Bill Straub: In the debate about Confederate statues, the real issue is who deserves to be honored

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WASHINGTON – Remove if you must the hoary statues found in our public squares dedicated to those who perpetuated treason under the banner of the Lost Cause, but by all that is holy spare the John Hunt Morgan figure that rests proudly covered in pigeon droppings on the front lawn of what was once the Fayette County Courthouse.

The survival of this noble sculpture is necessary for several reasons, not the least of which is its attraction for artistically-minded University of Kentucky wags who, in the past, have used it as a canvass for their creative yearnings.

For those unfamiliar with said sculpture, it depicts Gen. Morgan, in full Confederate regalia, astride a most impressive stallion, easily identified as a stallion by his, well, his equipment, let’s say. Over the years, those inclined have, to the chagrin of Lexington city fathers and, presumably, mothers, opted to paint on occasion a certain portion of the horse’s anatomy that would not be available had he been gelded.

Photo from Wikipedia

Often the colors were blue-and-white, one each, of course, in honor of UK’s vaunted athletic teams. But the piece de resistance always came when the hated University of Tennessee Volunteers ventured into town, resulting in the most private of the steed’s private parts being painted in a glorious neon orange that, under proper conditions, could probably be seen from the upper deck of old Stoll Field.

Since Lexington has transformed into a serious metropolis as opposed to its erstwhile status as a sleepy college town with ambitions of Southern tranquility, the tradition of horse painting seems to have fallen off. Tis a pity. But those fortunate enough to have observed this artistic triumph can testify to the historic value of the monument, painted white by neighborhood avians and orange by the fraternity boys.

Despite the obvious intrinsic, historic value of this great work of Confederate art, Lexington is joining with dozens of municipalities and states that have recently opted to remove from public view the concrete, marble and bronze depictions of “heroes’’ – a most suspect of terms – from the land of cotton where old times are not forgotten, setting off a generally anticipated round of gasps from the usual Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis apologists.

Somehow, removing these oftentimes awful, mass-produced statues is being compared to burying or denying history, with governmental authorities supposedly acting as if the Civil War was a collective figment of the nation’s imagination. Defenders of the works depicting intrepid Confederate military men who bravely sought to keep African slaves subjugated represent a valuable educational tool resulting in deep philosophical discussions about the War of Northern Aggres…the War Between the St…I mean the Civil War.

The John Hunt Morgan statue gives the lie to all that. For one thing it’s historically inaccurate. As previously noted it depicts him riding a stallion. Morgan’s horse was a mare, named Black Bess. The sculptor, one Pompeo Coppini, decided to make the sex change, declaring that “No hero should bestride a mare!”

So there’s that.

But it depicts Morgan as heroic, although history shows his striving toward that status comes up short. Briefly, in July 1863 Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, looking to fortify his position in Eastern Tennessee, sought to keep Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside occupied and, therefore, as far away as possible. He approved a plan sending Hunt and about 3,000 cavalrymen through Kentucky, perhaps hitting Louisville, to divert Burnside’s attention.

Under no circumstances, Bragg ordered, was Morgan to cross the Ohio River.

So of course he did.

Morgan hit southern Indiana, which frankly, was fertile with copperheads who probably had no problem with Morgan or any other Confederate general traipsing through anyway, and into Ohio where he ultimately was captured near Salineville. Morgan, history shows, ventured further north than any other greyback general. But his incursion achieved no tactical advantage for the Confederacy – Tecumseh Sherman and the Army of the Tennessee ultimately took both Knoxville and Chattanooga – and it cost Johnny Reb something of great value – an entire regiment.

Morgan escaped from prison and returned to the Confederate lines where he once again led raids into Kentucky, even though he had lost Bragg’s confidence. He was killed in action near Greenville, TN, in September 1864. History shows he was more showboat than military genius.

But there Morgan sits, on his ersatz horse, placed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy for protecting the abomination of slavery, although not very well.

Now exactly what John Hunt Morgan. R.E. Lee and the rest of them did that can today be considered noble and worthy of memorial status is difficult to comprehend. Many of them proved capable in their chosen field but that doesn’t make what they did right. John Dillinger was pretty good at robbing banks but you won’t find a statue of him, tommy gun in hand, parked in front of a Wells Fargo branch.

Those opposed to removing the offending objects maintain that to do so would somehow erase a substantive part of American history. Huh? Can anyone argue that removing a statue memorializing an individual who did great harm to the United States will lead anyone to forget that the nation was once engaged in a great Civil War? Hardly. What it does is remove the image of an individual unworthy of respect from the pedestal, both real and symbolic, he has been placed upon.

It raises a serious question: Who is more deserving of a distinguished spot in the Kentucky State Capitol, a symbol of slavery, like Davis, or someone like Georgia Davis Powers, a powerful African-American woman who served as state senator and was a leading advocate for civil and women’s rights?

These statues were never intended to spark a serious historical discussion and there’s no reason to think that a concrete Stonewall Jackson is going to start one now. They were placed in public squares by individuals who got a lump in their throat every time the band struck up “Dixie,’’ providing them with fond recollections of antebellum days when people knew their place.

The web site Vox summed it up pretty well: “The historical record is actually pretty clear: The Confederacy was always about white supremacy, and so are the monuments dedicated to it. Much of America is now coming to terms with that — but not without a passionate, sometimes violent reaction from those who argue the statues are necessary symbols of white heritage and culture.’’

If you derive some sort of pride from a hunk of metal symbolizing the fight to maintain slavery, you might want to reconsider your priorities.

This debate has been ongoing about the presence of the Jefferson Davis statue in the Capitol Rotunda. St. Matt the Divine, the prophet from New Hampshire, a governor who never turns down an opportunity to disappoint, once voiced support for transferring the former president of the Confederacy, a man born in Fairview but who barely had time for a cup of coffee before heading to Mississippi. Now St. Matt is shuffling his feet and changing the subject when it emerges.

It raises a serious question: Who is more deserving of a distinguished spot in the Kentucky State Capitol, a symbol of slavery, like Davis, or someone like Georgia Davis Powers, a powerful African-American woman who served as state senator and was a leading advocate for civil and women’s rights?

Some argue that those statues have been there for a long time, so why are they under attack now. It was Hugo who said “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.’’ Another great philosopher, Bruce Springsteen, added in Independence Day, “there’s just different people coming down here now and they see things in different ways. And soon everything we’ve known will just be swept away.’’

Some things deserve to be swept away.

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Washington correspondent Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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