Historians Continue to Weigh In On Confederate Monuments

The American Historical Association has a roundup of links to historians writing on the confederate monument issue here.

Professor James Marten of Marquette University has a contribution here. He says, “The debate has largely revolved around the larger, usually equestrian, statues of individual politicians or leaders. The president and others have cautioned that taking down Lee sculptures puts us on the slippery slope that could eventually lead to the destruction of monuments to founding fathers who owned slaves. Yet structures honoring to Washington, Jefferson, and other slaveholders were not built to commemorate their slave owning, but to honor their contributions to the formation of the United States.  On the other hand, the only reason there are monuments to Robert E. Lee is because he led the largest army fighting the United States in our country’s bloodiest conflict.  Without the Civil War, he would have been a well-respected colonel in the US army that no one would have remembered after his death. He, like many other Confederate military and political leaders, had, long before they joined the Confederate cause, sworn oaths to protect the United States as officers in the armed services or elected officials. Moreover, most of the monuments that are currently being attacked, supported, or taken down were put up between the 1890s and the 1910s. By this time the ‘Lost Cause’ interpretation of the war—in the best American tradition, the South had fought courageously and nobly for principles in which they believed—had captured the imaginations of southerners and many (not all) northerners alike.  But it was also the decade in which Jim Crow segregation and the disfranchisement of African Americans in southern states were nearly complete, and a time when lynching of African Americans had begun to reach its crescendo.  The Lee statue in Charlottesville did not go up until 1924—the same year KKK members openly paraded at the Democratic National Convention, a show of force that reflected the organization’s rebirth in 1915 (atop Stone Mountain, Georgia, which would become the site of another monument to the Confederacy). As Eric Foner has said, the monuments were expressions of power, not patriotism, and were not intended to represent “our” shared history, but a very specific version of history. (See Foner’s Op-Ed in the  New York Times.) James Grossman argues that comparing Confederate to Union monuments creates a false equivalent; however much one admires the courage of Confederate soldiers and the capacity of southern civilians to endure hardship, their cause hardly matched the moral and political high ground of the Union cause, or of the American cause in 1776 (to which it is often compared by southerners). (Grossman’s thoughts are part of a CNN roundtable on the issue.)”

Professor Martens continues, “It says a lot about the leniency of Reconstruction and the racism of the post-war North that Confederate memorials could proliferate so widely and quickly throughout the South with little pushback from the North. There were certainly examples of opposition—some Union veterans and others bitterly opposed the building of a Confederate memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, where a number of Confederates had actually been buried, but it nevertheless was unveiled in 1914—but generally they were accepted and the issue was, well, a non-issue. (For more on the Confederate memorial at Arlington, go to the cemetery’s website.) He concludes by mentioning confederate monuments at national battlefields. “I personally would prefer the battlefield monuments to be left alone. But I also would urge the National Park Service to be aggressive and pro-active in interpreting the monuments, which have for the most part been left to ‘speak’ for themselves. The last decade or two have seen numerous debates among and between public historians and academic historians about how battlefields should be interpreted, particularly in terms of the causes of the war, the motivations of the men who fought it, and the public memory of that war.  It seems to me that the monuments provide a great opportunity to explore all of these issues.  Because they capture moments in time—both the moment being commemorated, and the moment in which the commemoration occurs—they can be tools that, if done right can help visitors understand not only the battlefield, but also the war’s larger meanings. Interpreting symbols of racism, inequality, and extreme political beliefs—particularly when substantial groups of people do not see them that way—is a tricky business requiring a great deal of nuance. Recent events suggest that nuance may no longer be possible.”

This article discusses some of the politicians and historians who have changed their minds on the issue as a result of the white supremacist terrorist violence in Charlottesville. “For Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle, professors of history at California State University-Fresno and experts on historical memory, the final nail in the coffin of their belief to keep Confederate statues in place came when watching TV coverage of Charlottesville. ‘It’s hard to watch that and not start really probing this idea of whether or not contextualization is the way to go and can work,’ says Roberts. They had feared that taking down the monuments would erase ‘a Jim Crow culture that for decades and decades and decades celebrated falsifying the Civil War’ and ‘put up these monuments to bolster their own segregationist campaign.’ But the Charlottesville protests proved that the costs of keeping monuments to the Confederacy—the hurt that they caused African Americans walking past, their potential to serve as a moral justification for a burgeoning white supremacist movement—outweighed any potential benefits. As Kytle puts it, ‘We adapted to new evidence.’ ” For another historian, ” ‘Let African Americans have something to say about these issues,’ says Charles Ross, a history professor and director of the African American studies program at the University of Mississippi. He’s on the university’s Committee on History and Context, which last year reworded the plaque of a Confederate statue on campus in order to highlight its racist origins. If Ross had it his way, all those symbols would be removed or relocated, not merely put in context. To him, the contextualization argument doesn’t hold weight; if you want to learn about the Confederacy or Jim Crow, he says, read a book. Don’t force black students and faculty to walk by symbols of their state-sponsored oppression. ‘Particularly for African Americans,’ he says, ‘when you walk by those structures, they are clearly reminders that you have a certain amount of limited status in this society.’ ”

This article talks about other movements to take down monuments unrelated to the confederacy and the comments historians make about them, connecting those movements with the movement to remove confederate monuments. ” ‘If we do this in some willy-nilly way, we will regret it,’ cautioned Yale University historian David Blight, an expert on slavery. ‘I am very wary of a rush to judgment about what we hate and what we love and what we despise and what we’re offended by.’ Blight and other historians say the way to determine whether to remove these monuments, Confederate or otherwise, is through discussions that weigh many factors, among them: the reason behind when and why the monument was built. Where it’s placed. The subject’s contribution to society weighed against the alleged wrongdoing. Historical significance. And the artistic value of the monument itself. Some historians also say a statue in a public place can serve an important educational purpose, even if the history is ugly, that might be lost if the monument were junked or consigned to a museum. ‘By taking monuments down or hiding them away, we facilitate forgetting,’ said Alfred Brophy, a law professor at the University of Alabama who has been studying the issue. ‘It purchases absolution too inexpensively. There is a value in owning our history.’ … Some historians say the debate itself is a good thing. ‘I find it very exciting and refreshing that Americans are revisiting their history and questioning just why we honor some people, some events, and not others,’ said Don Doyle, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina. ‘It is a healthy reminder that history, as the search for understanding of the past, must always challenge public history as monuments and hero worship in the public sphere.’ ”

The PBS News Hour hosted a discussion of confederate monuments here. According to Dr. Peniel Joseph of the University of Texas, “Well, I think because the Confederate symbols are symbols of racial hatred, slavery and white supremacy. So, I think what some critics do is conflate the wish to remove the monuments with somehow politically correct advocacy of whitewashing or subbing American history. Nothing could be further from the case. Removing Confederate symbols is not the same as trying to remove the Washington Monument or symbols of Thomas Jefferson. Those founders owned slaves but their ideas about democracy and freedom, they were generative ideas that other groups, including people of color, women, LGBTQ have utilized to perfect the Union. So, when we think about the Confederacy, that’s something different. There was a civil war between 1861 and 1865 where over 600,000 people were killed because there was a group that wanted to abandon our founding values of freedom and democracy, and didn’t want to be a part of the United States. So, getting rid of those symbols is really honoring the best of our history and not trying to somehow scrub or efface that history.”

Pierre McGraw of the Monumental Task Committee said, “I think any time that you’re going to try to edit our history, you’re asking for trouble. And monuments do mean different things to different people. But it’s really unfair to judge historical figures by today’s standards. I think this is all just easy political fodder to go after these monuments. We know now this argument is much larger than that, having seen monuments to Christopher Columbus smashed. Just a few days ago, we’ve seen rallies in New Orleans that take down Andrew Jackson, an American president who saved New Orleans. So, this is a lot larger than just the easy targets of Confederate soldiers.”

Dr. W. Fitzhugh Brundage of the University of North Carolina contributed, “Certainly. I think there’s not just the question of who put them up and why but also when. So, some monuments were put up in the first decades after the civil war and I think we could understand those monuments as being simultaneously monuments to the white Confederates who died for the Confederate republic, as well as symbols of grieve and certainly defiance. Those monuments tend to be located in cemeteries and were often put up by small local groups honoring local Confederates who were buried there. Then, between 1890 and roughly 1930, there was an explosion of Confederate commemoration. And those monuments are bigger ones that we typically think of that are monuments of — monuments to Confederate soldiers often depicted in military garb, on top of a pedestal or a column. And those monuments often include inscriptions which honor not just the Confederate soldiers but the Confederate cause itself.”

Professor James Leloudis of the University of North Carolina contributes this op-ed piece. He writes, “Silent Sam was part of a wave of memorialization that began shortly after 1900, when white supremacists stripped black men of the right to vote and closed a long and bloody struggle over racial equality that had divided North Carolinians since the end of the Civil War. By 1926, 53 additional statues of Confederate soldiers stood in public squares across North Carolina. Only six had been erected before 1902. The civic leaders who financed and built those monuments made their intentions clear: they sought to normalize white supremacy and give legitimacy to the Jim Crow regime that they began to build in the early 20th century. Listen to UNC alumnus Julian Shakespeare Carr, a Confederate veteran and leading industrialist, speaking at Silent Sam’s dedication. Carr lauded his brothers in arms, the living as well as the dead, for their ‘deathless valor’ on the battlefield, and for their courage in mounting violent opposition to black equality in the years after the Civil War. Those men ‘saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race,’ Carr explained. And ‘to-day, as a consequence, the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States – Praise God.’ Like today’s white nationalists who are recruiting on college campuses, Carr had his eye on the future no less than the past. His audience was ‘the present generation’ of university students, who had been born well after the Civil War. For them – and for children not yet born – Silent Sam would offer an enduring lesson about duty and white men’s right to rule. The is no easy way to explain away Carr’s words and worldview. We know the familiar argument: he was simply a man of his times who spoke to what everyone thought back then. In point of fact, Carr was a self-described architect of Jim Crow, and his vision for North Carolina’s future elicited stiff opposition from black residents and a significant number of whites. In their battle with those dissenters, Carr and like-minded men and women wielded history and memorialization as instruments of white power. That abuse of history has no place in an America that promises liberty and justice for all. Silent Sam belongs in a museum, or some similar setting, where he might call new generations to a very different sense of moral obligation.” Professor Leloudis concludes, “A century ago, white supremacists erected monuments to dignify the Confederate cause and posted Jim Crow signs to segregate nearly every aspect of life. The Civil Rights Movement gave us the moral courage to pull down those signs. Today, our duty is to complete the work by taking Confederate heroes down from their pedestals. Doing so will not erase history. It will instead demonstrate history’s power to enlighten the present and liberate the future.”

Eric Etheridge, a photographer and journalist, found this story of the meaning of confederate monuments from a confederate veteran. He quotes Wiley Nash of Mississippi, who asked in 1908, “What good purpose is subserved, promoted and supported by the erection of these Confederate memorials all over the South?” Nash’s answer: “Like the watch fires kindled along the coast of Greece that leaped in ruddy joy to tell that Troy had fallen, so these Confederate monuments, these sacred memorials, tell in silent but potent language, that the white people of the South shall rule and govern the Southern states forever.” Etheridge tells us, “Wiley was the featured speaker on December 2, 1908, when the white citizens of Lexington, Mississippi, gathered for ceremonies to unveil their new Confederate monument. It was typical of the memorials then going up across the south: A generic soldier standing atop a stone column, in front of the county courthouse. The column is of modest height, not as tall as the one in Natchez, say, nor does it feature any secondary statues at its base, as the one in Greenwood does. Both were richer cities. Still, the monument’s debut was something to be celebrated. A college band played ‘Dixie.’ A group of school children sang ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag.’ Civil War Veterans paraded along with eleven girls chosen to represent the eleven seceding states of the Confederacy.”

Nash actually gave nine reasons in answer to his rhetorical question. Etheridge gives us the fuller context:

[begin quote]

It may be asked, “What good purpose is subserved, promoted and supported by the erection of these Confederate memorials all over the South?” I answer:

(1) Besides honoring the South, the Southern cause, its supporters and brave defenders, the living and the dead, it will keep in heart and spirit the South, and her people for all time to come.

(2) It will keep honored and honorable, as the years roll on, the name and fame of the fathers and forefathers of our present and future dominant and ruling Southern Anglo-Saxon element, those who, “come weal, come woe,” are to mould, shape, fix, dictate, and control the destiny of the South and her people.

(3) It will educate each rising generation, each influx of immigration in our customs, traditions, thought and feeling, as well as in the esteem, love and admiration of the Southern people.

(4) It will help all others to form a correct idea of, a respect for our civil, religious, social and educational institutions.

(5) It will help to a true understanding of home rule and local self-government, contending for which the South lost so many of her best and bravest.

(6) It will serve to keep the white people of the South united — a thing so necessary — to keep, protect, preserve and transmit, our true Southern social system, our cherished Southern civilization, —

      • “And Dixie’s sons shall stand together,
      • Mid sunshine and in stormy weather,
      • Through lightning flashes and mountains sever,
        Count on the ‘Solid South’ forever.”

(7) Like the watch fires kindled along the coast of Greece that leaped in ruddy joy to tell that Troy had fallen, so these Confederate monuments, these sacred memorials, tell in silent but potent language, that the white people of the South shall rule and govern the Southern states forever.

(8) They will tell to Sovereign States from the Atlantic, where raged the fight that made us free, to the calm and placid waters of the Pacific, to States, if made from the isles of the sea, how sacred and how dear are the reserved rights of the States, reserved in the language of the Constitution to the States, or to the people.

(9) They will teach the South through all the ages to love the Southern Cause, her Southern soldier boys.[end quote]

Etheridge tells us, “On this matter, Nash is an unimpeachable source: a Mississippian, a veteran, a redeemer and a monument-unveiler. This is what the monuments mean. His is the definitive answer. His is a direct expression of the original intent, if you will, of the people who built them.”

Author Tony Horwitz catches up with folks he interviewed for his book, Confederates in the Attic, in this piece. He also spoke with historian John Coski. ” ‘Most millennials have zero investment in the Confederacy and its symbols,’ says John Coski, who often speaks to students as the historian at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. For them, ‘The flag and statues are expendable, or they’re wrong and need to be challenged.’ With this shift, and a sharp rise in immigrants to the South, Mr. Coski says there’s no longer a ‘critical mass’ of white Southerners raised to honor and defend symbols of the Confederacy, and ‘reasonable people in that camp don’t want to be associated with the unsavory types waving rebel flags in Charlottesville.’ ” He has some fascinating encounters with the folks he met while writing his book. Some have changed their views, others have become more entrenched.

In this article, Professor Jennifer Allen of Yale University says, “I’m embarrassed to admit this: I lived just down the street from the Robert E. Lee memorial and I must have walked past it dozens of times and never gave it a moment of thought. Incidentally, not four blocks away from that, there is another monument — even more inconspicuous in Charlottesville’s court square. A small plaque, embedded in the ground, that marks the site of a former slave auction. And I also walked past that countless times and did not pay attention to it at all. Monuments don’t mean things on their own. They mean things because we make them mean things. So this Robert E. Lee statue, which I suspect most Charlottesvillians would have walked past and ignored as well, has taken on a new valence. And I think that’s an important reminder. Monuments are not static things that have a single narrative behind them. Monuments are things that we create. Monuments are objects whose meaning and significance we create daily.” She tells us, “Memory is not just the things that we recall on a moment-to-moment basis. Memory is something that also means something in the world; what we decide is important to remember is something that is collectively determined, and the politics, the negotiation, the conversation by which we determine what matters and what doesn’t. Politics is a process of negotiation. So is the conversation over what should be memorialized, what should go in a museum, what should take the form of a monument, what should be a holiday. All of these things we sometimes take for granted. We take for granted that we celebrate the Fourth of July. But what we’re seeing right now unfolding in the wake of Charlottesville is that, for example, commemorating the Confederacy is not something we should take for granted. It is something that is, in fact, debatable.”

When asked about a comparison of American memory of the confederacy and Germany’s memory of the Nazis, she said, “The banal answer is that race relations are still very complicated in the United States. And the question of responsibility for commemorating the human aspects of slavery — that is, slavery not as an institution. To commemorate the Confederacy is to think, at most, abstractly about the way that slavery tied into that heritage. And I think with each successive generation, it has become more and more difficult to reckon with the question of responsibility. You see this play out in the debates about reparations. In the German context, the Germans jumped immediately to make reparations to the Jews, to Israel, to other victims of the Holocaust. And we just never had that conversation. The further away you get, I think, there’s a sense of distance. ‘I didn’t own slaves. My parents didn’t own slaves. My grandparents didn’t own slaves. So why is this my responsibility?’ Or, ‘I am an open, tolerant person. Why should I carry that burden?’ And I think that conversation is changing, too, as people — particularly the white American population — think about privilege in new ways. I think as people re-evaluate what their relationship is to people who carry the institution of slavery in a different way, namely black Americans, I think conversations about how to commemorate that event, as a human event, also change.”

