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First Memorial Day after Trump: Americans need to honor those who saved the Union | COMMENTARY

The Union Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Baltimore was dedicated in 1909 to honor the citizen-soldier who fought for the Union in the Civil War.
The Union Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Baltimore was dedicated in 1909 to honor the citizen-soldier who fought for the Union in the Civil War. (Baltimore Sun staff)

This tells you something about how far we’ve come: In 1997, as part of Baltimore’s bicentennial celebrations, civic leaders rededicated two Civil War monuments on the same spring day — the Lee and Jackson Monument on Art Museum Drive and the Union Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Charles Village.

You couldn’t imagine a better example of both-sidesing history, with the city paying equal tribute to traitors and patriots.

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Twenty-four years later, the stunning Lee and Jackson statue, celebrating generals who led a bloody rebellion in an effort to preserve slavery in the South, is gone. It was famously removed one remarkable night in 2017, part of the way-overdue national movement to end public honors for dishonorable men.

Fortunately, the Union Soldiers and Sailors Monument still stands on the other side of Wyman Park Dell. I’ve admired it for years through the window of my southbound MTA bus as it cruises along Charles Street and starts to turn west on 29th.

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It’s a bold memorial to the citizens who became soldiers in the mid-19th century to save the Union and abolish slavery. In fact, if you look closely, you’ll see that the soldier figure at the front is still in the process of buckling the belt on his uniform. He’s leaving his plow and anvil behind, heading off to battle. The figures behind him are the helmeted Bellona, goddess of war, and the winged Victory.

The figures are in bronze. The sculptor was a German-American artist and architect named Adolph Alexander Weinman. The monument, authorized by the Maryland General Assembly and funded by the state, was first erected at Druid Hill Park but later removed to its present location when construction of the Jones Falls Expressway began.

Note the year of its dedication: 1909. By then, Baltimore already had two monuments celebrating white supremacy and the Confederate cause. A statue of Roger B. Taney, the Supreme Court chief justice who wrote the 1857 Dred Scott decision, holding that African Americans could never be considered American citizens, had stood for two decades in Mount Vernon Place. The Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument had been installed six years earlier in Bolton Hill.

So the Union monument was already outnumbered when, in 1917, another Confederate monument went up at North Charles and University Parkway. (The Lee-Jackson Monument dedication took place much later, in 1948.)

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Prime time for the commission and installation of Confederate monuments was from the 1890s to 1920, according to historians. It was all part of the Lost Cause movement, a revisionist crusade by descendants of the Confederacy to rehabilitate the Southern rebellion as something heroic and just. It was the Big Lie of its time.

The monuments went up in cities and towns during a time of segregation and widespread efforts to disenfranchise Black men. And you can pretty much track the escalation of lynchings of Black people with the erection of Confederate monuments. The lynching of Howard Cooper outside the old jail in Towson occurred around the same time William Walters commissioned the statue of Taney for Baltimore. Eighteen of the state’s 40 documented lynchings occurred during the height of the Confederate monument-building era, according to the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project.

So it’s good that Confederate statues have been removed from their pedestals. Farewell to all that.

But we should do more. We should purposefully and forcefully honor those who died for the Union. I don’t see or sense enough of that, even as the times in which we live beg for it.

On this Memorial Day 2021, we should reflect on the Civil War — not the battles and bearded generals, but the cause and its place in modern memory. (We should also clean up the trash around the Union Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Baltimore; there was a bunch there Friday morning.)

In the aftermath of the Donald Trump presidency and his supporters’ violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, apparently millions of Americans still hold that the 2020 presidential election was sufficiently fraudulent to deprive Trump of a second term. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll published just a few days ago, 53% of Republicans believe Trump is the “true president.” Republicans in Congress dumped one of their leaders for calling out the Big Lie. Most of them opposed forming an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. Republicans in legislatures across the nation are devising ways to make it harder for people — particularly people of color — to vote.

A rational American looks at all that and justifiably concludes that nearly half of the country has gone astray — immune to truth, embracing conspiracies and alternate realities, cultlike in devotion to a former president, more interested in “owning the libs” than in the common good.

And with so much cynicism and so much ignorance of the country’s rough history — the brutal racism, the sacrifices that had to be made to establish and save the republic — I find myself wondering nearly every day if it will survive.

One thing we can do is keep telling the story of how men and women long before us sacrificed to keep the fragile democracy going. It’s not enough to remove Confederate statues. Thousands died to save the union, defeat the evil of slavery and build a better country. The country needs to remember and honor them, now more than ever.

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