John E. Kenna Was No Robert E. Lee
Posted on 08.27.17 by Danny Glover @ 2:57 pm

West Virginia doesn’t have a “Confederate statue” inside the U.S. Capitol, but you wouldn’t know it by reading the reports of historically ignorant journalists in Washington.

In their rush to pile onto the growing pile of maligned Confederate statues, the media recently set their sights on the National Statuary Hall Collection. What better place to prop up more straw men for knocking down than in a building with 100 famous statues?

This particular angle to the debate over the Confederacy piqued my interest when I first saw it in The Washington Post because the disparity appeared egregiously unjust at face value. “The U.S. Capitol has at least three times as many statues of Confederate figures as it does of black people,” blared the ridiculously long but seemingly fact-based headline.

The problem is that readers can’t take anything the media report these days at face value, especially when it involves an explosive topic like race. Many journalists are hard-wired to assume that racism exists whenever outrage about it grows loud enough. And they have no interest in digging deep into a story line if their research might undermine their assumptions.

So it is with the attack on “Confederate statues.”

The contempt implied in the loaded phrase may make sense when the focus is on prominent rebels like Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Vice President Alexander Stephens and Gen. Robert E. Lee. But as a native of West Virginia, I grew suspicious of the coverage when I saw in the Post a map of states with supposedly Confederate statues.


A state riven by war
Anyone who actually knows history knows that West Virginia became a state when the North illegally ripped 50 counties from Virginia’s boundaries during the Civil War. West Virginia created five more counties after the war, naming two of them after President Abraham Lincoln and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, heroes of the Union.

I didn’t immediately reject the idea that elected leaders in West Virginia could have chosen to memorialize a Confederate with one of its two monuments at the Capitol. After all, 18,000 West Virginians fought for the Confederacy.

West Virginia’s Capitol also is home to a statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. At the statue’s dedication in 1910, the United Daughters of the Confederacy called Jackson “the greatest and most illustrious man ever born on the soil of West Virginia, a typical soldier, patriot and Christian.”

Union troops, on the other hand, weren’t recognized with the Mountaineer Soldier statue for two more years, and a prominent memorial to Lincoln didn’t appear until 1974.

But it still seemed odd that a state formed in the Civil War would have recognized a Confederate leader in the U.S. Capitol. With that history in mind, I turned to a remarkable storehouse of information called the Internet for answers.

My first stop was the official list of the 100 statues in question. It soon became clear that the journalists who wrote stories about the “Confederate statues” had done the same thing. I’m pretty sure their research into the history of Sen. John E. Kenna, D-W.Va., consisted of reading one phrase – “he served with General Shelby in the Confederate Army and was wounded.”

To be fair, I didn’t know who Kenna was before the recent news coverage of statues inspired my own self-paced West Virginia history lesson. But I keyed in on a phrase earlier in the same sentence. Kenna fought for the Confederacy “at the age of 16.”

That is important context. There is a huge difference between an impressionable teenager who went to war and a general who led that war or the politicians who instigated it. To borrow a phrase from news coverage of rioters in Charlottesville, Va., there is no moral equivalency between such characters.

The journalists who lumped in Kenna’s statue with other Confederate statues in the Capitol would have known that had they bothered to read up on the man. I did. This is what I learned.

The boy, the man, the legend
John Kenna was born to Edward and Margery Kenna near present-day St. Albans, W.Va., on April 10, 1848. When John was only 8 years old, two of his uncles shot his father to death in an apparent spat related to the pending divorce of his parents.

Two years later for financial reasons, the mother moved her three children to Missouri to live with her relatives. As an adult, John Kenna recounted with pride working the family’s plantation with “a prairie plow and four yoke of steers” at age 11.

The Civil War was nearing its end by the time he joined the Confederate military in 1864. But it was a hard year for Kenna as part of the Missouri Iron Brigade led by Gen. Joseph Shelby. At one point he was shot in the shoulder and arm and kept fighting. He eventually spent six months in a hospital and rejoined his unit in June 1865 to surrender at Shreveport, La.

That’s not exactly the kind of distinguished military career that earns a man a statue, but Kenna’s professional achievements as an adult certainly qualified him.

