The Silverdale Confederate Cemetery is shoehorned between I-75 and the WoodSpring Suites parking lot on Old Lee Highway. Just north of the cemetery is the Harley Davidson store, and across the street are Waffle House and Motel 6. McKay’s Used Books & CDs is just up the road. It’s an odd picture, this little burial ground dating back to the most consequential period in American history, now with line of sight to brand logos nobody had dreamed up back then.
Signage at the cemetery indicates there are 155 unknowns buried there, plus a handful of identified dead, all Confederate soldiers, most of whom died in field hospitals that had been set up around Chattanooga in 1862. If I remember my history correctly, Civil War field hospitals on both sides were essentially torture chambers gussied up like infirmaries. Medicine hadn’t matched pace with the far-advanced destructive power of Civil War weaponry. Porcelain bowls sloshing with blood. Wounded arms and legs that had to be hacksawed off. Moonshine for anesthesia.
On the one hand, the Silverdale Confederate Cemetery has the feel of a normal cemetery, normal as cemeteries go. The grass is clipped, and the low stone walls around it lend dignity to what’s inside. If you can ignore the freeway’s hum, it’s fairly quiet, a nice place to privately reflect and remember. On the other hand, in light of the increasingly vociferous national conversation about what we should or shouldn’t do with Confederate monuments, there’s a bit of a pall hanging over the place. If the buried could talk, they might ask, “What’s going to happen to us?”
One hundred and fifty-two years after the end of the Civil War and we the people of the United States of America are still grappling with the systemic racism embedded in our history. It’s our national discomfort. It’s our original sin. When it comes to the present-day issue of what to do with Confederate monuments, I understand it this way: The governments and groups of protestors who’ve either quietly removed or raucously dragged down Confederate monuments have done so not from a desire to revise history. Rather, the removals have been spurred by an upwelling of anger and sadness. A century and a half on and we’ve still not put racial injustice to bed. The men on the pedestals are incorporations—literally set in stone—of that injustice. We grow weary, it seems, of memorializing it.
The monuments are for the big guys, of course, the Robert E. Lees and Stonewall Jacksons and Jefferson Davises, the ones people can easily point to and say: “They’re the ones. We fought the Civil War because they seceded, and they seceded because they wanted slaves.” It’s more complicated than that, no doubt, but make no mistake, whatever the peripheral reasons both the North and the South had for fighting the Civil War, if there’d been no slavery, there would have been no war. Lee, Jackson, Davis et al. perhaps exuded a dignified gentility, even chivalry, in their affairs, but they were and still are—and, sadly, forever will be—on the wrong side of history. It may be true that Lee’s primary reason for heading up the Army of Northern Virginia was that he couldn’t bring himself to fight his Virginia home. Less so that he vehemently wanted to preserve slavery. But in so choosing, he aligned himself—and therefore identified himself—with those in favor of a particularly vicious version of systematized racism. Lee cast his lot with those who thought one man could own another the way he owns a briefcase. From that point of view, perhaps the “remove the monuments” groundswell is a bit more understandable.
But back to the little guys. At the Silverdale Confederate Cemetery, no one is mounted on high-stepping chargers atop festooned plinths. The 155 don’t even have their names anymore. They left their homes and, to those they left behind, seemed simply to vanish. The few marked gravestones in the cemetery indicate the men buried beneath came from Mississippi. Imagine marching all the way from Mississippi to Tennessee just to bleed out in a crude field hospital.
It’s a historical guess, but I’d think the 155 unknowns interred at Silverdale were each and every one of them poor country boys. Most, if not all, probably didn’t own slaves. Probably they went to war out of a vague sense of duty. Maybe they’d heard something like, “Give the Yankees hell! Preserve our way of life!” As power elites (Lee, Jackson, Davis, ad nauseam) are prone to do, particularly in wartime, they turned farmers into haphazard soldiers by instilling the fear that their core identities were in mortal danger. Who would say no?
Certainly this is not to excuse a single person—general down to buck private—for defending a way of life rooted in the forcible subjugation of one man by another. The 155 are just as much on the wrong side of history as the men who commanded them. But, while those commanders enjoyed the freedom to choose whether they’d fight, the 155 dead unknowns likely did not have that freedom. At least not nearly to the degree their generals did. One can imagine Lee agonizing over the decision whether to fight for the Confederacy, and in so imagining, Lee becomes a sympathetic figure. What a choice, we might say, the poor soul. Yet the instant he chose, he and other Confederate leaders faced with similar choices, buried those men without so much as their names. Silverdale Confederate Cemetery, then, becomes a true place of memorialization, but not for the Confederacy. For the lives of the unknowns attached to leaders who’d willfully attached themselves to the most deplorable practice in American history.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, “Animal Heart,” is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.