Does Taking Down Monuments Erase History?

We hear this a lot. Taking down confederate monuments is “erasing history,” or “sanitizing history,” or “destroying history.” Let’s put that phony claim where it belongs–in the trash.

We’ve previously addressed this when talking about monuments [see here], but some additional voices have made themselves heard. Sal Mercogliano, associate history professor at Campbell University, says in this story, “You can never erase history, just by removing a memorial you don’t remove history. The history is always there.” Professor Jerry Gershenhorn of NCUU says, “Whites controlled public space, so African Americans had no opportunity to memorialize or commemorate their role in history.”

Historian Matthew Stanley of the Emerging Civil War Blog wrote, “No one seeks to ‘erase’ Confederate history; there are plenty of books, classrooms, museums, cemeteries, and private institutions where Confederates and their symbols will continue to be explored, discussed, and remembered.”

In an interview with the Dallas Morning News this past May, Professor David Blight of Yale University spoke about the idea of removing monuments being “erasing history:”

[begin quote]

Let’s step back from the Confederacy specifically, and consider this subject from a more generic perspective. Whether it’s a statue to Saddam Hussein or whoever else, is there a case against erasing these things because they are part of history, and for looking at them for what they represent about the people who erected them in the first place?

Yes, of course there is. You can’t erase everything from the past. If you set out to erase every Confederate monument that would take a few lifetimes. But having said that, these things are all about politics and the present.

You mentioned Saddam Hussein: You had a regime that took over a country and ran a brutal dictatorship and fell when he was deposed. It isn’t surprising that monuments were pulled down. The problem with America is that this was a Civil War that involved the whole country, and the South couldn’t go anywhere. The losers were not going to go away. About 6,000 of them went into exile in Brazil and England and Canada and other places, but even some of them came back.

The loser in this war was always going to be here. And the problem was that the “lost cause” tradition that these monuments tend to represent, because that’s when they were put up — the late 19th, early 20th century — gained a deep, deep foothold, and not just in the South.

But there is an argument to be very careful when you erase history. It’s a dangerous thing to do, because next year someone will want to erase history you think should be preserved. We went through all of this at Yale University last year with the changing of the name of Calhoun College.[end quote]

In an interview with Jon Weiner of The Nation, Professor Eric Foner of Columbia University took on the comparison of those who want to take down monuments with ISIS:

[begin quote]

JW: I saw a provocative question quoted in The New York Times: How are protesters tearing down Civil War statues any different from ISIS and the Taliban destroying historic monuments and museums?

EF: I don’t think anybody has identified the statue of Robert E. Lee as a world cultural-heritage site like those giant Buddhas that were destroyed by the Taliban. The main point is that tearing down statues is often a sign of regime change. What was the first thing that American troops did when they marched into Baghdad in 2003 in the Iraq War? They tore down the statue of Saddam Hussein. I don’t remember a lot of people saying, “We shouldn’t do that. This is destroying history. Saddam Hussein is part of the history. You may not like him, but nonetheless this is history.” No. We said, “Great, let’s tear it down.” Or in ’91 with the fall of the Soviet Union, crowds marched to the KGB headquarters and tore down the statue of the founder of the KGB. Nobody said, “Oh, they’re interfering with history.” When regimes change, the public presentation of history also changes. But the large number of Confederate statues all over the South makes you wonder how much regime change there actually has been in this country since the Civil War.[end quote]

What if removing monuments does erase history? What kind of history does it erase? With confederate monuments, it disproportionately will erase fake history.

This story begins with the tale of Trump putting up a plaque at one of his golf courses that tells a tall tale of some fake history. “On Lowes Island, about 100 miles northeast of Charlottesville, Va., rests a monument to a Civil War battle where the casualties were so great that the spot became known as ‘The River of Blood.’ The monument – a flagpole and plaque – was installed by Donald Trump during a 2009 renovation of a golf club that he had purchased. In line with the now-president’s penchant for self-promotion, Trump even quoted himself on the historic plaque. ‘It is my great honor to have preserved this important section of the Potomac River!’ Just one problem: There’s no such battle as the ‘The River of Blood.’ ‘No. Uh-uh. No way. Nothing like that ever happened there,’ Richard Gillespie, the executive director of the Mosby Heritage Area Association, told the New York Times in 2015. The closest Civil War battle had been 11 miles up the river at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. To borrow from the president’s own vernacular: Fake history. Sad!”

