Separate but Equal Wreaths are Not a Permanent Solution to the Memorial Day Conundrum


Mr. Loewen, the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, started a petition asking President Obama not to honor the Arlington Confederate Monument.

Although I had signed petitions to the President going back to the '60s, before Memorial Day 2009 I had never helped to start one.  This year, the fact that neo-Confederates misconstrue the Confederate monument in Arlington National Cemetery to misconstrue the Civil War to misconstrue the Confederate cause got to me ... especially since every Memorial Day, the President of the United States lends his prestige to that monument by sending it a wreath.

We (Ed Sebesta and I) wound up with more than 60 co-signers, including major historians of the Civil War period like David Blight, Vernon Burton, and James McPherson; other distinguished historians like John Dittmer, Paul Finkelman, and Kenneth Jackson; and scholars in allied disciplines like Grey Gundaker, Florence Roisman, and Amilcar Shabazz.  Leaders or former leaders of important organizations lent their names, including Josh Brown, Lee Formwalt, Susan Glisson, and Roger Kennedy.  Professors of education signed, including Sonia Nieto, David Shiman, and Bill Ayers. 

Ayers is on my contacts list because, more than a dozen years ago, he participated in inviting me to speak to pre-service teachers at the University of Illinois (Chicago) about ideas in my best-seller, Lies My Teacher Told Me.  When sending out emails to people on my list, I considered omitting him, since I knew of his toxic fame.  I emailed him anyway, because Sarah Palin had told us all he was a "pal" of President Obama, because it did not feel right to censor my contacts list, and also because I just wanted to see what would happen. 

It turned out that the only name the media cared about was Ayers.  The Chicago Sun-Times, for instance, headlined its story, "Radical Bill Ayers dogs Obama, even on Memorial Day."  Within the story, Ayers's name does not appear until the 14th paragraph, which is appropriate.  But no other signer's name appears at all — not mine, not Sebesta's, not even McPherson's, surely America's pre-eminent scholar on the period, whose Battle Cry of Freedomwon the Pulitzer Prize.  Today, searching for "Ayers Obama "Memorial Day" wreath yields 7,570 hits, while "McPherson Obama "Memorial Day" yields just 2,570. 

On Sebesta's list of contacts was art historian Kirk Savage, whose book, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves treats Civil War memorials.  Savage penned an op-ed to the Washington Post suggesting that President Obama continue the tradition of the Confederate wreath, but also send one to the new African American Civil War Memorial in DC.  (He had proposed this to Sebesta, but for reasons this essay notes, Ed rejected the idea.)  The Post never did a story about our petition but did print Savage's op-ed opposing it. 

Despite the Post's silence, AP and other outlets picked up the story.  A minor controversy followed.  HNN's posting of our petition drew 90 comments.  A blog about the matter at Daily Kos spurred more than 250.  Savage's op-ed generated nine pages at WashingtonPost.com.  Many were from neo-Confederates attacking any challenge to their beloved Confederate legend.  Others, however, came from people respectful of the cause of good race relations while also respectful of the dead. 

Americans need to understand that Confederate Memorials come in two kinds.  One type remembers and honors the dead.  The other glorifies the cause and typically obfuscates what it was (which was slavery).  The Arlington monument is of the second type.  Donated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, erected during the Nadir of Race Relations, it does not purport to tell accurate history.  It even gets the number of Confederate states wrong, implying that 14 seceded, when only 11 did.  Moreover, in recent years neo-Confederates have deliberately misconstrued a black body servant, included in the bas-reliefs, as a Confederate soldier.  Then they cite him as "evidence" that thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy.  As a corollary, this claim continues, the South could not have seceded for slavery. 

Why should the President privilege this monument over, say, the Confederate monument in neighboring Alexandria, a pensive statue of the former type? 

Why, for that matter, should the President privilege this monument over every single monument to United States troops in the Civil War? 

The day after, the President’s wreath lies in a heap to the side of the Confederate monument. 

It might be said that he no longer does.  Unlike his predecessors from Wilson to W, Obama eventually followed Savage's idea and sent two wreaths, one to the Confederate monument, one to the African American monument.  Doing so was certainly a significant advance over former practice.  However, dual wreaths implicitly equate service for the Union and service against it.  They also implicitly equate war fought to maintain and extend slavery with war eventually fought (admittedly, not at first) to end slavery.  Surely both sides are not of equal moral value. 

This is not the place to make the argument that the South seceded for slavery, not states' rights.  Everyone knew this in 1860-61.  Today anyone who believes that the Southern states left because they favored states' rights has only to search for and read "Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union."  Also useful is my short chapter on Gettysburg in Lies Across America, which tells why and when the states' rights myth began to be told. 

To be sure, neither Savage nor the president probably intended to equate North and South.  Surely, both Savage and the president meant this "solution" as a way to sidestep all such moral and historical issues and merely honor the dead on both sides.  Thus the president assuages two "special interests":  neo-Confederates on the one side, and African Americans (and historians) on the other.  Left out are United States Civil War veterans as a whole — white and black together. 

Hoping to avoid post-petition depression, I humbly suggest that important historical questions remain.  Why would presidents of the United States, for almost a hundred years, send wreaths just to the Southern side — the losing side and the wrong side — of our greatest war?  Did presidents ever send wreaths to U.S. Civil War monuments — perhaps to the G.A.R. monument in DC — before the Nadir of Race Relations set in?  Has even one of the 2,000+ Union monuments ever received a presidential wreath on Memorial Day since the Nadir?  What is the connection between race relations of the time and how we remember the past? 

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More Comments:

Barry Lemmons - 6/2/2009

Ephemeral indeed, like the lives celebrated by the memorial and more specifically their character, courage, and sacrifice.

