So today’s effort is a bit of a mixed bag, expect some meandering of thought. Jump on, enjoy the ride.
You may have heard in the news over the last few days that the Statue of Andrew Jackson in New Orleans in Jackson Square, is under threat from protesters calling themselves ‘Tear ‘Em Down New Orleans’, a group working in conjunction with Black Lives Matter, in a roundabout way, to push through action on votes that passed motion to reposition four statues of controversial historical figures who are in a modern context associated with some degree of white supremacy.
Now we have an invisible set of boundaries here at Naked History. They are loosely constructed, through the need to be fluid; however, we only discuss politics and associated agendas, actions and events within a historical context. So on that basis I’m going to steer clear of adding subjectivity to that particular debate, and try and concentrate on what this protest means from a historical perspective, much in the same way as I did with the piece on the Confederate Battle Flag some time ago. (https://www.facebook.com/nkdhistory/posts/164031643938926)
In 1971, the statue in Jackson Square was the subject of a controversy regarding the mount of the horse on which his figure sat. The horse is depicted rearing with both forelegs off the ground. It was argued in the ‘Times-Picayune’ by an Historian of the time that this was factually incorrect in sculpture terms, as rearing equine statues represented those who died in battle, which Jackson did not. A compromise was reached by a smooth talking tour guide who claimed the stance allowed for the rider to be noted as surviving battle and moving on to greater deeds. This entire story of course is groundless, as the positioning of an equine in statue – rearing for died in battle, one foreleg raised denoting wounding or died of wounds after the fact, and four legs planted denoting died of natural causes – is in truth, like the positioning of a knight or noble’s legs on his (medieval) effigy denoting participation in Crusade and so on, an urban legend with no basis in fact.
Ok, back to those statues. I’m not going to recount the full life-histories of the mentioned figures involved, other than to give grounding to the protest currently surrounding their memorialization. Robert E Lee, Nathan Bedford Forrest and the others at the centre of controversy were key players in the Confederate cause, leading armies against the Union. Forrest and his wife have had their remains removed and re-interred on more than one occasion, it would appear solely as a result of his brief liaison with the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. The depth of his involvement has yet to be proven, and his fairly rapid distance from the more violent aspects of their agenda is well documented. During the Civil War, Forrest was caught up in allegations of atrocities against particularly African-American Union Soldiers, infamously at the Battle of Fort Pillow, which was decried as a massacre in several letters written by his own troops to their families following the victory of the Confederates under Forrest.
Certainly Forrest’s level of membership within the Klan, is argued, from a scant association to claims he was a founder member and Grand Wizard. One of his grandsons, Nathan Bedford Forrest II is also noted as a subsequent Grand Wizard. These facts are not confirmed. Forrest’s involvement in the Fort Pillow “Massacre” is still contested, despite his post-war investigation by Congress, who found no case to answer. Forrest was a wealthy slave-owner prior to the Secession by the Confederacy, subsequently losing his fortune on post-war business ventures, aimed at replacing his plantation and slave-trading businesses, following Abolition. Forrest later made guest appearances in a public speaking role aimed at what he claimed was his political and personal goal of bringing about unity and equality between white Americans and their Black counterparts.
His speech, after accepting flowers from an African-American Lady:
“Ladies and Gentlemen I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is any one on God’s earth who loves the ladies I believe it is myself. (Immense applause and laughter.) This day is a day that is proud to me, having occupied the position that I did for the past twelve years, and been misunderstood by your race. This is the first opportunity I have had during that time to say that I am your friend. I am here a representative of the southern people, one more slandered and maligned than any man in the nation.
I will say to you and to the colored race that men who bore arms and followed the flag of the Confederacy are, with very few exceptions, your friends. I have an opportunity of saying what I have always felt – that I am your friend, for my interests are your interests, and your interests are my interests. We were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land. Why, then, can we not live as brothers? I will say that when the war broke out I felt it my duty to stand by my people. When the time came I did the best I could, and I don’t believe I flickered. I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe that I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to bring about peace. It has always been my motto to elevate every man- to depress none. (Applause.) I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going.
I have not said anything about politics today. I don’t propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, that you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office. I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment. Use your best judgement in selecting men for office and vote as you think right.
Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict. I have been in the heat of battle when colored men, asked me to protect them. I have placed myself between them and the bullets of my men, and told them they should be kept unharmed. Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand.” (Prolonged applause.)
Andrew Jackson is a slightly different kettle of fish. Following his inauguration as seventh President of the United States, Jackson was like several others, including Washington, Jefferson et al, a Slave-owner. He passed away prior to the Civil War, in 1845. Despite his political acts having the potential to cost him votes, he was noted as a man of principles who stuck by his resolution to act for the American working classes in certain areas, particularly with regard to taxes, to the financial cost of wealthier supporters. He was however to be permanently associated with the passing of the Indian Removal Acts during his Presidential tenure, at the time arguably seen as acceptable by his white voting majority, however now seen as historically unpalatable. As a result, and despite his commemorative statues not being included in the four controversial ones listed as to be repositioned elsewhere, as per the recent votes, the Protest group have seen fit to advance on his statue too, with threats to pull it down themselves.
My thought is this. Whilst from a modern viewpoint, it could be seen by some that such figures may represent now unseemly aspects of American History, I struggle to see what purpose removal of such commemorations, and changing school and street names to more palatable alternatives, seems in a way to be an attempt to re-write history; almost to pretend it didn’t happen, in an odd shutting the stable door scenario to remove the existence and contribution of these people, however positive or negative their input was, from all recollection. Far from “rubbing the collective nose of African and Native Americans in the negative aspects of the past, through these figures, would it not make more sense to accept their place in history and learn from the mistakes they made?
Nathan Forrest may have had something to do with the massacre of 200 black Union troops at Fort Pillow. He may or may not have had an association with the origins of the Ku Klux Klan -arguably before their violent racial-political motivation gained impetus – but he was also a respected and highly motivated commander during the Civil War, despite having no military or tactical training. It was said that of all the commanders in the Confederate Army, Forrest was the one feared most by Union leaders, simply for his skill, courage and tenacity. The row surrounding the removal of his remains and their commemoration, has served only to invite present Klan chiefs to step in and attempt to take control of the situation with their offer to guard, pay for and organise a further reinternment under their own agenda.
Andrew Jackson made his own mistakes as President – he is not alone in that. He was also remembered for his devotion to his wife Rachel, particularly in the face of deeply personal taunts made by his political rival, John Quincy Adams, who Jackson felt drove her to her death from a suspected heart attack, with his consistent goading of the unfortunate circumstances of the Jackson marriage in its beginning.
Let’s stop campaigning to tear down statues of historical figures, in a knee-jerk attempt to apologise for actions that took place in a different time with different values and context. Who exactly are we apologizing to, anyway? And what for? We know the Indian Removal Act led to the re-settlement of Native Americans, away from their ancestral land. We know that it directly led to the ‘trail of tears’. We know the ripple effects are still being felt in 2016 with the Dakota Pipeline for example. But taking down Andrew Jackson’s statue isn’t going to change that; nor is it going to make things right. But it does seem to have the potential to negate any good that he did. Is that not worth the remembrance? Where do we draw the line? Who is next? Mark Twain maybe?