In this article, we learn, “Monuments honoring the Confederacy were erected for a very specific reason – to wipe out the memory of Reconstruction-era equality that briefly existed after the Civil War and replace it with a myth of the Lost Cause. This intense and pervasive effort was launched decades after the Civil War had ended, during a period of time, roughly 1890-1920, that historians view as a nadir for African-Americans. Thousands were lynched and rigid segregation laws were implemented throughout the South. These edifices remain a testament to those decades of hate. Here in Texas, and across the nation, statues were erected, streets renamed and plaques installed all in a unified goal of crafting a sanitized version of American history – one written by white supremacists. It is a history that has as much grounding in reality as Trump’s ‘River of Blood.’ The article continues, “For years, Houston lawmakers and activists have sought to roll back this propaganda and resurrect an honest history that had been buried alive. It is a history where the stories of Texas slaves, abolitionists and civil rights advocates aren’t forced to take a back seat.”

This article tells the story of a monument at Antietam placed by a private citizen which is completely ahistorical and full of fake history. According to Representative John Delaney, who represents the congressional district that includes Sharpsburg, “The history of this piece, which now resides on this sacred ground, certainly makes it clear it was recently erected by a private citizen out of pro-Confederacy enthusiasm and not to provide historical context or under the direction of a battlefield historian.” It’s a monument to Robert E. Lee placed by “an eccentric Maryland millionaire, William F. Chaney.” Chaney’s monument includes a plaque that delivers disinformation about Lee. “Lee ‘was personally against secession and slavery,’ the plaque reads, ‘but decided his duty was to fight for his home and the universal right of every people to self-determination.’ ” According to the highly respected Antietam historian Tom Clemens, “The statue is located in a spot where Lee ‘did nothing more than drive by’ in a wagon ambulance, Clemens said. Lee’s hands were injured prior to the battle, ‘so he was not riding a horse holding the reins, nor was he holding binoculars, as the monument depicts.’ ” According to Clemens, “It has no real historical basis in anything except that this guy was a big fan of Robert E. Lee and wanted to put up his own statue to essentially venerate his hero.” Representative Delaney would like the monument removed from the battlefield and promised to investigate to see what legislation is required to get that done.

Professor Manisha Sinha of the University of Connecticut says, in this op-ed piece, “There is one thing that the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who rallied to the defense of Robert E. Lee’s statue in Charlottesville got right: They understood the historical meaning of Confederate monuments. Historians have long argued that the Confederacy was founded to protect, expand and perpetuate racial slavery and that its leaders, military and political, are seriously tainted by that legacy. That hasn’t stopped defenders from peddling the idea that Confederate monuments are innocuous symbols of southern history. Charlottesville revealed the power of Confederate monuments to unite racists and fascists of all stripes, who correctly look to the Confederacy for historical antecedents. Not only was the Confederacy founded on the idea of racial inequality, but monuments to it arose at moments in American history when southerners sought to defend white supremacy. With the fall of Reconstruction, the brief period after the Civil War when an attempt was made to grant black citizenship and found an interracial democracy, the white South sought to undo these gains.” Many confederate monuments perpetuate a lost cause mythology about the Civil War. According to Professor Sinha, “It is often said that the South may have lost the Civil War but that it won the peace. Mythology surrounding the South’s ‘Lost Cause’ captivated Americans across the nation, and monuments to Confederate generals appeared even in the north. The cause of the war, slavery and its emancipatory meaning was forgotten by most except by African Americans and their allies. The Civil War was increasingly seen as one between ‘brother against brother,’ and white reconciliation came at the cost of black rights and lives.” She tells us, “The United States has to be the only country in the world that honors men who committed treason against their government and who stand for values in contradiction to its founding ideals. Unlike George Washington, who by the way freed his slaves in his will, and Thomas Jefferson, who built a nation on those ideals, Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis sought to destroy that nation in order to perpetuate slavery. They were not revolutionaries but reactionaries. White supremacists and Nazis have long understood the true meaning of Confederate monuments and flags. As the historian Nina Silber has shown, Hitler himself bemoaned the fact that the South had lost the Civil War and that the principle of Aryan supremacy had not been established in America. Today, neo-Nazis all over the world, including in Germany, fly the Confederate flag. The white supremacists who congregated in Charlottesville flew the Nazi swastika as well as the Confederate stars and bars. The monuments that they sought to protect are not just ‘beautiful’ statues, as Donald Trump contends, but ‘symbols of hate’ as Mayor de Blasio dubs them. Most perniciously, they act as a rallying point for racists of all stripes and represent racial inequality and oppression.”

And then there’s this thing, erected at the locations of the Battle of Five Forks in Virginia:

This monument depicts fake history by understating the number of confederate soldiers involved and grossly overstating the number of Federal soldiers involved [by more than double]. As long as this monument stands, it is teaching bad history. If it is removed, people will no longer get bad history by visiting this site. There are waysides in the area to talk about the battle, such as this one:

There’s also a small NPS visitor center in the area.