Bill Vallante - 6/2/2009

No one need "make over" Confederates into United States veterans. Public Law number 85-425 already did that in 1958. Look it up. If that sticks in Loewen’s craw and the craw of anyone else like him, then so be it.


"For the purpose of this section, and section 433, the term 'veteran' includes a person who served in the military or naval forces of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, and the term 'active, military or naval service' includes active service in such forces."

One need not look to legislative records however to discern the fact that they are American Veterans – the very fact that nearly 500 of them are buried in Arlington Cemetery should tell that to any clear thinking individual.

Being nearly 60 years old, I can attest to the fact that before this nation began producing the likes of people like Sebesta and Loewen, that the Confederates were indeed regarded as American Veterans and worthy of respect.

As to why things have changed so and what we "neo-confederates" think about it, I'll opt for brevity on this board and let my "open letter" to the "agitators" speak for itself.


Whether Obama sent or failed to send the wreath was and is irrelevant. Life still would have gone on – "whining" notwithstanding. Nothing that the likes of Sebesta, Loewen, McPherson, Farley or Ayers, or anyone like them will ever change that.

James W Loewen - 6/1/2009

I did not need to attribute the photo because I took it and it was in my essay.

James W Loewen - 6/1/2009

The wreath blew over. I pictured it partly to show the ephemeral nature of such things. The significance is the sending, of course, not the wreath.

James W Loewen - 6/1/2009

Opinions must take a back seat to facts:
1. Confederates cannot be made over into US veterans.
2. The Confederacy did open fire. If the invasion was "a crime," what about firing first?
3. Even most Confederate sympathizers, which these two are, don't usually attack Lincoln for being willing to compromise with the Corwin amendment.
4. The North did not enter the Civil War to end slavery, but to hold the nation together. Gradually the North's war aims changed to include the former, but not at first.
5. Readers can (and should) google and read the Confederate Constitution to see what it says explicitly about slavery. Careful reading will leave no doubt.

Terry Klima - 5/31/2009

I am curious as to the source of the photo of the toppled Presidential wreath at the Arlington Confederate Memorial, included in the Professor's commentary of May 28th. Typically, such photos would include attribution of the source, if obtained from a media source. A search of media coverage from the time the Presidential wreath was presented on May 25th, to the time the photo was published on May 28th, produced no results.

Has any media source covered the story of the toppled wreath, or published photos?

Perhaps an inquiry to Arlington National Cemetery-The Department of the Army can produce additional information as to the party or parties responsible. Undoubtedly, the Army would take umbrage at the desecration and or toppling of wreaths presented by the Commander-in-Chief.

Barry Lemmons - 5/31/2009

I basically disagree with everything Loewen has written, but I commend him for being forthright enough to show the destroyed wreath. The photo does not bolster his position. It is sickening evidence that the Confederate descendents' quest for basic respect is not over. We will do so without lowering ourselves to such cretinous behavior.

Terry Klima - 5/29/2009

Perhaps we should consider Lincoln's views of the Corwin Amendment, adopted by joint resolutions of Congress on March 2, 1861, before castigating the South. The amendment stated "No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State".

In his 1st Inaugural address, Lincoln stated "I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution—which amendment, however, I have not seen—has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service. To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I depart from my purpose not to speak of particular amendments so far as to say that, holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable". Reasonable people would interpret this to mean Lincoln was willing to allow slavery to exist in perpetuity. Furthermore, it negates the self righteous attempt by to claim the moral high ground on behalf of Lincoln and the north.

Interestingly, the Confederate Constitution made no claim that slavery was perpetual nor contain any language prohibiting subsequent amendments on the issue.

Josephine L. Bass - 5/29/2009

This peition is an effort to Divide and not foster reconcile. The invasion, takeover, and reducing the Confederate States to a Colony was a crime! The fact is: Arlington, Robert E. Lee's property was stolen you know, and became a cemetery from a hateful mean act by union Gen. Montgomery Meigs. The wreath and the monument makes up somewhat for that!

Lately I have been seeing a lot of rhetoric on the net about the words used about slavery as the cause citing the states declarations and various speeches. On the other side I also see definite proof that the cause of the war was a lot more than slavery.

Politicians knew they would have to exist side by side with the old union and they never planned on war, slavery as an issue of secession, well, they could all live with, because the 3 million blacks living in the South were perceived as a threat to the North and the North only wished to keep them bottled up there.

edward anthony koltonski - 5/29/2009

If it is true that Confederate soldiers are lumped into the classification "veteran" along with any other US soldier, then Lowen's argument is only augmented. Why lump them into a general category to only pull them out at later times for special recognition?

Misha Mazzini Griffith - 5/29/2009

History belongs to each generation, it is a living entity. We must not allow a past generation to define a historical era, commemorate it in stone and metal, then consider the problem solved. That was their identity--we must define our own. We must seek out our own identity through careful examination of the past--not through the ready-made idols of activist groups. Ad fontes, Professor Loewen.
As for honoring memories, these are rituals that must be performed. They satisfy deeper needs, and consequently defy rational application of factual information, especially that information that nullifies the meanings of the memorials. Equally as important as these rituals (more important in most situations) are the moments we spend teaching and writing about history. This is where our energies should be focused.
The conflicts of a single event should not cloud nor slow a lifetime of scholarship. A broken clock is only right twice a day, while a properly working clock is useful at all times.

Terry Klima - 5/29/2009

Why not give it a rest. Confederates are recognized Veterans and entitled to the same respect accorded to any other US Veteran.

Needless to say, many of us do not subscribe to your view of history. Similarly,the majority of us would not care to include Bill Ayers in our list of friends or address books.