At the Montana Preservation Road Show in Red Lodge on Thursday, somebody asked Carroll Van West what he thought about the controversy over the Confederate memorial in Helena.
What an off-the-wall question, I thought. But it turned out that West was the perfect person to answer it. He not only is a noted historian, author, college professor and preservationist, he served on the Tennessee Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission.
He replied that had he been asked to testify about the Helena memorial, he would have said the same thing he said in Tennessee: “It’s important to keep these layers of history within the landscape.” Memorials like the one in Helena show where we were in the past and where we could end up again, he said.
Take away references to the Confederacy and we risk losing our national memory of the horror and tragedy of the Civil War. Take away the tributes to the Confederacy erected during 100 years of Jim Crow laws that followed and we risk forgetting how terrible, and how recent, that oppression was.
We should not act like those things did not happen; instead, we should interpret those events so Americans today and in the future will understand what it all meant, Van West said.
That question about the memorial was followed by one about use of the Confederate flag. Van West said that depends on which flag is meant. The first official Confederate flag resembled the American flag, he noted, and rebelling states had their own flags.
The battle flag now most closely associated with the Confederacy was used fairly rarely in the Civil War, he said. In Tennessee, it was used in only one battle.
The battle flag didn’t become really prominent until the civil rights conflicts of the 20th century, Van West said. “That flag is a symbol of hate,” he said.
But the only flag that should really matter to Americans is the U.S. flag, Van West said.
“That’s the flag that speaks to me,” he said. “Those other flags? Put ’em in a museum.”
I’ve always had mixed feelings about this issue. On one hand, I don’t like papering over the past for the sake of political correctness. On the other, I don’t like seeing statues and flags honoring traitors.
Van West just unmixed my feelings.