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How We Remember The Past


November 16, 2011
The question of how we remember the past really matters. It is less a statement about history than a statement about who we are in the present and who we aspire to be in the future.

On a small rise east of the Missouri History Museum, the Confederate Memorial stands, rather unobtrusively, as testimony to enduring commitment and dedication to a cause, and as a witness to the conflict and controversy that our border city in a border state experienced because of the War Between the States. I see it also as a symbol of the continuing conflicts and divisions within our community.

Sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the memorial was approved by the city council in 1914 only after a stormy session of fierce protests and bitter objections — nearly 50 years after the Civil War had ended. Even now, 85 years after its unveiling, the monument is occasionally subjected to spray paint and other damages. These latter-day "protests" may be merely haphazard vandalism, but a scrawl of meaningless verbiage on its granite surface once reminded me that we are still a divided people, with much healing to accomplish.

A little further on, at an intersection near the Union Boulevard entrance to Forest Park, Union General Franz Sigel astride his charger peers into the distance, looking for signs of rebel forces. His military career was less than spectacular, but his dedication to the Union had rallied thousands of Germans to enlist in the Union cause. Erected in 1906, four years after the general's death, the Forest Park statue is a memorial "to remind future generations of the heroism of the German-American patriots of St. Louis and vicinity in the Civil War," the inscription declares.

As we observe the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we are looking at our nation's most divisive story. The Confederate monument and the statue of Sigel remind us that the story of St. Louis includes tragedies and unresolved conflicts as well as treasures and tales of hope and goodness. All of these stories have messages for us and for our future.

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