Historians Provide Context for Confederate Monuments

Historians have been busy.

My friend and fellow blogger, Megan Kate Nelson, put together a group of links to historians commenting on the confederate monument issue here.

Noted Lincoln author Harold Holzer has a piece in the New York Daily News. He writes, “There’s nothing wrong with removing truly offensive statues that elevate traitors in public space. But let’s audit these memorials with care and context lest we sweep them away with such a broad brush that we whitewash actual history in the same way their proponents have appropriated historical memory. Ironically, the extremists who organized their Charlottesville march around the fake trope of saving the Lee statue — together with Trump, who suggested that the haters had no other agenda than preservation (and moreover had ‘a permit’) — may have done more to propel its removal than a thousand voices sincerely finding it offensive. With some poetic justice, Charlottesville may have the same effect on Confederate memorials as Dylann Roof’s murderous rampage in Charleston so quickly exerted on the inexcusable display of the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina. In the remote chance there may still be a way to take a breath, dial back the heat, and search for solutions that respect history, memory, art, and understandable human emotion, the following suggestions may offer a path. First, let’s indeed abandon or relocate statues to Confederate icons that sit in public space outside the old Rebel States.” He continues, “At the least, we should move these statues to schools or museums and use them to educate, not celebrate. As for truly offensive monuments like the Memphis equestrian of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest — a slave dealer who likely massacred unarmed blacks during the Civil War and led the KKK after — they belong in the dustheap of history and art alike. Second, in some cases let’s consider context over condemnation. Cannot we surround century-old statues with explanatory texts that place them firmly within the historical periods that inspired them? Most Confederate memorials rose not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. They got installed once white supremacists regained power after Reconstruction, overturned federally mandated rights for African Americans and created a false historical narrative to sanctify the rebellion.” This has been tried on occasion, though, and has failed to produce the desired effect. Holzer says, “Third, what about the idea of ‘counter-memorials’? In Richmond, the lily-white Monument Ave. statues of Lee and other Confederates now lead to a powerful response: a statue of African-American tennis great Arthur Ashe. In Baltimore, the statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the shameful Dred Scott decision that rejected citizenship for African Americans, was ‘answered’ by a statue of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to sit on the high court Taney once led.” Once again, though, we have the question of who will fund these monuments? Holzer continues, “Fourth, where appropriate let’s respect the intrinsic value of art for art’s sake. Not all Confederate statuary is worthy. Most of the 1,500 surviving monuments are, in fact, terrible. But the Lee equestrian in Richmond is spectacular. Why not move the meritorious ones to other spots: to battlefield sites, cemeteries where Confederate soldiers are buried, or museums where they can be fully analyzed? Many will look cartoonish close-up, since they were deeply carved to be seen from below. But sacrificing ideal perspective is a small price to pay for preserving good art and using it to illuminate history.” Indeed, most of the monuments were ordered out of mail-order catalogs and it’s no coincidence they bear a striking resemblance to Union monuments with a few strategic differences. To end the article, he writes, “Fifth, let’s firmly counter the false equivalency now dangerously morphing to threaten statues of American Presidents. To be sure, the Virginia-born Founding Fathers were flawed. Jefferson wrote magisterial words to define freedom, but never lived by his own credo that ‘all men are created equal.’ Washington fought heroically for liberty, but enslaved human beings. Still, the American experiment matured beyond the laboratory stage only because such imperfect men formed a more perfect union. To erase their memory would be a catastrophic crime against history, knowledge and progress. Finally, let’s try conducting these crucial explorations without grandstanding, hubris or hypocrisy. It’s worth remembering that President Trump comes by his reverence for historical sculpture rather late in life. In 1980, a few years before I joined the staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Met asked Trump if we could rescue and exhibit the beautiful friezes at the old Bonwit Teller building — which he was about to raze to make way for Trump Tower. We appraised them at around $200,000. Their preservation would have required only a few days’ delay. Instead Trump labeled the treasures ‘junk’ and ordered them removed and smashed. Now that was a loss to our heritage.” Most of these are reasonable suggestions, though I would submit Mr. Holzer is a little behind the curve.

