More Retreat of Confederate Heritage

Confederate heritage continues to recede.

From Baltimore, we have this and this. “The seven-member commission, appointed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to consider what to do with Baltimore’s four Confederate-era monuments, voted narrowly to remove two of them. The mayor must now make a final decision.” They recommended to remove a statue to Roger B. Taney, the Supreme Court Chief Justice who wrote the infamous Dred Scott opinion, and a statue to General Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Commission member Larry S. Gibson, a professor of law at the University of Maryland, said, “Baltimore has a disproportionate number of monuments to the Confederacy on its public property. He said that more than twice as many Marylanders fought for the Union as the Confederacy during the Civil War, but the city has only one public monument to the Union.” The commissioners recommended the city to offer the statues of Lee and Jackson to the National Park Service to place at the Chancellorsville Battlefield. “The commission voted to keep the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Mount Royal Avenue and the Confederate Women’s Monument on West University Parkway, but to add context.” In the editorial supporting the commission’s vote, the Baltimore Sun said, “If a prominent Baltimore family offered today to provide the city with a statue commemorating a man whose best known achievement in life had been to author a 19th Century U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that African-Americans, whether free or slave, had no rights under the Constitution, we expect the public would broadly oppose the idea. Likewise, if a wealthy resident included a bequest in his will for the commission and donation to Baltimore of a statue depicting the two generals who did the most to perpetuate the Confederacy, we expect the city would decline to accept it. Beloved as Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee may be in some quarters, the cause for which they fought offends our present values. Conversely, though, we expect the city might accept statues commemorating the men who fought for the Confederacy and the women who nursed them and otherwise aided the war effort, provided they were properly contextualized and balanced by an equivalent monument to those who fought on the Union side. Baltimore was divided during the Civil War, and many of its residents died on both sides. Reflecting that tragic history in a way that makes clear on which side our sensibilities now lie is entirely appropriate.” The Lee/Jackson statue “is the result of a bequest from J. Henry Ferguson, who wrote in his will, ‘General Lee and General Jackson were my boyhood heroes, and maturer judgment has only strengthened my admiration for them. They were great generals and Christian soldiers. They waged war like gentlemen, and I feel their example should be held up to the youth of Maryland.’ Mayor Thomas J. D’Alesandro and Gov. Preston Lane attended the dedication, along with descendants of both generals and a company of VMI cadets. Such veneration decades after the war reflects a persistent desire among many who sympathize with the Confederacy to divorce the war from its historical context. And it extended not just to the 1948 dedication of the statue but right up until the present day. Until this year, Maryland Sons of Confederate Veterans had marched on the statue in Confederate uniforms under the Confederate flag on the third weekend in January, which is around the time of both generals’ birthdays but is also the weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Several years of protests, led initially by local Quakers, prompted the Sons and the United Daughters of the Confederacy to cancel this year’s event, but they evidently haven’t prompted a change in attitudes.” The president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy said, ” ‘it’s a damn shame that we are not allowed to honor our heritage’ and actually analogized it to what it would be like if people were ‘not allowed to commemorate Martin Luther King Day or not go to his statue in the District of Columbia’ — as if the causes Lee, Jackson and King fought for were equally laudable.”

From Fort Worth, Texas we get this story, telling us about how the Fort Worth Stock Show banned the confederate battle flag. “Organizers said the decision comes after public complaints, and they are following the lead of other events siding with concern over controversy.” Spokesman Matt Brockman said, ” ‘Icons [and] symbols like the battle flag — while they may be important to some people — unfortunately, they are also embraced by some individuals that unfortunately embrace hate or intolerance.’ ”

