As someone who has systematically read, researched and published extensively on the American Civil War since 1978, I find the plan to prosecute the students for pulling down Silent Sam deeply troubling. The Board of Governors and the UNC administration have announced a desire to arrest and perhaps suspend individuals who broke the law by pulling down a statue, even though that statue was erected to intimidate African-American citizens and was dedicated to honor individuals who broke the law by seceding from the United States in violation of the Constitution, and in their efforts to make good on that secession took the lives of over 360,000 United States soldiers and sailors! The irony of that horribly misguided policy should escape no one. Imagine if North Carolinians of Japanese heritage wanted to erect a statue to honor Japanese soldiers in World War II or German-Americans sought to build a monument that commemorated the sacrifices of German soldiers in World War II. How would they react then?
I understand that many people want to honor the sacrifices and efforts of their ancestors, but Silent Sam represented the worst aspects and deeds of those ancestors — seceding from the United States of America to join a slave Confederacy and then killing, wounding or injuring hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers and sailors. That statue was offensive to African-Americans and all true believers in racial equality, and it was, or should have been, an insult to anyone who has ever donned the uniform of the United States armed forces, who has loved ones who wore it proudly or who care about those service men and women. As someone who teaches American military history, I cannot count the number of student-veterans who have expressed dismay to me over the statue and what it represents in their eyes: war against United States and the killing of its military personnel.
Ulysses S. Grant, who knew something about the Civil War, wrote of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” Rather than honor, the statue disrespected. Its remnants should be displayed in Wilson Library where its context and significance as a historical artifact should be available to educate students and the public for generations to come. Like the Confederate soldiers who Silent Sam was supposed to honor, those students who pulled it down should not be prosecuted. In accordance with Grant’s magnanimous surrender terms, “each officer and man will be allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.” So the University and the state should offer magnanimous terms to those students and allow them to return to school unpunished, so that we as a University can move beyond this disturbing episode in our lives.
Joseph T. Glatthaar
Stephenson Distinguished Professor of American Civil War Studies