This story quotes a couple historians on the monuments. Professor Jane Dailey of the University of Chicago says, “Most of the people who were involved in erecting the monuments were not necessarily erecting a monument to the past, but were rather, erecting them toward a white supremacist future.” James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, said, “These statues were meant to create legitimate garb for white supremacy. Why would you put a statue of Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson in 1948 in Baltimore?” In the story we find, ” In an interview with NPR, Dailey said it’s impossible to separate symbols of the Confederacy from the values of white supremacy. In comparing Robert E. Lee to Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on Tuesday, President Trump doesn’t seem to feel the same. Dailey pointed to an 1861 speech by Alexander Stephens, who would go on to become vice president of the Confederacy. ‘[Our new government’s] foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man,’ Stevens said, in Savannah, Ga. ‘That slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.’ To build Confederate statues, says Dailey, in public spaces, near government buildings, and especially in front of court houses, was a ‘power play’ meant to intimidate those looking to come to the ‘seat of justice or the seat of the law.’ ‘I think it’s important to understand that one of the meanings of these monuments when they’re put up, is to try to settle the meaning of the war’ Dailey said. ‘But also the shape of the future, by saying that elite Southern whites are in control and are going to build monuments to themselves effectively. And those monuments will endure and whatever is going around them will not.’ ”

CNN Opinion asked a group of historians to contribute their thoughts. Professor Amy Greenberg of Penn State University said, “I think rational people can debate whether removing a statue of a Confederate leader is in the best interests of a community, or of society as a whole. It’s possible to argue that obliterating evidence of ‘bad’ historical events or ‘offensive’ people might in the end be counterproductive, allowing a collective amnesia that the bad events ever happened. But to say that taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee is taking away someone’s ‘history’– I’m not even sure what that means. One thing I’m quite sure of is that Robert E. Lee was not ‘exactly the same’ as George Washington. One devoted over 25 years of his life to creating a republic the likes of which history had never known, and for his sacrifice gained the title ‘Father of his Country.’ The other was a traitor. Lee took up arms against the United States, leading a rebellion that was responsible for the deaths of over 600,000 Americans, and was defeated. The fact that Robert E. Lee wasn’t hung as a traitor was thanks to the benevolence of the US government.”

Professor Karen Cox of UNC-Charlotte wrote, “Southerners have a wide range of opinions when it comes to Confederate monuments. Unlike the Jim Crow era when those markers of Southern heritage were celebrated by the entire white community, many contemporary Southerners find themselves at odds with that heritage.” Professor Cox, by the way, received some ugly responses to her New York Times editorial [a link can be found in Megan Kate Nelson’s post linked above] and wrote about it on her blog here. In his contribution, James Grossman said, “The aftermath of the tragedy in Charlottesville has stripped the facade from a landscape of national conflict, but has also provided an opportunity. On the one hand, we see an apparent tolerance for historical ignorance, but on the other, there is a renewed national interest in the subtleties of history and memory. Large portions of the American public — including the media — don’t know the history of the Confederacy, the Civil War, or how many of the Confederate monuments came to exist. So they are debating whether or not to erase a history that they don’t know very well. The deeper and more troubling tolerance for historical ignorance, however, lies not only in the public at large but in public officials as well. Two weeks ago, Jared Kushner told congressional interns in the context of diplomatic work in the Middle East, ‘We don’t want a history lesson. We’ve read enough books.’ He continued, “Based on comments on Tuesday and his subsequent tweets, the President clearly doesn’t know the difference between the accomplishments of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (deeply flawed as they might have been) as opposed to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, who are historically significant only because of their leadership in the attempt to establish what Confederacy Vice President Alexander Stephens described as a nation whose ‘corner- stone rests, 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.’ The President’s ignorance of history has been on vivid display before: in his homage to Andrew Jackson or reference to abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the present tense, as if he were still alive. This is disappointing but not tragic. What’s tragic is that so many Americans, including political leadership, think it’s acceptable to distort the past and freely spout untruths. What’s also tragic is the refusal of our President to utter one simple sentence: ‘The Confederacy was a bad idea.’ As a historian, I think we should all be able to agree that Alexander Stephens accurately summarized the individual Confederate states’ declarations of secession. We can argue within our communities about the interpretive and policy implications of that simple fact or about the social issues underlying debates over the fate of these monuments. But imagine if all 535 members of Congress and the President of the United States would just say ‘The Confederacy is a bad idea.’ And then leave it to states and communities to debate the implications for public culture and policy.”

Dr. Grossman also appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal to discuss confederate monuments and their history and meaning. You can view it here: //www.c-span.org/video/?432763-4/washington-journal-james-grossman-discusses-battle-confederate-monuments

Kimberly Atkins, the guest host, flubbed some historical details, for example claiming Lee had been a US Army general before being a confederate general. He was a colonel in the US Army when he resigned. I’m a bit disappointed Grossman didn’t correct her on that, but he was making a larger point. Grossman also called Nathan Bedford Forrest one of the founders of the KKK. He wasn’t, though he was an early leader of the Klan in its white supremacist terrorism. Altogether, though, it’s a very good segment.

Professor Peniel Joseph of the University of Texas wrote, “The Civil War represented a defining moment in our young nation’s history, an era whose legacy continues to be seen in the pockmarked residual scars that arise over Confederate statues, battle flags and symbols that connect past and present in uncomfortably illuminating ways. Despite the tragic events in Charlottesville and the staggering failure of presidential leadership in its wake, we have reason to be optimistic. History’s most enduring lesson is that change happens from the bottom up, pushing institutions, organizations and yes, even presidents to catch up with social movements demanding justice. Reimagining American democracy in the 21st century requires the personal and political maturity to acknowledge the depth and breadth of racial injustice while recognizing the fact that the current outrage over the President’s tone-deaf handling of the Charlottesville tragedy is reflective of a kind of progress that we should never ignore.”

My friend and blogging colleague Kevin Levin contributes this: “For those of us following the Confederate monument debate, the violence in Charlottesville was a game-changer. The murder of Heather Heyer will have the same impact on the call to remove Confederate monuments as the horrific events in Charleston did two years ago on the display of the battle flag. Baltimore quickly removed four monuments and Lexington, Kentucky, along with other towns and cities, will most certainly follow. Before Charlottesville there was a possibility that cities like Richmond, which has made an effort to add monuments to its commemorative landscape and preserve important historic sites connected to slavery, would be able to steer a course that avoided removal of its Confederate monuments. Mayor Levar Stoney hoped to guide his city to just this conclusion in forming a commission to explore the possibilities of adding context to Monument Avenue. He recently revised this stance and will now consider removal as a possible solution. So what happened? The white nationalist rally in Charlottesville exposed what has always been the fundamental question of whether Robert E. Lee or any other monument represents the collective values of the community. That was certainly the case when the Lee monument was dedicated in 1924, but that was accomplished as a result of legal segregation, which prevented any input from the city’s African-American population. The history infused in Confederate monuments became a tool to justify and maintain white supremacy. Absent in the collective memory represented in these monuments was any recognition that Lee and other Confederates were willing to give their lives to create an independent slaveholding republic built on white supremacy.”

 In her essay, Professor Jane Censer of George Mason University said, “Late in 1865 and 1866 in Southern towns and cities, white women created Ladies Memorial Associations (LMAs), which sponsored white community marches to the cemetery to decorate soldiers’ graves. In addition to identifying and moving Confederate soldiers’ remains from isolated locations, the LMAs provided grave markers. Over many years the Raleigh and Richmond societies paid to ship bodies from Gettysburg to be reinterred in Southern soil. Such groups also raised money to set up memorials in the cemeteries, which at first were arches, obelisks or triangles rather than statues of soldiers. Although Southerners argued these actions were apolitical acts of mourning, the women clearly saw themselves as honoring patriotic heroes, even though that nation no longer existed. Yet even as the women’s associations adorned the cemeteries, other commemorative efforts emerged. Late in the 1880s, organizations of Confederate veterans became active and began to erect commemorative statues of military and political leaders. The founding of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in 1895 created a group of ladies interested in glorifying the Confederacy in schools and public spaces. Almost from its inception the UDC took a more confrontational tone than the LMAs. From efforts to depict slavery as a kind, gentle institution and secession as caused by constitutional questions, the Daughters assumed what historian Karen Cox has called a role of ‘vindication,’ which glorified the rightness of the ‘Lost Cause’ — and crusaded for white supremacy.”
Professor Eric Foner of Columbia University has an op-ed piece in the New York Times. In it, he writes, “In the period of Reconstruction that followed the war, … the advent of multiracial democracy in the Southern states inspired a wave of terrorist opposition by the Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups, antecedents of the Klansmen and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville. One by one the Reconstruction governments were overthrown, and in the next generation white supremacy again took hold in the South. When Mr. Trump identifies statues commemorating Confederate leaders as essential parts of ‘our’ history and culture, he is honoring that dark period. Like all monuments, these statues say a lot more about the time they were erected than the historical era they evoke. The great waves of Confederate monument building took place in the 1890s, as the Confederacy was coming to be idealized as the so-called Lost Cause and the Jim Crow system was being fastened upon the South, and in the 1920s, the height of black disenfranchisement, segregation and lynching. The statues were part of the legitimation of this racist regime and of an exclusionary definition of America. The historian Carl Becker wrote that history is what the present chooses to remember about the past. Historical monuments are, among other things, an expression of power — an indication of who has the power to choose how history is remembered in public places. If the issue were simply heritage, why are there no statues of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, one of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s key lieutenants? Not because of poor generalship; indeed, Longstreet warned Lee against undertaking Pickett’s Charge, which ended the battle of Gettysburg. Longstreet’s crime came after the Civil War: He endorsed black male suffrage and commanded the Metropolitan Police of New Orleans, which in 1874 engaged in armed combat with white supremacists seeking to seize control of the state government. Longstreet is not a symbol of white supremacy; therefore he was largely ineligible for commemoration by those who long controlled public memory in the South. As all historians know, forgetting is as essential to public understandings of history as remembering. Confederate statues do not simply commemorate “our” history, as the president declared. They honor one part of our past. Where are the statues in the former slave states honoring the very large part of the Southern population (beginning with the four million slaves) that sided with the Union rather than the Confederacy? Where are the monuments to the victims of slavery or to the hundreds of black lawmakers who during Reconstruction served in positions ranging from United States senator to justice of the peace to school board official? Excluding blacks from historical recognition has been the other side of the coin of glorifying the Confederacy.” Of course, there is a monument to Longstreet at Gettysburg, but I think Professor Foner is talking about monuments in the South.
Professor David Graham of Snow College has this op-ed piece in the Salt Lake City Tribune. He tells us, “There is a long, divisive history surrounding Confederate iconography from immediately following the war to the present day, including many memorials to Robert E. Lee. For instance, before the dedication of Antietam National Cemetery in 1867, the cemetery’s Board of Trustees faced the difficult decision of what to do with ‘Lee’s Rock.’ According to legend, Lee stood on the rock to watch the progress of his army during the Battle of Antietam. The majority opinion fluctuated depending upon which members were in attendance at the board meetings and their political affiliations. Public opinion of what should be done with the stone and its appropriateness within the boundaries of a national cemetery was also varied. Eventually, the board decided upon the removal of the rock outside the boundaries of the proposed cemetery. While little fanfare or upheaval followed the relocation of the small boulder, ‘Lee’s Rock’ foreshadowed the complexity of Civil War commemoration in the United States. As Lee’s likeness fades away from our commemorative landscapes, let us remember this process started when the war ended.” In what may be used as a counterpoint to those concerned about confederate monuments at Gettysburg, Professor Graham writes, “Resistance to the Lost Cause mythology that glorified the Confederate South and its physical manifestations continued into the late nineteenth-century. The first Confederate monument placed on the Gettysburg battlefield was dedicated in 1886 and honored the 2nd Maryland Confederate Infantry Monument. Three years later, Union veterans voiced their dismay with the decision of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association to put a Confederate monument on what many Union veterans considered to be sacred soil. The Pittsburgh Grand Army of the Republic (a Union veteran fraternal organization) drafted a resolution that stated allowing such monuments to be dedicated at Gettysburg would ‘make treason honorable’ and was a form of sacrilege. To those who fought against the Confederacy 25 years prior, commemorating their enemies on Northern soil was unfathomable.” He continues to trace opposition to confederate monuments into the twentieth century. ” Confederate monuments and other symbols created during this time were designed to push back against inroads made by civil rights activists and to maintain the racial status quo as much as possible.  The Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson Monument was dedicated in Baltimore in 1948.  While many applauded, an editorialist in the Baltimore Afro-American asked, ‘Why Not Benedict Arnold?’  Lee and Jackson were traitors and to look to them for inspiration was ‘pure drivel and tommyrot.’  The editorialist noted that, ‘Hitler killed Jews’ and ‘Lee and Jackson exploited colored people as animals and property.’  The Lee and Jackson Monument was removed from Baltimore in the early morning hours of August 16, 2017, nearly 70 years after its dedication.”
Christy Coleman of the American Civil War Museum appeared on ABC’s This Week discussing the monument controversy. You can view that segment here.
In this piece, Professor David Blight of Yale University says, “All parallels are unsteady or untrustworthy. But the present is always embedded in the past. The 1850s, the fateful decade that led to the civil war, has many instructive lessons for us. Definitions of American nationalism, of just who was a true American, were in constant debate. After the Great Hunger in Ireland the US experienced an unprecedented immigration wave between 1845 and the mid-1850s, prompting a rapid and powerful rise of nativism. Irish and German Catholics were unwelcome and worse. The Mexican-American war of 1846-48, the nation’s first expansionist foreign conflict, stimulated an explosive political struggle over the expansion of slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 caused a wave of ‘refugee’ former slaves escaping the northern states into Canada, as well as a widespread crisis over violent rescues of fugitive slaves. Indeed, the constant flight of slaves from the South to free states was, in effect, America’s first great refugee crisis. The abolition movement, the country’s prototypical reform crusade, became increasingly politicized as it became more radical, extra-legal, and violent.” After tracing events that led to secession and the Civil War, he writes, “Thus we might see one of the strongest parallels of all between the road to disunion and our current predicament. The rhetoric about the slave power and about black Republicans has a familiar ring today. Millions of Americans on the right who garner their information from selective websites, radio shows and Fox News possess all sorts conspiratorial conceptions of liberals and the alleged radical views of professors on university campuses. Many on the left also know precious little about people in rural and suburban America who voted for Trump; coastal elites do sometimes hold contemptuous views bordering on the conspiratorial about the people they ‘fly over’. Americans are more than politically polarized; we are bitterly divided about our expanding diversity, about the proper function of government, about the right to vote and how to protect it, over women’s reproductive rights, about climate science, over whether we even believe in a social contract between citizens and the polity. In other words, like the 1850s, we are divided over conflicting visions of our future. Let us hope that we find ways to fight out our current conflicts within politics and not between each other in our over-armed society. From my perspective, we can hope that like the slave power, the white supremacist far right will become its own worst enemy, and after all its frightful noise, kill itself.”