This story from the Christian Science Monitor discusses proposals to end celebration of Lee-Jackson Day in southern states. “Often celebrated as part of a four-day weekend, Lee-Jackson Day honors Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) and Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson (1824-1863). Observation of Lee’s birthday, Jan. 19, began around 1889. Jackson’s remembrance was added to the holiday in 1904. Martin Luther King Day became a federal holiday on January 15 in 1983. In Virginia, the holidays were merged as Lee-Jackson-King Day until 2000 when they became separate holidays. It was arranged so that Lee-Jackson Day was to be held on the Friday before Martin Luther King Day. But several state municipalities have stopped observing the holiday, including Richmond, Fairfax, Fredericksburg, Hampton, Lynchburg, and Norfolk.” According to an activist trying to get Virginia to stop celebrating Lee-Jackson Day, Michael J. Muhammad, “The fact that the MLK holiday run-up is being upstaged, polluted and degraded, by the Lee-Jackson Holiday is not lost on me. There is a need to expose that. Because the position of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson is diametrically opposed to that of Dr. King.” Mr. Muhammad continues, “With the Confederate Flag coming down in South Carolina and other states and off the license plates here in Virginia to continue the recognition of that Confederate history and its effort to maintain slavery is unconscionable that we would continue to honor such a storied negative history.” Ben Jones, formerly the SCV’s Chief of Heritage Defense, claimed, “This is identity politics. It’s a terribly divisive thing that’s happening here. After they remove every school name, every street name, every monument, and every affectionate reference to the South and its leaders from history it’s presentism, its cultural cleansing. It’s fascism is what that is. Lee freed his slaves who were his wife’s slaves. Stonewall Jackson started a Sunday school in Lexington for black people and it was against the law and he did it. But these things get lost in history.” As we might expect, Mr. Jones’ history is inaccurate. R. E. Lee’s slaves were his own. We have no documentary evidence that he freed all his slaves. There’s nothing that says his wife owned any slaves. Mr. Jones is confused because Lee was the executor of his father-in-law’s will. George Washington Parke Custis mandated in his will, with which Lee was legally obligated to comply, that his slaves be freed within five years of his death. It’s not a case of presentism, as he claims. It’s a question of people making a determination of whether or not certain people deserve to be honored by us today. There is no movement to remove “every school name, every street name, every monument, and every affectionate reference to the South and its leaders from history.” That’s another SCV falsehood where they try to equate the South with the confederacy. Apparently the SCV doesn’t consider Martin Luther King, Jr. to be a southerner. Mr. Jones should know better. And Mr. Jones had best get his hands on a dictionary to learn the actual definition of “fascism.”

We have this story out of Florida telling us about two pieces of proposed legislation in that state. “House bill 243 and senate bill 154 if passed with prohibit the display of the Confederate flag or emblem on any publicly owned or lease property.” According to one Floridian who supports the measures, “I’m grateful to be a Floridian and a Southerner, but I have to say, that the confederate flag is part of history, it’s not part of our future.” A third proposed act, “Senate bill 310 if passed would remove the statue of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith in the Washington DC Capitol building.” Another supporter is quoted as saying,  “Although we want you to hold on to your roots we can’t have you hold on to something that symbolizes a deep sense of pain, murder, fear for generation and generations of people.”

In Greenville, Mississippi, the city council voted to remove the state flag from all city buildings and properties. The state flag incorporates the First National Flag of the confederacy and has the confederate battle flag in its canton. “Council members voted after hearing from the Rev. Roosevelt Johnson. He says that by petitioning to remove the flag, his group wasn’t trying to infringe on anyone’s belief or opinion, but instead trying to eliminate a divide it created among black and white residents.”