After the war, the Kennas moved back to Kanawha County in the newly created state of West Virginia. Young John initially found a job in salt-making, but his determination to rise above that station in life led him to enroll in St. Vincent’s College in Wheeling. Within five years of surrendering as a Confederate, he was an attorney at Miller & Quarrier in Charleston.

Kenna jumped into politics at age 24, winning election as Kanawha County’s prosecuting attorney. “The duties of prosecuting attorney in one of the most populous counties of the state tried the qualities of the young lawyer, but he was equal to every test,” said a biographical sketch published after his death.

Kenna’s elevation to state circuit court judge in 1875 “added to his already well-merited reputation for industry and legal ability,” and a year later he won his first congressional race.

The youngest member of the House at the time, he demonstrated a legislative aptitude that won him key committee assignments and the attention of Speaker Samuel Randall. “It was not long before he became one of the most influential members of the House,” the biography said. He was re-elected in 1878, 1880 and 1882, in part because of his success at winning federal support for improving West Virginia’s navigable waters.

State legislators elected Kenna to the U.S. Senate in 1883 to replace Henry Davis. At age 35, Kenna once again was the youngest member in his chamber – and impressive beyond his years. “He never spoke except when he had something to say,” according to the bio, but he showed “a coolness of judgment” when he did.

Kenna was best remembered for a “masterly and exhaustive speech” in defense of presidential prerogative. He insisted that President Grover Cleveland, a fellow Democrat, had the right to fire executive branch appointees without explaining himself to the Senate, as Republicans in the chamber demanded.

Beyond Washington, Kenna earned a reputation as a hunter, fisherman and nature photographer. The state legislature sent him back to the Senate for a second term in 1889, but he died on Jan. 11, 1893, after battling “organic heart trouble” for two years.

“Measured by years, he was one of the youngest members of this chamber … but measured with the accomplishments of his life, he ranked with the octogenarians,” Sen. Joseph Blackburn, D-Ky., said in announcing Kenna’s death to his colleagues. “Whether as a soldier or as a citizen, husband, father or friend, he had rounded out a life and leaves behind him a record to challenge the approval of mankind.”

Remembering a ‘big-fisted, big-hearted, square-dealing man’
Kenna’s death was a cause for national mourning that included a funeral in the Senate and the appointment of a congressional delegation to accompany his remains to another memorial in West Virginia’s Capitol. President Cleveland, the entire Supreme Court, the Army commander and the diplomatic corps attended the Senate service.

As was common practice at the time, Congress authorized the federal government to print a book of eulogies as a tribute to Kenna. Among the 8,000 copies that were printed, the 50 reserved for his family were bound in morocco leather and edged in gilt. The government printed and engraved portraits to accompany the books.

All of which is to say that West Virginians didn’t memorialize Kenna in marble because he fought for the Confederacy a few months as a boy. They sent a statue of him to the Capitol eight years after his death because they revered the man he became.

“He is thoroughly representative of his state and his people,” Fred Mussey, a writer for the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, wrote a few weeks before Kenna’s death. “He is truthful and honest to the last degree, a big-fisted, big-hearted, square-dealing man. No shadow of reproach or suspicion has ever fallen upon him.”

Mussey added that Kenna was a politician “in its best sense, and he has been a tower of strength to the democracy of West Virginia.”

Unfortunately, America currently is in the midst of an ahistorical feeding frenzy that seems incapable of tolerating even passing references to the Confederacy or anyone with ties to it. Irrational protesters aren’t content to topple the statues that actually were erected to send symbolic messages of racism; instead, they take offense at every perceived sleight.

This recent unpleasantness isn’t likely to spur the removal of the Kenna memorial or any others at the U.S. Capitol. Their presence on the Hill is governed by federal law and the consensus of officials in each state. Heavy security also protects them from the kind of anarchists who stoked violence in Charlottesville and who have defaced monuments across the country.

But it’s a shame that a few irresponsible journalists have figuratively painted a scarlet “C” on the bosom of John E. Kenna’s statue. He was no Robert E. Lee.


Filed under: Government and History and Media and News & Politics and People and West Virginia
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