Silent Sam’s ability to divide will carry on

Silent Sam ended up on Monday where the statue has been forever destined — face down in the northern quad at the University of North Carolina, just a few steps from Franklin Street.

A mob of protesters were clever in their approach, first concealing the statue as lawmen looked on and then bringing it down about 9 p.m. to cheers as a video camera captured it all. We hope those who brought it down are pursued and prosecuted, because vandalism should not be tolerated. But should that happen, we lean toward leniency when it comes toward punishment, and the reasons why follow.

The statue, the work of Canadian sculptor John Wilson at a cost of $7,500 in that day’s dollars, had stood in McCorkle Place since 1913, when it was placed there as part of the 50th anniversary of the start of the Civil War by university alumni and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It was intended as a memorial to the university’s students who died in the deadliest of all of this nation’s wars.

Sam, who was positioned to face northward, held a rifle, but it was without a cartridge, thus rendering him “silent.” A bronze plaque depicted a young student leaving behind his books to head to war, and at the bottom of the statue was a woman, representing the state, making a call on behalf of the Southern cause.

Sam’s fate was likely sealed during the dedication by Julian Carr, a UNC graduate and Confederate soldier who spoke long and included this: “The present generation … scarcely takes note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war … their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.”

This is seen as a reference to the terror the Ku Klux Klan inflicted on blacks in the aftermath of the war.

But it got worse: “One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds because she had maligned and insulted a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison.”

So those words of hate were forever wed to Silent Sam, and no number of years can whitewash them away.

The town of Carrboro, incidentally, is named for Carr — at least for now.

We are not a fan of efforts to sanitize our history because it is a task without an ending, and we much preferred a different fate for Sam. But UNC’s hands were unnecessarily bound by the Republican-led General Assembly that adopted legislation preventing its relocation to a safer and more appropriate place.

Perhaps the statue can be restored and resurrected at such a venue, and not beside a street and on a campus that are populated by people of all shades.

What is always absent in these discussions is empathy. We wish those who are angered today would try to understand how a young black man or woman must have felt when walking past Silent Sam, and we wish those who are pleased would remember that a lot of teenage boys who didn’t own a slave nor understood The Cause for which they had been summoned, simply fought because that was what was expected.

We will have to trust that no efforts to return Silent Sam to where it has been for 105 years will be satisfied — although we know that call will be made. But those who make it, and those who brought Silent Sam down on Monday, should understand that even though he has lost his place, his ability to divide us will endure.

Some, sadly, will find solace in that.

We don’t.