Opponents of these moves make the claim that it’s “denying history.” That’s a farcical claim. It’s not denying history. Christopher Phelps, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Nottingham, in England, says, “Critics of these efforts have objected that protesters’ logic would require colleges to scrub themselves of all traces of anyone who was a slave owner or racist — or, reductio ad absurdum, anyone at all with flaws. In this view, the new student activism is an exercise in ‘moral vanity,’ a charge leveled against the Oxford campaigners by Tony Abbott, a former Australian prime minister and Rhodes Scholar. Yet the specific historical figures under protest in these controversies are well-selected. They have engendered controversy for good reason, for they not only reflected the norms of their day but also actively shaped social mores from positions of power.” Professor Phelps continues, “As a historian who deeply values the study of the past, and who frequently laments the amnesia of our times, I appreciate any good defense of the value of historical memory. But I am troubled by this particular invocation of history and wish to offer a dissenting viewpoint. (I should disclose that while I have no personal stake in any specific controversy over campus symbols, I do have a daughter at Yale residing in Calhoun College, and she favors its renaming.) History is one thing, memorials another. As tributes, memorials are selective, affirmative representations. When a university names a building after someone or erects a statue to that person, it bestows honor and legitimacy. The imprimatur of an institution of higher education affords the subject respect, dignity, and authority. This makes memorials every bit as much about values, status quo, and future as about remembrance. We intuit the value of preserving a site such as Auschwitz-Birkenau on the grounds that no one should ever forget the Holocaust, but we appreciate the Allied policy of the denazification of Germany, which included painting over swastikas and discarding innumerable portraits of Hitler. Those impulses are not contradictory. Memorials are not, by and large, erected after long and careful study of the past. Universities do not typically make decisions about how to name sports centers, libraries, dining halls, dormitories, or classrooms in consultation with panels of historians. Let’s be honest: Who has a building named after him or a statue made of him is a reflection of power and wealth.” He says, “History is a process of cognition and revision — literally, re-seeing — of the past. From time to time, one or another circle of historians is characterized as ‘revisionist,’ but in actuality all historians are revisionists, writing from the vantage point of their own lives and times even as they aspire to objectivity. This does not make history subjective. It must be sustained by evidence and held to the test of others’ scrutiny. That is how consensuses emerge about what took place and why. In that way, our understanding of history changes over time, often as dramatically as that history itself. To reconsider, to recast, is the essence of historical practice. It follows that altering how we present the past through commemorative symbols is not ahistorical. It is akin to what historians do. No historian now writes about slavery in the way historians did a century ago. A reconsideration of memorials and symbols poses no danger to freedom. A university can uphold academic freedom and freedom of expression while at the same time seeking to avoid implicitly exclusionary or bigotry-laced signs and legacies in its official infrastructure.” He also takes on those who erroneously compare removing monuments to actions of the Taliban. “What is erasure in one sense can in another and more important sense be an acknowledgment and validation of the past. When a building named for an arch-advocate of slavery is accorded another name, it pays respect to the lives of those whom he condemned to be owned. When the University of Illinois retired its pseudo-Indian mascot Chief Illiniwek, the decision reflected the increased awareness of such misappropriation and stereotyping born of a deeper appreciation of Native American history. We lament the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, but the changes that students want on campuses today do not involve entities imbued with sacred qualities. Nor are those symbols ancient. Calhoun College, for example, was named in 1933; Oxford’s Rhodes statue was erected in 1911. In historical terms, the period since then is the blink of an eye. Examples abound of demolitions widely taken as acts of liberation, not cultural boorishness. The Hungarian rebels who toppled statues of Stalin in 1956 are celebrated, not accused of desecrating history. Similarly, there has been no outcry against Ukraine’s recent dismantlingof more than 800 statues of Lenin, a measure taken in response to the provocations of Putin’s Russia. (Most of the works were consigned to museums, it appears, although a clever artist converted one into Darth Vader.)” He makes this very incisive point about memorials: “Just as in certain contexts erasure is a sign of memory, so can memorials be a form of forgetting. Insofar as relics of the era of overt white supremacy may represent an institution’s failure to look itself in the mirror and adopt inclusive symbols so as to welcome all prospective students and academics, the symbols are indicators of an institutional blind spot. To remove them does not vitiate history; on the contrary, it represents a more thorough coming to terms with the past and its legacies, a refusal to forget.”

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17 comments

  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    Is there a groundswell movement taking place regarding the removal of monuments/name changes, or are we just paying more attention by means of broad topic searches? Also, was there a landmark decision regarding a particular removal that opened the door for other cities to reconsider their own CW icons? It is a move in the right direction, however, since I am now focusing the topic, it is hard to gauge if we, indeed, truly are entering a remarkable phase in our history.

    1. It’s a groundswell, not the result of a landmark decision but rather as a result of the Charleston shootings. People have finally had enough of the lies, bigotry, and hatred associated with confederate “heritage.”

    2. The pushback against the public embrace of Confederate iconography has been there a long time, but the Charleston shooting by a young man thoroughly enamored with the Confederacy and antebellum racial order was a tipping point.

      I would also suggest that in their ruling on the Texas SCV license plate case, the Supreme Court gave state and local governments reason to believe they had the authority to remove symbols they wished to. The court’s ruling was about license plates specifically, but the majority argument that they are a form of “government speech,” and therefore at the will of the government, has wide implications.

      1. Good points, Andy.

  2. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

    Nice work on this post, Al. The end of Confederate heritage is near. The presentation of Confederate history is underway. There is a big difference in the two. Unfortunately, some people can’t understand that. Heritage is how we see the past in the present. The confederacy and secession were bad things. It’s time to present the past accurately and not to celebrate those who sought to tear apart the United States to preserve slavery.

