When history is neglected, misunderstanding follows

By: Douglas Smith - Contributing Columnist

Vandals at the old Durham courthouse recently found it easy wearing out shoes while stomping the statue of a young soldier they couldn’t name. I can. Others know him differently, but to me, he is W. I. Caddell, a direct ancestor who served in N.C.’s 43rd infantry regiment. Private Caddell sustained at least 11 combat wounds; part of his jaw shot away at Gettysburg never fully healed, explaining the whiskers he wore until his 1929 death.

“Traitors” is glibly used to describe the Confederacy’s founders and soldiers. Of course, America was founded by “traitors” to King George III. Justifiably held to account before history’s bar, CSA’s founders wanted more of what early 1800s America offered: slavery protected in the constitution including, by 1860, a fugitive slave law and a Dred Scott decision. It would take that civil war to settle some issues, create others, and redefine America.

The Pvt. Caddells, of course, were shattered in the bargain. Most of the young soldiers were sold ideas of defending homes and communities. That kept them living off the land, separated from loved ones for years, as shot, shell and disease stalked them daily. Many returned home damaged, or not at all. It was to them most memorials were dedicated. The southern youths sold at auctions were “memorialized” with an unsettling freedom, where many found only maltreatment.

Used as foils by power-seeking elites, post-war, they might otherwise have found much in common with their white counterparts.

Watching the Confederate flag’s retirement on South Carolina’s capitol grounds in 2015, it was ironic to spy youngsters clutching the bronze legs of Ben Tillman keeping vigil close by. What, if anything, had their adults taught them about “Pitchfork” Ben? Their 1890s governor/U.S. senator did more to advance white supremacy there than numbers of flapping rebel flags. Would this be his last day? No. The flag removal may have been justified, but I suspect the education for many was video-bite superficial. You don’t have to like monuments to learn from them. Just as names and dates, scourged by schoolkids, serve as pegs around which concepts are fastened, so monuments can be guideposts of our history’s journey and, perhaps, better paths ahead.

CSA memorials are currently under fire because their opponents have the loudest mouths near the megaphone. A purification ritual is underway that, you can bet, doesn’t end with the Jefferson Davises or Robert E. Lees. Attempts have been made to scrub Woodrow Wilson from association with the Princeton University he once headed. Al Sharpton has called for defunding the Jefferson memorial.

Where historical education is neglected, misunderstanding — and Durhams — follow. Municipalities lured to political correctness run amok — including our governor — will realize no appeasement. Will Roy Cooper send a wrecking ball after Carolina’s venerable “Old East” when he discovers UNC founder William Davie was not only a slave owner, but helped fashion the infamous “3/5” slavery compromise at the Philadelphia constitutional convention?

Had the likes of Durham protesters’ busy feet led them to more effective political pursuits in last fall’s close election, the current atmosphere may now be very different. But if Mr. Trump’s glaring campaign omens could not be separated from a silly equivalency to Hillary Clinton, they can’t be expected to discern history.

Douglas Smith is a Rockingham resident.

Douglas Smith

Contributing Columnist