Thoughts on Confederate Monuments (My Own and Others’)

By James Marten

As the storm over Confederate monuments intensified during the late summer, it became obvious that I, along with anyone else teaching a Civil War class this fall, was being given an incredible teaching moment.  What better way to show students that the Civil War was a living, breathing event, a powerful way to represent—or to disrupt—American values and assumptions in politics, race relations, and culture.

But how to do it? One does not want to overtly politicize a course; by the same token, this is an incredible opportunity to underscore the relevance of history to modern Americans.  This isn’t a new thing, of course; historians have long explored the “memory” of the Civil War, particularly its causes and its results.  Books like David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001) and Caroline E. Janney’s Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (2013) examined the complicated ways in which Americans have sought to memorialize and politicize the Civil War era.

The monument issue that erupted early this month, like the previous controversy over the presence of the Confederate flag in southern capitols and courthouses, tended to pit those who argued that the flags and monuments  were simply representations of a southern “heritage” that should be recognized and honored against those who maintained that they promoted a racist past and should be ignored or taken down. Similar arguments have taken place on college campuses in both the South and the North, where controversies have boiled up about renaming buildings named after slaveowners. At our sister institution, Georgetown University, the institution’s ownership and sale of slaves in the 1830s inspired much soul-searching, a major research project, and the renaming of a major building on campus. (Check out the Georgetown Slavery Archive for more.)

The monument issue has been simmering for a few years now, but the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white nationalists used a statue of Robert E. Lee as a 800px-Lee_Park,_Charlottesville,_VArallying point, forced it into the public consciousness, particularly after President Donald Trump’s original comments blaming the deadly violence that occurred in Charlottesville on the actions of “both sides.” The city council had decided to remove the statue last spring; a lawsuit has delayed that action. (The story of Charlottesville’s Lee monument can be found in this New York Times piece from early August. The monument is pictured to the left.)

Like many of my colleagues in the field, I’ve struggled to decide exactly what I think should be done.  I teach in a private university in a northern state, so no one is likely to ask me about what they should do about Confederate monuments.  Yet it seems important to me to figure out for myself—and to have a ready answer should students (as I think they will) ask me about it.  Although I favored the elimination of the Confederate flag from public spaces, I’ve been something of an agnostic on monuments to the Confederacy.  But to me, now that the latter have been “claimed,” it seems, by white nationalists, it seems that whatever virtues there were in keeping the monuments intact have been compromised. As a result, I now support the removal by local authorities of Confederate monuments from public places.

But this blog is less about my opinion than it is about providing readers with a short introduction to some of the questions related to the monuments, and to point them in the direction of some excellent articles and blog posts by historians engaged in the issue. (For a great “roundup” of blogs, articles, and essays, see Megan Kate Nelson’s blog, “Historista.”)

In order to understand the monument issue, it’s important for us to distinguish the various motivations for the erecting a monument. The fundamental question when considering the appropriateness of any commemoration is this: why is this person or event being commemorated? What raises this circumstance or this person to that level of importance?

The vast majority of monuments—the kind found in small town squares and Confederate cemeteries—were mass-produced, generic statues of common soldiers. They were picturesque, but hardly works of art. (The historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage offers a brief history of these monuments—and a wise approach to dealing with them—in his essay published on Vox.)

But 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.)

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 confederate memorial at ArlingtonSouth 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.)

Despite their belief that the monuments were direct links to Confederate racial policies and motivations, most historians have, for many years, believed it more important to provide context to these representations of a specific time in our history, to explain their symbolism and the uses to which they have been put. Yet that may be impossible now, and many historians are changing their minds.  (Civil War blogger Kevin Levin explains his change of heart in this blog for the Atlantic, while  Matthew Stanley indicates why he changed his mind at the Emerging Civil War blog.)

Some politicians are also taking aim at monuments to Confederate commanders at battlefield parks. Battlefield monuments occupy a somewhat different place in the construction of memory.  Their original intent was to mark the movements and accomplishments of military units and commanders.  The more elaborate sculptures and structures—to commanders of specific units, or memorializing the fallen from individual states—are original pieces of art. And there is a rough balance in the number of monuments to Union and Confederate commanders and units.

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 meade1_18471138_stdacademic 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. (The photo to the left is of the Gen. George G. Meade statue at Gettysburg.)

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.

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department at Marquette. Among his recent publications are America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (2014) and Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (2011).

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