john kenna and three spoilers

Yesterday the House of Representatives passed legislation to remove the statues of leaders and soldiers of the Confederate States of America from the National Statuary Hall Collection in the US Capitol. The vote was 285 to 120. The 120 members of Congress who voted to keep the statues of Confederates were all Republicans.

(SPOILER #1: The Confederate States of America was an illegal and unrecognized breakaway entity of eleven US states that, from February 8, 1861, to May 9, 1865, fought in a bloody, armed rebellion against the legitimate government of the United States of America in an effort to maintain an economic system grounded in human bondage.)

The statues include:

CSA President Jefferson Davis — owned 113 slaves; believed the right to own black slaves created the foundation for white equality (I’m not making that up).
CSA Vice President Alexander Stephens — owned at least 30 slaves; said the Confederacy was built upon “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
CSA Gen. Joseph Wheeler — owned as many as 300 slaves; in Dec. of 1864, when hundreds of liberated slaves followed Union Gen. Sherman’s forces on their ‘March to the Sea’, Wheeler’s troops came across app. 600 former slaves stranded by US forces on the banks of the Ebenezer Creek — they killed and drowned many, captured and resold the rest back into slavery.
CSA Gen. James Z. George — owned app. 30 slaves; believed African slaves should be treated ‘fairly’ but weren’t capable of ‘responsible citizenship’; changed Mississippi’s post-war constitution to enable illiterate white men to vote while excluding illiterate blacks.
CSA Gen. Wade Hampton III — owned app. 3000 slaves; post-war he was elected governor of South Carolina with help of the Red Shirts militia, which used violence to suppress black voting; an estimated 150 black freedmen were murdered during the campaign.
CSA Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith — owned an unknown number of slaves, one of whom (likely his half-brother) accompanied him as a servant during the Civil War (and later became Jacksonville, Florida’s first black doctor); Smith was the last CSA general to surrender.
CSA Col. Zebulon Baird Vance — owned 18 slaves; believed emancipation of black slaves was a threat to white purity; said the mind “recoils in disgust and loathing from the prospect of intermingling the quick blood of the European with the putrid stream of African barbarism.”
CSA soldier John E. Kenna — owned 0 slaves; joined the Confederate Army at age 16, after the war became a politician noted for improving the Kanawha River navigation system and defending the president’s power to fire executive branch officials.
CSA soldier Edward Douglass White — owned app. 60 slaves; after the war he took part in the Battle of Liberty Place–an attempted insurrection against the Reconstruction state government of Louisiana by the Crescent City White League, a paramilitary terrorist organization made up largely of Confederate veterans; they occupied the statehouse, armory, and downtown for three days before arrival of Federal troops that restored the elected government; he was eventually appointed to the SCOTUS, where he voted to uphold Jim Crow laws stripping black Americans of civil rights.

You may be wondering 1) why the National Statuary Hall even has statues of men who betrayed their nation in the defense of slavery, and 2) why anybody would support keeping the statues of traitors in the Capitol Building (especially after that building had been assaulted by an insurrectionist mob attempting to disrupt the legitimate election of a new president). The answer to both of those questions is as follows: a lot of Republican politicians are massive assholes and/or racists who are okay with folks overthrowing the legitimate government if it will put Republicans in charge.

(SPOILER #2: 121 Republicans in the House voted also against certifying Arizona’s electoral outcome and 138 House Republicans voted against certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral outcome even though both states certified their election results as legitimate.)

I’m glad the statues are being removed…but I’m also a tad troubled by the inclusion of John Kenna. The resolution pertains to statues of “any individual who served voluntarily at any time as a member of the Armed Forces of the Confederate States of America or of the military of a State while the State was in open rebellion against the United States.” And yeah, that’s John Kenna, right there.

John E. Kenna

Here’s why I’m troubled. Kenna was just a grunt. An enlisted soldier. But his statue is being treated as equally offensive as that of the president of the Confederacy and the military leaders of the CSA. Kenna was only 16 and had little education when he joined the CSA, he never held any high military rank, neither he nor any of his family owned slaves, there’s no written record of him promoting slavery or white supremacy before or after the war. But his statue is being given the same treatment as the statue of Jefferson Davis.

Did Kenna fight on the wrong side of the war? Absolutely. But he was just a kid. Did he fight against the legitimate government of the United States? Yep, he did. But he was just a kid. Did he fight in favor of an economic system that dehumanized black people? Yes, he surely did. But he was just a kid. Did he believe slavery was right? I don’t know…maybe. Probably, since he grew up with it and didn’t know any better because he was just a kid. My guess–and I admit I have nothing at all to base this on–is that Kenna had no more sense of what he was fighting for or against than the kids who fought in Vietnam. My guess is John Kenna went where he was told to go, shot who he was told to shoot at, and did what he thought was his duty.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it. You make choices, even as a kid. And you own those choices, even if you were acting out of ignorance. John Kenna volunteered to put on the uniform and fight for the Confederacy. So his statue has to go. Has to.

John E. Kenna

But we don’t have cheer for it. We can celebrate the removal of the leaders of the Confederacy, the men who knew what they were doing and why. But when we remove Kenna’s statue, we need to remember the reality that enlisted personnel are tools that our leaders use for their own purposes.

(SPOILER #3: Think about John Kenna when you hear that South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem has authorized a Republican billionaire to fund the deployment of her National Guard troops to the Mexican border at the request of Texas Republican Gov. Gregg Abbott.)

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