By Sam Burnham
He stands atop the hill, his gaze fixed on the distant horizon. From atop his perch, he has sustained the onslaught of wind, rain, sleet, snow, and the sweltering Georgia sun with nothing but his homespun jacket and the brim of his hat to shield him from the elements. He has his rifle ready, yet not aimed.
His mission is not martial. He stands guard, not against foes with guns or sabers, but against time, forgetfulness, and apathy. His existence is intended to stand tall and gallant, "lest we forget". He stands for those who can no longer do so themselves - his courageous forebears whose bones, now dust, lie in neat rows beneath six feet of red Georgia clay. They came from all over. They died here. Some of their stones are adorned with their names, their home states, their units. Others are marked "Unknown", having fallen far from home leaving their loved ones to wonder where, when, how, and why their loved one was gone.
This particular sentinel stands alone, mostly out of the public eye. Many of his colleagues, those crafted with the same intended mission, have stood their watch on town squares and courthouse lawns across The South. Most face North, guarding against the threat their charges faced, symbolically guarding against further intrusion.
But these sentinels face a new threat. It's not a plague or invasion from far northern lands. This one is local. It's all around them. Ignorance, indifference. and the effort to focus any and all understanding of the Confederate side of the War Between the States on the role of slavery and nothing else, whatsoever. The effort insists that every single Southern participant in that conflict was fighting directly for nothing but the continuation of slavery and no other cause could have motivated any participation in the war. It claims that any person of any rank was the same as the most active and dedicated members of Hitler's SS and no one could ever find any nobility or character in any moment of any one of these soldiers' lives.
So all over our land, these sentinels are under attack. They are removed from our public squares. They are vandalized under cover of night by people who must be really brave, as assaulting a stone statue in the darkness requires an amazing level of valor.
But these sentinels stand for far more than these protests would ever be willing to admit. The men who lie in the clay have complex stories, as complex as the cause they took up. They were as complex as people today. None were perfect. The prayer books in their haversacks would teach them that. Some were better than others, just as men of our day.
But the sentinels also stand as a monument of what can happen when polarized political forces see no reconciliation between opposing policies. When politicians lose all hope of compromise and communication, things can get ugly. The sentinels should remind us to talk, to listen, to think. As long as one stands, there is a reminder of one of the darkest and most tragic times in American History. We can learn from it...or we can repeat it.
For now this particular sentinel stands. His glance remains set against the progression of time and the elements. He stands tall, a reminder of so many things, good and bad. His presence is much less threatening than his absence could ever be. Long may he stand.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire