The Week in Confederate Heritage

Lee’s statue in Richmond coming down continues to reverberate in the nationwide retreat of confederate heritage.

We start with this blog post from Professor Adam Domby. He tells us, “today Americans have a better understanding of the history of these monuments than they did a decade ago. They understand the historical ties between these monuments and racial oppression.”

Professor Domby takes on some myths about Lee. “Confederate monuments like this one were clearly tied to white supremacy from the time they were erected. … consciously constructed lies pervaded collective memories of the Civil War from Reconstruction down to the present. Let me take up here one particular myth about Lee that those defending Confederate monuments have pushed recently to show that monuments don’t teach history—rather, they erase the past for present needs. Looking to defend the Lee monument, many neo-Confederates and those advocating to keep monuments like his in place have claimed that Lee facilitated reconciliation after the war. In its most recent iteration, this myth claims that Lee did more for reconciliation than perhaps anyone else. Indeed, even Donald Trump issued a statement to this effect after the Lee statue came down. Unfortunately, it included a variety of ahistorical and false pronouncements, including that ‘except for Gettysburg’ Lee would have won the Civil War and that Lee would have defeated the Taliban(!) But the one that stood out to me was that Trump claimed that Lee was ‘perhaps the greatest unifying force after the war was over.’ If this is what monuments like the Lee statue on Richmond’s Monument Avenue taught Trump and other defenders of Confederate statuary, then these monuments clearly failed to teach accurate history.”

He then looks at another myth. “Today’s Neo-Confederates often cite Lee as an advocate for racial reconciliation and frequently repeat a story about Lee taking communion with a Black man after the Civil War. But as Andy Hall has shown, this story is an evolution of an older myth that Lee and other white members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church had taken communion while ignoring a Black man who had knelt alongside them, thus showing their ‘superiority’ to the African American who had the temerity to try and take communion with them. The Black man was never given communion. Not only is the story likely entirely fabricated, it was first used in 1905 to ‘prove’ Lee’s devotion to white supremacy and opposition to Black equality and only evolved later to claim the opposite.”

We learn, “we don’t need made-up tales to know Lee’s views on race and reconciliation. After the war, Lee remained convinced of white superiority and openly spoke about his views. Pushing for the return of white rule in the South in 1866, he testified to Congress that: ‘I do not think that [the Black man] is as capable of acquiring knowledge as the white man is.’ Asked how whites would respond to Blacks being given the vote, he responded that ‘I think it would excite unfriendly feelings between the two races’ before eerily menacing ‘I cannot pretend to say to what extent it would go, but that would be the result.’ Indeed, Lee preferred that Virginia might have a smaller number of congressman than to give the vote to Black men. Lee didn’t stop there, going so far as saying ‘I think it would be better for Virginia if she could get rid of’ the state’s Black population. As some scholars have pointed out, Lee was arguing for ethnic cleansing—not exactly something I would personally deem worthy of celebration. After the war Lee was certainly making little to no effort to protect African Americans around him. While Lee was president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee) his students sexually assaulted Black girls without ramifications and started their own chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. When Lee bothered to address racist harassment he treated it as a minor transgression, as a crime less serious than when students threatened to take a holiday. Only if you ignore Black southerners as part of the United States can you imagine that Lee facilitated reconciliation and was a unifying force. Ironically, perhaps the one thing Lee did say that fostered any sense of reconciliation was to oppose the erecting of Confederate monuments. In 1869 he wrote that it was better ‘not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.’ On the surface, Lee seemed to have wished to forget the war, something neo-Confederates now accuse those seeking the removal of monuments of desiring. Although advocates for taking down Confederate monuments love to cite this speech as evidence that Lee opposed statues, in reality it was a matter of timing that drove Lee, not an aversion to celebrating the Confederacy or any evolving views on white supremacy. His opposition to monuments in the 1860s was a political calculation as he recognized attempts to celebrate the Confederacy would lead to outrage in the North and might extend Reconstruction. Lee wanted southern whites to regain political control as soon as possible. Yet erecting monuments in 1869 threatened that.  It seems likely his view of monuments might have changed had he lived to see Jim Crow firmly established. Indeed in 1866, he had written:

As regards the erection of such a monument […] my conviction is, that however grateful it would be to the feelings of the South, the attempt in the present condition of the Country, would have the effect of retarding, instead of accelerating its accomplishment; & of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour. All I think that can now be done, is to aid our noble & generous women in their efforts to protect the graves & mark the last resting places of those who have fallen, & wait for better times.