Professor Laura Edwards of Duke University contributes this op-ed piece. She tells us, “Confederate statues present a simplified view of both Southern history and U.S. history. Southern history cannot be represented through Confederate soldiers, and neither the South nor the nation was ever as unified as many like to think. Most Confederate monuments in the South were put up in the period between 1890 and 1920, to symbolize the end of Reconstruction and the ascendance of white supremacy. They kept appearing as Jim Crow persisted in the 20th century. And they appeared all over the United States, not just in Southern states. White leaders in Southern states were not the only ones to embrace Jim Crow; it was a national phenomenon, despite widespread resistance. Echoing a pet peeve of mine, she says these monuments “help define the Confederacy as ‘the South,’ an association all too apparent in our terminology: We still say that during the Civil War, Southerners (not Confederates) seceded and fought for the South (not the Confederacy). In fact, the Civil War was a conflict between the Confederacy and the United States, not one between the South and the North.” She says the South “was a diverse region, with a long and complicated history. And during the Civil War, not all Confederates were Southerners and not all Southerners were Confederates.” Black southerners made significant contributions to the Union war effort, both in uniform and not in uniform. Also, “More than 100,000 Southern white Unionists fought for the U.S. Army, against the Confederacy. There was at least one Union battalion from every Confederate state except South Carolina. Confederates were not a unified group either. Confederate leaders sparred with each other throughout the conflict. Division went so deep that some governors openly opposed the policies of the Confederate government. Meanwhile, dissension among soldiers inspired the Confederate Army’s staggering desertion rate. Confederate sympathizers, moreover, did not just live in the states that seceded from the United States. They lived in states that remained in the Union as well. Their influence was powerful and pervasive, evident in elections during the Civil War and the Lincoln administration’s policies.”

Professor Edwards then tells us how these confederate monuments portray a fake version of history. “The Civil War was about conflict within the Confederacy and within the United States. But statues of Confederate soldiers erase those conflicts by portraying the South as united behind the Confederacy. In fact, the South was as conflicted in the Civil War era as it is now. So was the rest of the United States. And that is why the Confederate statues and their portrayals of false unity are so misleading and dangerous. The white supremacy groups gathered in Charlottesville because the South can represent a past in which white superiority was uncontested. Even people who do not support white supremacy find solace in the idea of ‘Southern heritage,’ because the phrase suggests a past free from the conflicts of the present.” So even “southern heritage” is a fake concept, because the diversity of southern experiences shows there is no one “southern heritage.” Those who talk about “southern heritage” are really talking about a white supremacist heritage from the confederacy. She concludes, “In truth, there is no place in the American past free from conflict, particularly conflicts about racial inequality. Those conflicts have existed since the nation’s founding, when the Declaration of Independence spoke of equality, despite the reality of inequality — racial, economic and gender. That paradox — promises of equality in the face of stark inequalities, epitomized by a Southern slaveholder, Thomas Jefferson — is at the heart of our nation’s heritage. It is a complex heritage, flawed and inspirational all at the same time, just like Jefferson. Yet that is our nation’s true history, and the source of our true heroes. It deserves authentic memorials, not marble statues of soldiers who sought to break our nation apart.”

Professor Paul Douglas Newman of the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown Campus believes confederate monuments should stay in place. He says, “Statues are not history. History is the accurate interpretation of prior events placed into context engaged to understand the past, inform the present and improve the future. Statues without interpretation inspire mythology: the lost cause, the good old days or the moral equivalency between the Union and the Confederacy. Myths are dangerous. As a southern-born man raised in a desegregating town, I sympathize with the impatience of slavery’s descendants and their supporters to remove these statues. As a taxpayer, I understand this is the cheapest option. But as a historian, I would rather see them stay, but only with historic interpretation. Signage could carry that state’s declaration of secession. Maintaining slavery dominated the lists of reasons. It could explain the military figure, why local men joined and why some local people remained Union loyalists. Signage could chronicle local enslaved people who supported the Union Army and explain why many could not. It could date the monument – most appeared at the height of the Jim Crow era, a generation later – and detail how those who erected it worked to deny their African-American neighbors their civil rights or their lives. New statues could give context to old. These things require money and will. Without interpretation, Confederate statues honor the generals and their cause, and make them martyrs.” He tells us, “Interpreting the past, “doing” history, can de-mythologize it and empower learners to understand that all sides are not equal. It teaches us to analyze complex realities to extract broader truths. It teaches us to make fair judgements of the past to understand our present and to choose better paths forward.”

Finally, New York Magazine provides us a running list of confederate monuments that have been removed here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: