”
The grainy black-and-white footage of the meeting, which left a lump in this viewer’s throat, revealed more about the Civil War and its aftermath than any monument or history book. The war had been fought not by soldiers but by flesh-and-blood men (children in many cases) who had come to understand more about life and death than most of us will ever fathom.
All of those former fighting men are long gone now, but the war they were ordered to fight wages on. Its most recent battle ended last Wednesday when the earthly remains of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife were exhumed from their graves in Memphis, Tennessee’s Health Sciences Park and carted off to a museum some 200 miles away.
This battle has been raging for six years. As I wrote back when the Memphis City Council unanimously passed a resolution to unearth the remains, not everyone in the community was on board with the plan:
Lee Millar, a spokesman for the group Sons of the Confederate Veterans, told reporters:
I think it’s disgusting that people use the shooting in Charleston and use those victims to forward their own agenda and join this anti Confederate hysteria that’s going on.
To attack something like that now I feel is just really misguided.
Katherine Blalock, whose great grandfather served under Forrest, concurred: “We need to have a coming together of people, not a divide and conquer,” she explained.
Perhaps the best perspective on the plan was the sentiment uttered by City Councilman Edmund Ford, Jr., who asked:
Even when all the flags have been taken down and when all the artifacts have been moved, what do we do next as a people?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not defending Forrest, who from all accounts was a monster. He was a Grand Wizard in the Ku Klux Klan, and as a military leader he ordered the massacre of 300 black Union soldiers after they surrendered.
But Forrest, who died 144 years ago, is long past hurting anyone. If nothing else, the monument to him should remain as a reminder of the evil men do — which includes desecrating graves in the name of “historical purity.”