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Thoughts on the placement of the Confederate statue

The Farmville Town Council has yet to make a final decision on where or whether the Confederate Heroes statue will stand.

ANGUS McCLELLAN

According to the town, the group is still waiting on the attorney general’s office to clarify the legal guidelines for how and when local governments can remove such statues. At this point, it appears the decision will rest at least partly on public opinion and on the council’s understanding of the statue’s meaning.

It is unfortunate that our passions for one position or the other have undermined efforts to arrive at any consensus on what should be done. The purpose of this column is to offer some thoughts on the meaning of the statue and point out some neutral principles the citizens and councilors could agree upon to reach a generally accepted decision.

There are at least four primary understandings of the meaning of the statue, which are necessarily tied to the perceived objects of the Civil War or the motives of the individual soldiers. The four primary perspectives are these: Northern political; Southern political; Northern soldiers; and Southern soldiers.

The Northern political ends of the war can be divided into at least two subcategories: first, to preserve the Union; second, to emancipate the slaves. Preserving the Union and enforcing federal laws was the objective initially, as Lincoln emphasized in his inaugural address and as Congress confirmed in the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution on July 25, 1861. Later added to this Northern political end was the second objective: to emancipate the slaves. Lincoln at least indirectly outlined this object no later than Jan. 1, 1863, the date of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Next, the Southern political ends can be divided into two subcategories: first, to preserve states’ rights, including the institution of slavery; second, to seek greater political liberty from an overbearing national government. The first object was demonstrated in some of the early declarations of causes of the seceding states, most notably those of Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Those declarations read quite clearly that preserving slavery was a motive for secession. The second object of seeking greater political liberty was demonstrated in Virginia and elsewhere following Lincoln’s call to arms. In February 1861, Virginia had voted to remain in the Union. But after Lincoln called on Virginia and other states to provide troops — an act perceived by many Southerners as unconstitutional — Virginia voted to secede. Lincoln’s well-known suspension of habeas corpus did little to dissuade Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee from seceding next.

The individual soldiers’ motives in the war can be subdivided into the Northern and Southern perspectives, each of which can be subdivided into a wide variety of subcategories. Northern soldiers fought variously to preserve the Union, to free slaves, to earn money, or simply because they were drafted, among other reasons. Many Southern soldiers fought to repel what they perceived to be a foreign invasion. They believed that the Northern armies would ravage their cities, burn their homes, and threaten the lives and safety of their families. Some fought to preserve their ways of life, which included white-dominated social, legal, political, or economic systems. Soldiers on both sides likely joined simply because their friends and relatives joined. As almost any individual soldier of any era would confirm, so often the blood and tears left on the battlefield were shed for the sake of the men standing next to him, and little or nothing more.

And so the Farmville Town Council will make its decision on where or whether the Confederate Heroes statue will stand. It seems reasonable that the decision should rest on the preferences of the citizens and the meaning of the statue. If there is no consensus on that meaning, then at a minimum the council should rely upon some neutral principle. That neutral principle is procedure — as long as the council strictly follows the legal procedure as dictated in the law, then none should protest the substantive outcome.

Among the fatal poisons to a self-governing republic is results-oriented, arbitrary governance, whether by the representatives themselves or by a threatening mob or faction. Maintaining the rule of law is far more important to the long-term health of our system than the results of a single policy debate.

ANGUS McCLELLAN, a Meherrin resident, was first raised in Cumberland County and was educated in southside Virginia. He was deployed to Iraq and served with Farmville’s Army National Guard unit in 2005. He is an indirect descendant of fellow Virginia veteran Maj. Henry B. McClellan, also of Cumberland, who rode with J.E.B. Stuart and was noted for bravery at the Battle of Brandy Station. McClellan’s email address is angusmcclellan@gmail.com.