  1. And again I have to say thank you! It is vital that the truth be entered into this discussion because so much revisionist history has been propagated and believed.

    As a news and political junkie I see it every day on FB, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Charlotte Observer, The Roanoke Times, and really just any story that hits the media about anything Confederate. They have all been in overdrive since flags, monuments, pictures and artifacts are being removed from public spaces, courthouses, hotels etc. And it is exhausting trying to correct the record!

    They do constantly bray that we just “want to erase history”, we want to “harm Southern culture”, “these monuments don’t hurt anyone.” There’s “If you don’t like them, don’t look at them.” “Lincoln had slaves,” “Grant did not free his slaves until after the war,” “R.E. Lee never owned slaves,” “The North just wanted money,” “Lincoln wanted to deport blacks,” “Lincoln was a racist.” And my two favorites as they lie and distort facts, “Read a book!” and “Blacks should get over it!” You literally cannot make this level of malevolent “heritage” up!

    The fight goes on but my Southern integrity demands that I tell the truth. It does not honor my Confederate ancestors to lie about the Confederacy. Many don’t like that. Thank you for being a truth-teller too!

  2. bob carey · · Reply

    This comment pertains to your 2 previous posts. They are both profound and thoughtful and you are to be commended.
    The past couple of weeks has seen the debate on Confederate monuments move from a relative few Civil War antagonists to the forefront of today’s political debate and this movement is forcing a new group of people to view the Civil War and it’s aftermath in a different light. This is a golden opportunity for historians to educate the public and confront the ” Lost Cause” and its false narrative on a monumental scale (pardon the pun). Keep up the good work.

    1. Thank you, Bob.

  3. robert r sterr · · Reply

    all of this well and good; however, I note there is no condemnation of the hard leftists who are the most aggressive of these monument topplers…these are self identified ‘anarcho-communists’, whose obvious purpose is not just eradicating Confederate symbols, which of course are easy targets, but all of Western Civilization…they are the same bunch that shows up at world economic gatherings, running amok, employing extreme and provocative violence…

    but if you wish to be terrified by a couple of dozen right wingnuts who show up at monument, and then proceed to get [edit]whipped by these anarchists, have at it…

    1. I have no condemnation other than what I said–there were some who showed up looking for a confrontation and they got it. They were not the majority of the group opposing the racists, and they are not the majority of who wish to see monuments taken down. There were way more than a couple dozen racists, as the reporting shows. I’m not terrified by them. In fact, I got very close to them in Gettysburg and took pictures of them, as another post shows. The racists appear to regard Charlottesville as being a victory for them. Trump didn’t criticize them as he should have, they took one life and didn’t lose any lives on their side [my comment regards the two state police officers as being neutral parties], and they showed they were more than willing to use violence to intimidate their opponents. The racists showed up with firearms, shields, and helmets. Their opponents didn’t have firearms or shields that I saw. This shows the racists came with the intent of getting into a fight.

  4. What right do you have to decide these works of art should be destroyed? These men reminded us of what happens when we stop talking and start destroying our country. The Civil War was brother against brother which almost destroyed the United States. These monuments an grave sites remind us that WE should never let something divide US (All Americans) to hate an division. We should NEVER again destroy our country with distruction but rather use our voice to legislate reforms like an educated nation. These statues remind us of our failures in communication an the cost in life it brought our country. The art of these statues are priceless. In these current days, artist can’t make the hand craved pieces as in the past. What they represent is our failures. Great men, like Robert E Lee, a West Point graduate who could have been a President lost everything. Life decisions matter. It was Robert E Lee who along with Grant who stopped the war. That’s history. Ulysses Grant statue reminded us not only was he a President, but one who stopped the killing. History is there for people to be reminded NOT to repeat itself. It’s not for glorifying a terrible time in our country. You should never erase the reminders of history or forget to teach our history. If we do, we may repeat our mistakes.

    1. Read a real history book for a change.
      What right do I have? My right as an American citizen to express my opinion. The people who live in a community have the right to determine whom they believe is worthy of honor and who is not. Statues aren’t reminders. They proclaim a person or a cause is worthy of being honored. If a community decides that person or cause isn’t worthy of being honored, then the statue goes. Lee wasn’t as great as you believe. Read some real history. Lee didn’t stop the war you ignorant fool. He was beaten. See, when you depend on statues for your history, you are an ignoramus. History is found in books. Read.

  5. […] down monuments does not erase history. On the contrary, it signals a deep societal awakening where people are willing to learn and […]

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