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Opinion: What legacy does Old Joe commemorate?
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The Confederate Memorial monument, commonly referred to as, "Old Joe," is pictured on the downtown Gainesville square. - photo by David Barnes

“To the defenders of the Confederacy, patriots.” These words are inscribed on the “Old Joe” statue on the Gainesville square. I read these words and think of my ancestors, six generations back, who died fighting for the South: John Morgan died in a prisoner of war camp in Indiana; Baxter Chumbley died after the siege of Vicksburg. Both men left widows who lived another 60 years and never remarried. Both widows were named Mary Ann and both lived into the 1920s to be buried in the Gainesville area. 

Mary Ann Morgan and Mary Ann Chumbley would have been alive to see Old Joe dedicated in 1909. I have no way of knowing their feelings on the occasion or if they felt a statue made up for the loss of their husbands in the war. White Southerners suffered immensely during the Civil War, and none more so than women who saw husbands and sons killed, wounded, maimed or missing. Able-bodied white men in the South enlisted in such proportions that few white families were left untouched by the violence. 

Great suffering leads to a search for meaning, and great crises can force us to cling for safety to what we think we know. The Civil War monuments of the South marked the first cycle of white reckoning with the meaning of this crisis, as the last survivors of the 1860s were reaching the end of their lives. It was a meaning born of defeat — an insistence that the South had been right, a defiance of the domineering North, and a belief in white supremacy and racial separation. 

Old Joe commemorates this interpretation of the Civil War. Is it also ours? The people of 1909 cannot choose for us. 

Does Old Joe indeed honor my Confederate ancestors? Perhaps some truths are still too painful to see. 

A Civil War South fighting a war to defend their property rights in slaves had a serious problem. Only a small minority (25%) of white Southerners owned slaves. How could they get the other 75% to fight? Poor whites were actually hurt by slavery, because they couldn’t compete with unpaid labor. The way around this dilemma was to make the war about “freedom” and “independence,” and to stoke white fears of the violence black people might do if not controlled by slavery. John Morgan and Baxter Chumbley were among the millions caught up in this myth. It was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight, and the poor died by the hundreds of thousands. 

If so many Southern soldiers were drawn into the war against their interests, do we honor them by perpetuating the myths that got them killed? I think not. 

Also inscribed on Old Joe’s pedestal is this biblical quote: “Tell ye your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.” Now it’s been three generations since 1909. A new cycle begins. What meanings of the Civil War will we pass on to our children? 

Kit Walker 

Gainesville 

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