Dick Dowling, Kirby Smith, and the Future of Confederate Monuments
Sunday afternoon I attended the annual Dick Dowling Statue Ceremony in Houston. I had the pleasure of speaking at this event two years ago, with an essay called, “Dick Dowling and the Immigrant’s Call to Arms.” The weather was a lot nicer on Sunday than it was in 2014.
The keynote address this year, “Apologies, Amnesia, and Forgiveness: The Irish, the Brits, and the Confederates,” was written by Judge Mark Davidson, who currently oversees asbestos litigation cases around the state. (Judge Davidson wasn’t able to attend in person, and the address was presented very ably by his wife and son.) As you might surmise from the title, it took on the current pushback against Confederate iconography, and used the 2011 state visit by Queen Elizabeth to the Irish Republic as an example of reconciliation between parties with a fraught and violent history. It was a novel argument, but more disappointing was rest of the address, which jumped from one worn cliché to another — erasing history, most soldiers didn’t own slaves, political correctness run amok, and so on. When it did get into specific historical detail, there were problems; the judge asserted that census records showed that Dowling didn’t own slaves, which is true in only the narrowest sense; the census shows that Dowling actually hired someone else’s slaves to work for him (see here and here).
I really do wish that the judge had made a stronger, affirmative argument for Dowling, specifically. As I said in a post a couple of months back, Dick Dowling was deeply embedded in the civic and cultural life of Houston in the 1860s, entirely apart his wartime service and the Battle of Sabine Pass. The volatile, contentious discussions we’re having now in this country about Confederate monuments are, in my view, a good and healthy thing; it’s worth taking a step back every couple of generations and asking, is this what we really honor?, does this person’s life reflect values we hold dear? There is no single answer, of course; the answer in every case must necessarily be different. One community will reach a different answer than the next one, and that’s fine. But we should never be afraid to ask those questions, or to challenge long-held assumptions.
This is where, I believe, the Confederate Heritage™ community has come unmoored and is completely adrift. They demand that no one ask such questions, or challenge those assumptions. The move to replace the statue of E. Kirby Smith in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol is a good example. Instead of making an affirmative case in support of retaining Smith’s likeness by citing why he is — and should be — relevant to Floridians in 2016, the “defense” of Smith’s statue was reduced to carping about “HEROS and VILLANS,” and screaming about how the removal of the statue “dishonors” American veterans. It’s funny how, when it’s a Confederate monument under consideration, they want Confederates to be thought of as U.S. veterans, but go absolutely out of their ever-lovin’ minds when someone proposes placing a battlefield monument to actual U.S. veterans — at least when those U.S. veterans were mostly African Americans.
So here’s my suggestion — if you want to save Confederate monuments, take them one by one and make an actual case that will convince the general public in that community — people who are skeptical or indifferent to the nonsense that passes for “truth” in heritage circles. Do your research, and get after it.