Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
We have an argument of sorts brewing in Charleston. What words do we want visitors to see on a pedestal supporting the tall, dominating statue of John C. Calhoun on Marion Square? What’s been written there for more than a hundred years? Or what do some want to write there in its place? My advice, for what it’s worth, is let well enough alone.
Calhoun served as a U.S. representative, senator, secretary of war, secretary of state, and twice as vice president of the United States, once under John Quincy Adams and a second time under Andrew Jackson (who once threatened to have him hanged). He died in 1850, and is buried in St. Philip’s west cemetery here in Charleston.
His statue was erected in 1898 by “The Ladies Calhoun Monument Association.” Later, it was donated to the city. Marion Square itself is not owned by the city. It’s owned jointly by the Washington Light Infantry and the Sumter Guards. (Full disclosure: I’m a longtime member of the WLI and writer of its official history.)
The Calhoun statue is not the first nor likely the last monument in Charleston and elsewhere that activists have in their sights. Not long ago, a monument on The Battery was splashed with paint.
In North Carolina, just a little over a week ago, a bronze statue dubbed “Silent Sam” was toppled by campus radicals at the University of North Carolina. The statue, representing a Confederate soldier, carried this dedication on its base: “In remembrance to the sons of the University who died for their beloved Southland, 1861-1865.” It had stood there since 1913. University officials are still trying to decide where and if to replace it. Elsewhere, other statues, monuments, place names, etc., have been removed or threatened. In New York City, Columbus Circle is under attack.
Historic plaques, monuments and statues have a value all their own. Taken in context, they say a lot about the times when this city, state and country were struggling to recover from the horrific wounds suffered in the Civil War and Reconstruction, wounds suffered by whites and blacks alike.
One in five South Carolinians who fought for the Confederacy, died for the Confederacy. This was double the death rate in other Southern states, and four times that in the North. Charleston’s Washington Light Infantry counted 114 dead out of the 414 who served. No one really knows how many others came home as amputees or in otherwise ruinous physical and mental conditions.
“We are (I am quite sure)” wrote Emma Holmes in her diary, “the last of the race of South Carolina, but on that very account, I cherish its precious relics the more. My ambition is dead, and I think only of repose and social enjoyment and usefulness [in the] hereafter.”
An early visitor to Charleston after the war called it “a city of ruins, of desolation, of vacant houses, of widowed women, of rotten wharves, of deserted warehouses, of weed-wild gardens, of miles of grass-grown streets, of acres of pitiful and voiceful barrenness. ...”
Look at our beautiful city today, and think what those widowed and impoverished women, war-crippled soldiers and others went through to rebuild Charleston and make it what it is today. Do not they, their history and their ancestors deserve an undoctored monument and a plaque or two?
No right-thinking person today excuses the sins of slavery, an abomination that officially ended in the United States six generations and some 150 years or so ago.
I think, though, that destroying, defacing, renaming, or attempting to put a different spin on monuments and statues that, like it or not, are part of our heritage and past, is only going to worsen and prolong social divisions in our city, state and country. Let’s get over this.
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.