Recently my wife and I visited Petersburg, Virginia to attend the wedding of a family friend. While there we were saw some of the many historical sites in that area of the country. One of the most interesting was Blandford Church and Cemetery. The cemetery has graves dating back to 1702. After the siege of Petersburg, as much as a year afterwards, there were still bodies in unmarked shallow graves or even lying in the open on the field of battle. Most were confederates as the union troops had been given proper burials. The women of Petersburg knew these men were someone’s husband, son or father and felt it unseemly for their bodies to remain this way. So, they formed the Ladies Memorial Association of Petersburg and began raising funds to give these men proper burials on what became known as Memorial Hill near the church. In the end, they buried or repatriated the bodies of some 30,000 confederate soldiers, many in mass graves because they could not be individually identified in the days before dog tags.
But the most interesting aspect of the church is the windows. From 1904 to 1912, Louis Comfort Tiffany designed windows for the church, one for each southern state, to commemorate the men who gave their lives at Petersburg. It is one of the few buildings in the world where every window is a Tiffany window. The windows are works of art, each featuring a different character from the Bible and the seal of the state to which it’s dedicated. Each state also wrote an inscription to their war dead that Tiffany incorporated in the window. The window for my own state of Georgia features St. Thomas.
While touring the church, I thought of ongoing attempts across the south, most recently in New Orleans, to purge confederate history from the public square. When seeking to remake a society in their own image, totalitarians always seek to destroy its history. This is often done by reducing history to a binary, everything associated with a particular event or time is evil and so must be destroyed whereas everything the new guard are seeking is good and must displace the old.
This happened after the French Revolution and during every communist revolution including Mao’s Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution, thousands of Chinese historical sites were destroyed by the communists. I wonder how long it will be before this beautiful church is in the cross hairs of our own version of the cultural revolution?
An historic event is never about only one thing and so can rarely be classified wholesale as good or evil. And the participants in the event are never in lock-step as to their motivation for what they do. Anyone who tells you they are is either ignorant of history or seeking to manipulate you.
My great, great grandfather, James Robert Farlow was in the 9th Georgia Light Artillery. They fought in the Chickamagua campaign in October, 1863 and saw action at the siege of Petersburg in 1865. They surrendered with the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865. He owned no slaves. He was a simple man who returned from the war and went to work farming to feed his family. He once stood for alderman in College Park, GA but as far as I can tell that’s as high profile as he ever got. He passed away in 1915 at the age of 76 having raised seven children. Most of the soldiers of the confederacy were like this, probably most of the soldiers of the union as well. They were men caught up in something bigger than themselves who answered the call to fight for their state and defend their homes and families. They fought with courage and honor. Some of them returned home, many did not.
When I was in Moldova on a mission trip many years ago, I noticed every village had a monument to the soldiers of the village who gave their lives during the Second World War. The Soviet Union was gone by the time I was there and with it Communism, but the monuments remained. Because, like my great, great grandfather, these men were not fighting so much for a larger, political cause, in this case to uphold communism, but to defend their homes and families. To lump them all together as godless communists seeking to prop up Stalin and so deserving of no remembrance would be an insult to them and to those who loved them.
To remember men like this is not only right but it is honorable and those who say otherwise know not honor.