By Colin Woodward
I saw an article today about the unveiling of a Patrick Cleburne statue in Helena, Arkansas. I visited Helena last summer. It’s a mostly African American city that has a rich musical and military past. I wonder if there will be some debate about Cleburne’s statue. As far as Confederate leaders go, Cleburne was one of the “good ones.” He was not only a great general, he also formulated a plan in early 1864 that would have armed some of the Confederacy’s slaves in order to fight. Cleburne was no abolitionist, but he never owned slaves, and he was willing to go much further than any of his comrades to advance the cause of black enlistment.
Still, in 2012, it seems odd for city to be erecting new monuments to Confederate leaders. Yes, it’s the sesquicentennial, and Helena is trying to beef up its historical tourism. And yes, Cleburne was from Helena and is buried there (though he was killed in Tennessee). Usually, though, these types of things get political. Maybe it will. The Helena Museum is privately funded, but it seems as if public money went to the creation of the monument for a Confederate leader.
It’s been an interesting week for Arkansans and historical memory. Rep. Jon Hubbard of Jonesboro apparently thinks slavery did African Americans a favor. And now the state has erected a monument to Confederate leader. The Old South sometimes seems not to be so old.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.