“That last line especially is, to me, indicative of his true feelings. By ‘wait for better times’ Lee meant that when white southerners (the only group Lee included in ‘the southern people’) were no longer under Reconstruction and occupation by U.S. Army troops (what Lee meant by the ‘present difficulties’), then monuments would be appropriate. Even Lee’s opposition to monuments was about defending white supremacy. At some level Lee understood that monuments seek to demonstrate who controls public spaces; erecting them too early would raise the ire of those who opposed the return to power of former Confederates. Lee died in 1870, never seeing the disenfranchisement of Black southerners or the rise of Jim Crow (Lee’s ‘better times’) that led to the subsequent widespread erection of Confederate monument.”

Professor Domby takes on the lie that taking down monuments is “erasing history.” “Monuments do not teach history. Indeed, monuments celebrating Lee seem to have obscured the past rather than informed the public. They hide the fact that Lee committed treason, took up arms against the United States Army in an effort to create a slaveholders republic, and at times even that he was defeated. Lee’s army committed war crimesenslaved free people, and refused to treat Black prisoners as POWs. Monuments help hide these facts by telling us that this is a man worthy of looking up to. Monuments teach people who to admire. Until the removal of Lee’s statue this week, viewers were forced to literally look up to him on Monument Avenue. But was the real man worthy of the monument he received? Did he represent the city of Richmond’s values in the twenty-first century? The statue certainly represented the values of those who put up the monument as part of residential development that banned African Americans from buying houses. Monuments seek to silence the voices of those men and women whom Lee enslaved, who recalled him as an especially cruel and harsh oppressor who separated families. The truth about who Lee was as a man (flawed, racist, and loser—at least when it came to the Civil War) is erased by monuments that present him as perfect. It is hardly surprising that defenders of these monuments frequently struggle to identify the root causes of the war they celebrate.”

Crews remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., on Wednesday.Steve Helber / AP

We next look at this essay from Professor Keisha Blain. “The removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, on Wednesday is a powerful symbolic victory. For 131 years, Black residents had had to walk past the statue and see a constant reminder of how white supremacy continues to shape American life and culture. There is perhaps no greater proof of the persistence of white supremacy and how it has shaped public memory than the myth of ‘the Lost Cause‘: the idea that during the Civil War the South fought a principled battle for states’ rights with the continuation of slavery as only an ancillary factor. Those who embrace this distorted view of history insist that Confederate monuments hold some value: to honor what they call ‘Southern pride and heritage.’ Yet those emphasizing states’ rights overlook one critical point: Southern states were fighting for the right to enslave human beings. Even a cursory examination of the Confederate States of America — the rebel state established in 1861 — underscores the undeniable links between slavery and the Civil War. ‘Its foundations are laid,’ Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens clearly explained of his government in his infamous 1861 Cornerstone speech, ‘its 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.’ Stephens’ remarks, as well as the Constitution of the Confederate States of America, paint a clear picture of the vital role slavery played in secession and the Civil War. Confederate statues, therefore, are public fixtures meant to glorify racism. They send a powerful message about which groups belong in the American polity — and which groups do not. These symbols of the Confederacy cannot be divorced from white supremacy in the United States.”

