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Is Lincoln's Spirit Dead?

Confederate Memorial Would Deny National Atonement

By Eric M. Nelson

"If we were to go back to the elements of the states and to examine the oldest monuments of their history, I doubt not that we should discover in them the primal causes of...the habits, the ruling passions, and, in short, all that constitutes what is called the national character." --Alexis de Tocqueville

On March 4, 1865, a tired, worn Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address from the steps of the Capitol, having presided for four long years over the most devastating war in the history of the still fledgling American democracy. Indeed, the Civil War, which saw the deaths of 600,000 citizens of the United States, remains today our most bloody, tragic national episode.

Yet, as Lincoln solemnly gave his celebrated sermon, although his words betokened reconciliation and a desire to "bind up the nation's wounds," the one emotion noticeably absent from his remarks was regret. He declared, like a stern grandfather admonishing the young, that while all wished the war to come quickly to its close, "if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"

To Lincoln, the Civil War was an act of national atonement. Perhaps the insights of the man whose election immediately precipitated war, and whose genius brought it to its ultimate conclusion, can help us as we in the Harvard community engage in a new debate over the meaning the Civil War should have at this university.

Southern apologists who lobby for the construction of a memorial to the rebel dead emphasize that, for the average southern soldier; going to war had very little to do with the momentous issues of slavery or union. Rather, it was an expression of loyalty to his state, community and family, all of which he believed to be threatened. Therefore, goes the argument, why not memorialize the Southern dead? After all, didn't they fight as heroically, if not more so, for what they believed in than those in the Union army?

This logic is unpersuasive. After all, what is the purpose of a memorial? What is it that elevates a memory, even a communal memory, to something more? Does simply going to war earn soldiers a monument at this university? Is a memorial merely an empirical marker, and the list of names displayed on it simply a ledger, informing posterity of those who died in which war? Or do we mean something more substantial when we build a memorial? Indeed we do.

A memorial signifies the esteem of the community that erects it. It speaks to the moral character and most basic values of an institution such as ours. A memorial assigns honor. The question for our community, then, is whether we can consider those who fought to dismember the United States and to preserve the institution of human slavery as deserving of honor. The answer is that we can't, regardless of how revisionists attempt to dress our history up or down.

For those who search for precedent, Harvard has been very clear and consistent in its evaluation of this troubled period in our national past. It was Harvard President Edward Everett who, along with President Lincoln, eulogized the fallen Union soldiers at Gettysburg. Memorial Hall was built not simply to commemorate the Northern dead but to honor all those who fought for the cause of the Union. Indeed, in his welcome to the returning Harvard men who fought for the Union, Professor James Russell Lowell declared:

Today, our Reverend Mother welcomes back/Her wisest scholars, those who understood.../Many loved Truth, and lavished life's best oil/Amid the dust of books to find her.../But these, our brothers, fought for her.

Yet, there are those who argue that, out of a sense of brotherhood, Harvard should memorialize the deaths in battle of all those who call her alma mater. The day we adopt this policy, however, is the day history loses all meaning for us. At its core, a memorial is a powerful, dramatic way of telling a story. It should extract a moral from history, one that assigns meaning the past. If Harvard memorializes those who fought for both sides during the Civil War, what possible moral or meaning can this watershed event retain for us?

This sort of historical hedging would only detract from the honor due the true Southern heroes: those who resisted the pressure from their families, refused to succumb to regionalism and were prevailed upon by their sense of justice to stand up for a higher principle--that of freedom through Union.

The story of the Civil War is more than a series of battles and set of disturbing statistics. It is a tragic experience that must be understood as necessary or unnecessary, right or wrong, good or evil, in order to have meaning in any community. If Harvard has such an understanding, and indeed it does, then it is that deeper meaning, and not some misplaced notion of "equal time," that should be made manifest in the monuments it builds. If it does not, then Lincoln's spirit is dead and our atonement moot. For atonement is only achieved if it is engaged in consciously. A fast is not a fast if you simply forget to eat. The Civil War carries with it no national redemption unless we acknowledge its inherent moral force.

The controversy surrounding the construction of the proposed memorial is rooted in the problem of legacy. In those places where evil existed in the past, there is a challenge to succeeding generations to deal with that heritage. The temptation is always towards revisionism, towards casting more favorable light upon one's own history. But that is the easy way out.

In this generation, we must aknowledge that the Harvard students who took up arms against the United States during the Civil War, whatever else they may have been, were soldiers for the forces of slavery and rebellion. Perhaps the recent controversy will serve to remind us of this often sugarcoated truth of our nation's most traumatic war. Perhaps we will come away from this debate with an enhanced understanding of what the Civil War means to each of us. Finally, perhaps we will learn to appreciate even more Daniel Webster's declaration in his Second Reply to Hayne. "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!"

To his dismay, Eric M. Nelson '99 lives on the South side of Harvard Yard.

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