Monday, October 6, 2014

To the Soldiers of the Confederacy, Wilmington NC

An upright granite stele bearing inscriptions and a bronze figural sculpture in high relief. Sculpture depicts a standing Confederate soldier and a fallen soldier, the latter lying on the ground behind the feet of the former. The standing soldier is hatless, wears a military overcoat with cape which is flying open, shirt, trousers, and boots; he holds his rifle in his proper right hand and props its butt-end on the ground; his proper left arm is bent with the hand held in front of the body and he gazes forward in stern resolve. Fallen soldier below has bandaged forehead and head slumps onto proper right shoulder; a canteen lies beneath his proper right arm. Figures represent courage (standing) and self-sacrifice (recumbent).

Francis Herman Packer, sculptor; Henry Bacon, designer; Roman Bronze Works, founder.
DATE: 1924
MEDIUM: Sculpture: bronze; Base: granite.

Median of 3rd Street at Dock Street
Wilmington, North Carolina

The figure of sacrifice...
On my trip to Wilmington, North Carolina I specifically asked to see a Civil War Monument, because up here in Rhode Island, we celebrate the war (through sculpture) from the point of view of being winners. I had read and seen pictures of Southern monuments that seem to celebrate the war not as a loss, but as some sort of moral victory. In a sense, the Civil War was continued after the fact as a sort of propaganda cold war between the different states, with both sides availing themselves of the best artists, designers and bronze works available to create their messages.

This piece is extraordinary. It could be the poster for a movie or the cover of a comic book, but it celebrates the efforts of those who wished to continue the terrible, anti-human practice of slavery.

The sculptor of this piece, Herman Packer, also helped sculpt the General William Draper statue on display in Milford Massachusetts. Draper was a Northern General in the Civil War. So the Roman Brass Works in New York didn't discriminate on ideological grounds.

The art is beautiful, but to what service is this art being put? The City of Wilmington, in particular, has an ugly history of racial violence and the "Wilmington Insurrection," in which a group of white men seized control of the city with violence and murder stands as "an affirmation of white supremacy not just in that one city, but in the South and in the nation as a whole." I say this entirely mindful of the extraordinary wealth generated by Rhode Islanders during the slave trade, money that allowed Rhode Island to take the lead in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, which made our tiny state the richest in the union by 1898, the year of the insurrection in Wilmington.

I don't think any state is clean of the stain of slavery.

Monuments like the one we are considering are not monuments to courage and sacrifice despite their pretensions and as beautiful as they may be. They are monuments to white supremacy, and reminders of our violent history, a history that continues to this day in places like Ferguson.

It's fast approaching the time when we need to reconsider the meaning and purpose of these monuments. It's not enough to dismiss them as products of a less enlightened time. We have to see these monuments for what they are, celebrations of racism and white entitlement.

Courage takes a musket ball from his pouch, his eyes on the enemy...

No comments:

Post a Comment