Professor Blain continues, “The history of Confederate statues reveals far more about their intended purpose than today’s sympathizers acknowledge. Richmond’s Robert E. Lee monument, which glorified a white supremacist and traitor, was made possible through the efforts of former Confederates, sympathizers and Lee’s relatives. During the mid-1880s — 20 years after the end of the Civil War — then Virginia Gov. Fitzhugh Lee, the Confederate general’s nephew, played a central role in soliciting donations for the monument. With the help of many others, Gov. Lee managed to raise enough funds to order the 12-ton statue of Robert E. Lee for more than $75,000. Over 100,000 people witnessed its May 1890 unveiling. The timing was no coincidence. As was the case with many of the Confederate monuments in the United States, the push to install the statue of Lee after Reconstruction was in response to the expansion of Black political rights that Reconstruction had made possible. As Blair L.M. Kelley, an assistant dean and associate professor of history at North Carolina State University, told me, ‘These statues, including Lee, were erected in response to the achievements of Black citizens.’ For as long as the statue has been on display in Richmond, activists have decried its presence. While many white Americans celebrated its installation, Black people in Virginia and across the nation denounced it. As Kelley details in her groundbreaking book, ‘Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson,’ John Mitchell Jr., the anti-lynching publisher of The Richmond Planet, used his fiery pen to condemn segregation and racial violence in the city. Following the installation of the Lee statue, Mitchell, who’d been born into slavery in Richmond, led mass protests throughout the city demanding its removal. According to Kelley, Mitchell emphasized that the Lee statue was ‘not grounded in American patriotism but a desire to go back to a time when Black Richmonders had no rights.’ “

She tells us, “Since its installation in 1890, generations of Black activists have worked to bring down the Lee statue. This decades-long fight came to a head in 2020 during the mass protests following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and other African Americans last year. Reigniting an old debate about the significance of Confederate monuments, activists in Richmond and beyond demanded the removal of these white supremacist symbols. And one by one, they came toppling down. On June 4, 2020, during the height of the summer uprisings, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced his plans to remove the Lee statue — a task finally completed on Wednesday. Northam was on hand to witness the removal of ‘the last Confederate statue on Monument Avenue, and the largest in the South.’ … The removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond is no small matter. It is a symbolic gesture, but that does not diminish its deep significance. ‘The removal of the most iconic of Lee statues is a step forward in removing the stain of white supremacy from the landscape of Richmond, of Virginia, and of the South,’ said Karen L. Cox, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the author of ‘No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Equality.’ Still, Cox cautions, there must now be ‘a real effort to address the issues that Confederate monuments raise about racial inequality, police brutality and white supremacy.’ “

Crews work to remove one of the country’s largest remaining monuments to the Confederacy, a towering statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, Pool)

We next look at this article concerning the new time capsule on the site of the former Lee monument. “Workers at the site in Virginia’s capital where a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was taken down this week installed a new time capsule Saturday within the statue’s massive pedestal, after efforts to locate an 1887 capsule were suspended. The capsule’s installation, which a state government official confirmed was completed Saturday morning, contains remembrances of current events, including those related to COVID-19 and protests over racial injustice. … Crews had spent much of Thursday locating without success the late-19th century capsule that state officials believe was buried within the pedestal, removing massive stones. The search didn’t continue. Workers aimed to complete the reassembly of the pedestal later Saturday, according to Dena Potter, a spokeswoman for the state agency managing the job. … The new capsule contained items such as an expired vial of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, a Black Lives Matter sticker and a photograph of a Black ballerina with her fist raised near the Lee statue during last summer’s protests in Richmond.”

This article deals with the monument to Ambrose Powell Hill in Richmond. “The city of Richmond has reached an agreement with the family of former Confederate general A.P. Hill to relocate the monument and remains of Hill to a cemetery in Culpeper, according to city officials. The move still requires approval from Richmond City Council, but once given the green light, Hill and the monument he’s buried under will be sent to its new home at Fairview Cemetery. ‘We have an ordinance for intro on the 13th to request City Council concurrence on admin’s recommendation to relocate the remains and monument of A.P. Hill to Fairview Cemetery in Culpeper, VA at the request of AP Hill’s descendants,’ said Jim Nolan, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s press secretary. After crews successfully removed the statue of Robert E. Lee from its pedestal on Monument Avenue in Richmond on Wednesday, Hill’s monument remains as Richmond’s last Confederate monument.”

