What To Do with Confederate Memorials?

During a visit earlier this year to Pulaski, Virginia, I took a few minutes to survey how the Appalachian town commemorated America’s wars. I found a veterans memorial outside the courthouse, a bridge (see earlier posts on “living memorials“), and a pair of monuments in a park near the post office — one for World War I, and one for the Confederate soldiers of the Civil War.

At the time, my instinctive response to the latter was to be snarky:

(The quotation comes from the conclusion of Allen Guelzo’s Fateful Lightning.)

But in the wake of the dramatic collapse of the Confederate flag, it’s been interesting to see more sustained commentary on the appropriateness of memorials and monuments like the one in Pulaski. Or the Confederate statuary on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. Or, outside the borders of the old CSA itself, the nine Confederate monuments in Baltimore, Maryland (a state that has offered a license plate with the Stars and Bars to Sons of Confederate Veterans for the last twenty years). Or Helena, Montana, for Pete’s sake.

There are those who want to tear down such memorials; several have already been vandalized, including, just this weekend, the statue honoring the three hundred University of North Carolina students who died in the Civil War. And there have been calls to rename streets, buildings, and lakes named after Confederates and antebellum advocates of slavery and white supremacy.

But others have a deep emotional attachment to such symbols, like the president of Maryland’s chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy: “It broke my heart,” she said of the defacing of one statue in Baltimore. Democratic presidential candidate Jim Webb urged readers of his Facebook page “to remember that honorable Americans fought on both sides in the Civil War, including slave holders in the Union Army from states such as Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware, and that many non-slave holders fought for the South. It was in recognition of the character of soldiers on both sides that the federal government authorized the construction of the Confederate Memorial 100 years ago, on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.”

Slate writer Jamelle Bouie agreed that “we shouldn’t ignore or erase history out of offense or discomfort,” but he argued that the Stars and Bars and other Confederate commemorative symbols reinforce a false narrative:

Nathan B. Forrest bust at Tennessee's Forrest State Park
Bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Tennessee state park named after him – Creative Commons (Thomas R. Machnitzki)

Far from an authentic symbol of Southern heritage and ancestry, the flag is a propaganda coup, the end point of 150 years of myth-making. The same goes for the countless Confederate monuments that mark the Southern landscape, from equestrian statues of Robert E. Lee and mountain carvings of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, to highways named for Jefferson Davis and schools named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, father of the Ku Klux Klan. Each calls back to a pre- and post-war romanticism, where the Civil War was a gentlemen’s conflict of dueling ideals—autonomy versus central authority, agrarian democracy versus industrial capitalism—between brilliant, honorable Southerners and their determined, better-equipped opponents in the North.

But this story is a lie. Far from the peaceful society of a young Scarlett O’Hara, the antebellum South was a brutal archipelago of slave labor camps governed by an aristocracy of planters and slave traders. Those men fought the Civil War to preserve slavery and expand it in a vast empire of bondage. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world,” wrote the Mississippi secessionists. “The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery,” echoed their counterparts in Louisiana.

But most historians I’ve read have been rather cautious about the notion of scrapping memorials, as opposed to the flag. Writing in The Atlantic, Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts (authors of a forthcoming book on the memory of slavery in Charleston, SC) worried

about the unintended consequences of sanitizing the commemorative landscape. Historical monuments are interpretations of one era but also artifacts of another. Confederate and proslavery memorials embody, even perpetuate, deeply flawed narratives of the Old South and the Civil War. Yet they also reveal essential truths about the time during which they were erected.

Instead, they suggested the effectiveness of “Erecting memorials that provide a more inclusive and accurate narrative of the past,” such as Charleston’s statue to Denmark Vesey, who led a slave revolt there in 1822.

Jeb Stuart in Richmond, VA
Jeb Stuart statue on Monument Avenue – Wikimedia

At his excellent Civil War Memory blog, Kevin Levin stood by his own 2011 piece in The Atlantic, in which he had called for leaving Richmond’s “memorial landscape” as an “organic whole,” with Jefferson Davis and Arthur Ashe standing on the same street. While he conceded that “Each generation must decide how to utilize the limited space available for commemorating its collective past,” he preferred to keep such memorials in place as teaching tools. (He described the experience of taking students from Boston to Montgomery, AL, the first Confederate capital, where he helped them think through how to do public history surrounding the Confederate flag and memorial by the Alabama statehouse.)

Finally, consider the argument of Baylor historian Thomas Kidd. While he endorsed the removal of Confederate flags (“There’s nothing lost by taking it down, and whether we like it or not, keeping the flag up implies official endorsement of what the Confederacy stood for, which was the power to preserve and expand the institution of slavery”), he also warned that there is

a risk that these kinds of symbolic gestures will only keep polarizing our historical understanding. Many Americans seem to think that we can easily stand in judgment of past actors, with the breezy confidence that we would have done better if put in their situation. Symbolic representations of anyone who does not meet our test, the thinking goes, are to be erased, vandalized, or otherwise dishonored….

Neither side in these history culture wars have much patience for moral complexity, or the realization that all of us are sinners with massive blind spots. That fundamental defect was true of our American history heroes, and it is true of us, too.

My own response is also ambivalent. I squirm at the idea of keeping in place any kind of ode to a man like Nathan Bedford Forrest, but I sympathize with the concerns of Kidd, Levin, and Kytle & Roberts.

And then there’s my larger concern that, even when they’re dedicated to causes vastly better than that of the Confederacy, memorials can distort the affections of people who are meant, above all else, to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. As I wrote once about a pair of commemorative spaces in southern Minnesota,

entering a war or veterans memorial is like entering a secular sanctum sanctorum. It is meant to be holy ground, set apart from ordinary space and time. It exalts a certain vision of the good. And it seeks to mold me into a certain kind of person, to shape what I love and value….

Not that freedom and nation don’t, to some extent, deserve my service or sacrifice. But the freedom of a Christian is not the freedom of the modern age. And the love of nation is both a lesser love and a jealous one, intolerant of rival affections.


One thought on “What To Do with Confederate Memorials?

  1. I admit to being confused about public displays celebrating the Confederacy. I have lived in both the North and the South. I was raised in the North to believe (in school) that the Confederacy and its leaders, if not all its soldiers, were traitors to America. Yet, in the South, many people strongly believe the Confederate cause was a just one and mourn what they see as the loss of “states’ rights.” Many people in the South believe the Confederate cause was not slavery which they say would have died out without the Civil War or Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. And they point out that even Lincoln and many northern abolitionists were racists (in the sense of believing in the inferiority of blacks). The two perspectives–northern and southern–are so starkly different that one’s mind spins. My ancestors (almost) all came to the U.S. after the Civil War so I don’t have the same feelings about it as many descendants of Confederate soldiers have. What worries me is not so much their commemoration of their ancestor’s courage as the fact that SOME (not all) of them seem to think the South, the Confederacy, should have won the war and grieve its loss. Ironically (to my mind) the same people tend to be nationalistic about America–celebrating July 4 as or more eagerly than others and talking about “American exceptionalism.” I find the whole thing very confusing. But I remind myself that I am an “outsider” and even a “furriner” (as I have been told by some southerners!) and need to keep my thoughts to myself especially around southerners with passionate feelings about the Confederacy and its symbols. Most of them are not racists, but a few are. It might help their cause if the leaders of groups such as the daughters and sons of the Confederacy would be more vocal about anti-racism and equality of the races even as they raise their Confederate flags and defend Confederate statues and other symbols.

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