  3. bob carey · · Reply

    Al,
    I concur with the Baltimore Commission’s recommendation to remove the statue of Lee and Jackson. They had no business being there in the first place. However, removing the Taney statue is a bit more complex. Taney was one of the more influential figures in mid 19th century American politics. I am writing strictly from memory but I think the vast majority of the opinions written by Taney were fair interpretations of the Constitution. That being said, Dred Scott was an abomination,but it was the exception and not the rule. Taney’s support,as Attorney General,of Jackson during the Nullification Crisis leads me to believe that Taney considered secession to be unconstitutional.
    On a personal level Taney did free his families slaves as soon as it was legally possible for him to do so, and he died relatively poor which tells me he was honest.
    I guess what I’m trying to get at is if it is possible to throw out his opinion in Dred Scott than Taney would be considered one of the best legal minds in our history.
    As a counter-factual permit me to ask the question, if Maryland seceded would Taney have stayed as the Chief Justice?

    1. I agree with what you say here, Bob. Taney was recognized as a learned chief justice. The reaction against him is solely due to the Dred Scott decision. Taney’s views on secession are complicated. There’s some evidence in a fragmentary note he left that he thought secession was unconstitutional, but in that same fragment there is some evidence he may have believed the Federal Government had no authority to resist it, which is a strange opinion to have, and I do realize that both Jeremiah Black and James Buchanan held that same view. It’s still a strange opinion to hold. There is evidence also that Taney wrote a letter to a nephew who had joined the confederate army wishing him good luck. So what Taney may have done is up in the air.

  4. bob carey · · Reply

    Al,
    thanks , I did not know about the notes, these are interesting especially in light of the fact that Taney tipped Buchanan off as to Dred Scott before Old Bucks’ Inauguration.
    All in all, I think it would be difficult to justify keeping Taney in Baltimore, maybe he can be moved to a different part of the state, perhaps Taneytown or Emmitsburg, this way I can visit him the next time I’m in Gettysburg although this would be selfish of me. LOL

    1. We do have to be careful with how we use that undated, unsigned partial memorandum, though. There are those who think Taney was preparing a Supreme Court decision, and those statements represented his views. That may be, but we just don’t know for sure. It might be tough keeping Taney anywhere but in a museum or perhaps at his home.

      1. Isn’t there a statue of Taney elsewhere in the city?

        1. I don’t know for sure, but I’m under the impression there’s only one in Baltimore, and it’s based on the statue of Taney in Annapolis.

          1. Ah, I may have had a brain cramp about the one in Annapolis being in Baltimore. Thanks.

            Taney deserves recognition for his long and generally good service to the nation. He lost it, so to speak, in his last ten years or so.

  5. I really do think the heritage crowd is completely adrift. They’ve spent so long talking to each other, reassuring themselves of the righteousness of their cause and dismissing criticism of the Confederacy out-of-hand, that they have no idea how to make an affirmative case to a wider general public that is (at best) indifferent to their cliched arguments. In the last six months, in the face of accelerated efforts to remove Confederate iconography from public facilities, the only strategy that they seem to agree on is more of what they’ve done before, only (1) louder and (2) angrier.

    Today’s example: As you may know, there is pending legislation in Tallahassee to remove the statue of E. Kirby Smith from Statuary Hall in the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The bill was passed out of committee in the Florida State Senate today. In response, are they mobilizing Floridians to come to Tallahassee to lobby their legislators in person? Are they encouraging them to write actual letters? Nope. Instead they’re encouraging people to send Kirk Lyons thousands of dollars to fly a plane with a banner over the State Capitol. It’s crazy.

    1. One can be forgiven for thinking the leadership of the so-called “confederate heritage movement” is only in it to bilk their followers. Hence we get H. K. Edgerton’s price for appearing at events, Kirk Lyons’ asking for money, the Virginia flaggers asking for money, various “legal defense funds,” etc.

      1. Everyone certainly seems to have their hand out, that’s for sure.

      2. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

        I would say, Al, that your assessment of the scam is right on track. There is a great deal of money to made in fleecing the gullible and it requires very little effort. P.T. Barnum (alleged) might as well have been describing today’s Lost Causers, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

        One day the monuments to the lost cause will be gone, the CBF will be in museums, and every textbook will firmly state that slavery was the primary cause behind the Civil War. That’s when they will wonder where all their money went. They probably still will not allow themselves to believe reality.

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