In an op-ed for the Journal of the Civil War Era, Professor Patrick Rael of Bowdoin College takes on the historical illiteracy of Trump and Tucker Carlson of Fox News. He says, “Amidst Donald Trump’s historical malfeasance, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson offered yet another nugget of bad history lending aid and comfort to white nationalism. His August 15 commentary argued against the removal of statues honoring slaveholding Americans, suggesting that if slaveholding is to be the standard by which historical figures are to be honored, ‘nobody is safe.’ Carlson then went on to point out that slavery is an old institution, practiced by African tribes and American Indians, as well as figures such as Plato, Mohammed, and Simon Bolivar. If slaveholding bars us from honoring historical figures, Carlson asserts, there would be few left to honor. ‘If we’re going to judge the past by the standards of the present, if we’re going to reduce a person’s life to the single worst thing he ever participated in, we had better be prepared for the consequences of that.’ Many who signed the Declaration of Independence held slaves, Carlson notes, but ‘does that make what they wrote illegitimate?’ “Professor Rael says, “Carlson has it all wrong. For one, it is untrue that there’s a ‘movement’ among ‘Leftists’ to reduce the Founders to nothing more than ‘racist villains,’ or have slaveholding Founders such as Jefferson ‘purged from public memory, forever.’ Aside from the obvious caricature here, it is clear that statues honoring historical figures represent a mere fraction of our public memory, which is nourished in myriad realms ranging from classrooms and museums to popular literature and feature films. We are in no danger of forgetting the Founders.” He tells us, “Carlson, like many other self-professed conservatives, lauds an American history of expanding freedom. Yet that history was bequeathed to us not by the conservatives who stood against liberty—men such as John C. Calhoun and George Fitzhugh—but the progressive activists who sacrificed life and limb to make the nation adhere to its principles. Enslaved African Americans protested their status through the limited means available to them, while nominally free ones founded a tradition of protest that propelled white abolitionists into action. Those courageous men and women were the most radical social thinkers of their day. They spearheaded the early labor movement, campaigned for women’s rights, embraced pacifism, stood against the death penalty, and experimented with utopian communities. It is hard to imagine Tucker Carlson, were he alive in 1850, giving such people the time of day. Instead, he would prefer to take credit for progressive reforms in the past while opposing them in the present. Carlson makes a final claim that demands refutation. It is true that slavery has been a feature of a great many societies throughout history, just as it is true that the nation-states of the modern West abolished slavery through a long and arduous process—one that in the United States uniquely required a bloody civil war that cost up to a million lives. But the slavery pioneered by the emerging nation-states of Europe assumed a distinct form. New World slavery entailed the forced migration of over twelve million souls across the Atlantic—the largest forced migration in history—in the stinking holds of ships designed for a complex trade network dedicated to the purpose of turning people into things. It consigned millions more to be born into bondage and die from disease and overwork. It erected intricate legal systems designed to uphold the right of property in man, warped Christianity and science into ideological justifications for the otherwise unthinkable, and turned slaveholding societies into racialized police states. The key ingredient here was capitalism—a form of economic, political, and social organization in its nascence in the fifteenth century. The new values of profit and property transformed widely disparate practices of human servitude into a modern state mechanism for the ongoing exploitation and degradation of an entire people and an entire continent.” After discussing the end of slavery and what came after that for African Americans, Professor Rael says, “Conservatives like Tucker Carlson may fabricate a past they can live with, but that will not change the truth. Thoughtful readers may decide for themselves the degree to which the country should pat itself on the back for such humanity.”

The issue promises to produce even more discussion.


  1. the wave for confederate icon removal is similar to the far larger, and slower, state’s abolition of slavery.

    As one historian hypothesized, as slave ownership decreased, the move to ban slavery gained ground. When only about 10% of the families owned slaves, the state abolished slavery.

    Today, just as then, more ‘neutral’ folks have moved to the ‘anti-monument’ ranks than to ‘pro-monument’.

    1. That’s another good perspective.

  2. Is it just me, or have you noticed how little history Lost Cause defenders know outside of what happened on the battlefields between 1861 and 1865? Is that due to a lack of statues.
    On Facebook groups I see references to the 1832 Tariff of Abomination but no knowledge of how the crisis was handled. No acknowledgement of “Popular Sovereignty” as an issue. Many of them appear to have no idea who John C Breckinridge was and why he ran for president. Am I correct in my observations.

    1. For them, it’s heritage instead of history.

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