This article tells us, “The central conceit of Confederate monuments is that the antebellum South is ever-present. It remains – and always will remain – embedded in the fabric of American consciousness. The problem, of course, is that one cannot separate – historically, sociologically, or emotionally – the Old South’s reverence for torturing human beings. For buying and selling them. For separating children from parents and wives from husbands. For capturing them. For murdering them. That’s not to say other Americans did not support slavery, or even own slaves. But to my knowledge, there are no Confederate monuments honoring Vermonter secessionists. Confederate monuments were dedicated to advancing a supremacist Southern heritage, aimed at intimidating and threatening those who stood in the way. And not only ‘stood,’ but also ‘stand,’ because they continue to offend and dishonor those whose ancestors died so that these Confederates could live in public squares forever. Last week’s removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Va., has been met with the usual backlash. Former President Donald Trump – who according to the Republican National Committee ‘still leads’ the GOP – was quick to name Lee a national hero while lamenting – erroneously – that ‘except for Gettysburg, [he] would have won the [Civil] War.’ Trump also strangely insisted that Lee would have handed the U.S. ‘total victory’ in Afghanistan. Hyperbole and questionable intent aside, the idolization of Lee and those he led into battle against the United States raise questions his eternal supporters will not – or cannot – answer: How many centuries are enough to honor men who killed hundreds of thousands of Americans? And by extension, for what purpose are we obeying monumental decisions made generations ago?”

The article continues, “In the late 19th and early 20th centuries – the years when many of these monuments were erected – doctors commonly recommended soothing teething babies with licorice-flavored morphine syrup. Why don’t American medical textbooks continue to promote morphine syrup? Because of scientific progress. Previous ‘experts’ who pushed this product into people’s homes don’t merit public recognition. They don’t deserve pedestals. Simply put, we should have known better back then. We didn’t. Now we do. And medical writings and parents’ attitudes have evolved accordingly. And the notion of ‘evolution’ is critical. We can remember past mistakes without shoving them in people’s faces. So, too, can we remember past horrors without venerating the perpetrators. Slavery was our country’s original sin. Displaying monuments to those who killed and died to perpetuate slavery is a contemporary sin. A majority of Americans agree, and want the monuments gone. The other side believes, inexplicably, that removing them will somehow desecrate America. By keeping these Confederate monuments, we are taking orders from avowed bigots of the past, who desperately sought to reignite the Lost Cause. More than 1,000 remaining statues represent these bigots’ triumph over modern-day America, which is supposedly (but nowhere close to) ‘post-racial.’ Every day these structures tower over us, we, an allegedly evolved nation aspiring for goodness and greatness, straining to liberate ourselves from a history steeped in dehumanization, are surrendering unconditionally to a devoutly racist philosophy. If we truly are a better country than we were 50, 100, and 150 years ago, then it’s way past time we grow up and act like it.”

Photo: Kim Chandler (AP) Macon County officials covered the base of a Confederate statue, Friday, June 12, 2020, in Tuskegee, Ala., after it was vandalized with spray-painted obscenities. The Alabama county is seeking to remove the statue that sits in a town square.

Finally, we have this article from Alabama, which tells us, “A recently-filed lawsuit could result in the removal of a Confederate statue that has taken up space in the mostly-Black city of Tuskegee, Ala. for over 100 years. According to the Associated Press, the lawsuit filed on behalf of the Macon County Commission and three Black residents argues that the land where the statue currently stands was illegally given to the United Daughters of the Confederacy by county officials in 1906. Per the AP, records show that the land was provided to the Confederate group to use as a park for white people. This impending legal battle comes during a time when various monuments erected in honor of Confederate figures have either been removed or have been the center of legal battles to have them removed–like the saga behind those rusty and dusty Robert E. Lee statues in Richmond and Charlottesville, Va. The statue has been the subject of periodic demonstrations for decades in Tuskegee, which is almost all Black and the home of Tuskegee University. The nation’s first Black military pilots trained in the city during World War II. Protesters tried and failed to pull down the monument in the 1960s, and it has been the target of vandals and community opposition for years. In July, City Council member Johnny Ford and another man used an electric saw to cut into the statue, but the damage was later repaired by a crew hired by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. WSFA-TV reports that both the Tuskegee chapter and Alabama division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy are defendants in the suit. Fred Gray, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said they have been working to find out who the members of the Tuskegee chapter of the group are. So far, only one member has been located, according to the NBC affiliate. It would probably be more satisfying to either see that thing torn down, dumped into the ocean or even shot into outer space, but WSFA reports that the county is willing to return the statue to the group if they step forward.”

2 comments

  1. [edit] Enjoy while you ’cause a change is coming. Jessie Sanford Petal Mississippi. Come see me sometimes.

    1. Guess that was too close to home, eh? Did the truth hurt you?
      What’s for dinner?

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