To many there is a certain romance surrounding the Confederacy. Maybe it has to do with our affinity for the underdog, or the American rebel spirit? Maybe it is rooted in some notion that the antebellum South somehow represents a simpler and more gentrified time? And maybe to those people, the statues of Southern generals and statesmen are historic relics from a hundred years ago that stand as a reminder to that Myth of the Lost Cause. However, not everyone has that feeling when they gaze upon Confederate statues, nor are they as old as you may think. To many these statues represent a shameful time in our nation’s history. They seek to whitewash the motives of the South, and memorialize a rebel country that literally went to war with the United States. However, these statues also represent something much more to many people around this country, as ever growing symbols of fear, racism, and hatred.
That Belongs in a Museum
According to Southern Poverty Law Center, there are roughly 700 Confederate statues in the United States, spread over 31 states, which -if you’re counting- is 21 more than the 11 states that actually seceded from the Union during the Civil War. There are even Confederate statues in Washington DC, which would probably leave Abraham Lincoln scratching his head… or at least it would have if a bullet hadn’t passed through that very same head fired from the gun of a Confederate sympathizer. In total, there are estimated to be over 1,500 Confederate symbols across America, including highways, schools, and parks. Now regardless of your opinion on the subject, you have to -at least- acknowledge that so many Confederate statues and symbols erected around the USA, is a little odd, especially in states that weren’t even part of the Confederacy. There has to be something more going on than just simple historic remembrance? Right?
Let’s first examine another symbol of the Confederacy that often comes under fire, the Confederate Flag -which wasn’t even the actual flag of the Confederacy, but that’s for another article- In 1956 Georgia redesigned their state flag to include the Confederate battle flag, and in 1962 South Carolina began flying the Confederate battle flag over its state capitol. The thing that really strike us, is that those years seem a lot more recent than we expected. 1956 was the year of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. 1962 was the year of John Glenn and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Those things are history, but they are not ancient history. They are not 1865 Civil War history. So maybe -just maybe- it is also no coincidence that in 1954 the Civil Rights Movement began, and by 1962 that movement was in full swing. In fact, Lyndon Johnson was only two years away from signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and there was a lot of backlash against the idea. Maybe even enough backlash to change a state flag or two. There is no way around it. Confederate statues and symbols -erected mostly in the 20th century– were created as direct responses to the periods of intense racial strife.
We place statues in open spaces and public areas so they can be revered and looked upon. So, what else are people suppose to think when they gaze upon statues of Robert E. Lee, or Stonewall Jackson, or even Jefferson Davis standing tall and heroic in public squares? And yet, these are men who actively and violently rebelled against the United States, and all so they could keep the enslavement of other humans as a legal institution. In any other context, does that sound like men who are deserving of reverence?
Some people like to say that these monuments are about remembering our history, but there are appropriate places to do that. They are called museums, and they work pretty damn well, because they help place events and people within the historic contexts of their times. Heroically posed statues don’t do that. In fact, they tend to do the opposite. There is a reason why Germany doesn’t have powerfully posed monuments of SS officers, or highways named for Himmler or Goebbels. So we have to ask ourselves, “what were the real reasons behind creating these monuments?” Statues do not help you remember history. They help you glorify it, and in this case, that history is the cause and leaders of the Confederacy. People like to say that it’s “heritage not hatred,” but when you look at Confederate statues and symbols, the simple truth is that they are part of a “heritage of hatred.”
KKK, Why’d It Have to Be KKK
After the end of the Civil War, the people of the South did erect some memorials to the Confederacy, but these were small markers of personal remembrance, meant to honor soldiers who had died fighting. It’s the sort of thing a widow would understandably create to remember her lost husband. There were no heroic monuments or statues created to honor the lost cause. Even the famous salve owner, Robert E. Lee, wrote in 1869, “I think it wiser 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.” The former commander of the Confederate forces knew that such symbols would only serve to divide a nation that was still trying to heal from the Civil War. Ultimately, he would view our monuments today as a way of keeping open an old wound, and causing further civil unrest. So how did these contentious statues come to be?
North Carolina only erected 30 Confederate memorials between 1865 and 1890. Then between 1890 and 1940, they erected 130 more. In fact Confederate statue construction surged during the early part of the 20th century, with the majority being erected between 1900 and 1920. It is also worth pointing out that this surge coincided with the implementation of Jim Crow Laws, and the biggest revival of the Klu Klux Klan in American history, which boasted almost 4 million members by 1925. Not coincidentally, this trend began almost immediately after the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, where a black man dared to sit on a whites-only train car. The decisions upheld in this case began the practice of “separate but equal,” and following the decision, Confederate statues began to be mass produced, on the cheap. -Sometimes even looking suspiciously like mass produced Union memorials- Any town or country who couldn’t afford a statue could ask for help from the Daughters of the Confederacy.
The UDC was an organization for Southern women who fought to “preserve” the memory of the South’s Lost Cause Myth. Founded in 1894, they were instrumental in raising funds to erect many of the early 20th century statues found around Southern states. By World War I their membership had reached over 100,000 and their influence was greater still. The UDC often promoted textbooks in public schools, like Susan Pendleton Lee’s 1895 textbook, A School History of the United States, which sought to pastoralize the antebellum South, casting it as an idyllic place of manners and gentry. In their revised histories, the Civil War was fought for state’s rights, and not to preserve the institution of slavery. Their textbooks also often proclaimed that “the evils connected with [slavery] were less than those of any other system of labor.” They took a very typical stance of the time that the institution of slavery had Christianized and civilized the “African savage.” They also argued that the Klu Klux Klan was necessary “for protection against… outrages committed by misguided negroes.” This sort of racist whitewashing of history and defamation of African Americans is the same impulse that moved them and others to erect so many Confederate statues around our country.
Eventually, the mad rush to create Confederate monuments tapered off during the Second World War, but that was not the end of it. A new craze of erecting Confederate statues began again in the late 1950’s and peaked in the 1960’s. As you might guess this coincided very closely with the Civil Rights Movement. Once again these symbols were used to remind “uppity” black Americans of what their true place was in the racial hierarchy. These statues were powerful symbols for white people, in both the South and the North to remind those marching in places like Selma where they came from and who was still in charge.
This… This is History?
History does not happen in a vacuum. Both of these two spikes in Confederate remembrances coincided with times of great racial strife in this country. Yet, it didn’t stop in those turbulent times. Racism was not magically solved at some nebulous point in the past, and even today monuments are still being erected to the Lost Cause Myth of the South. Iowa dedicated 3 Confederate monuments, all after 2000. Across the country, 32 Confederate memorials were erected in the past 17 years. So, why are still building memorials to a war that happened over 130 years ago? Why is the North building these monuments at all? Unfortunately, we know the answer to that question, and it has nothing to do with the war, or even the past.
If we really want to “honor” our history, then we need to start by admitting what it truly is, both the history of the war and the monuments we have erected since. Confederate statues are nothing more than propagandist symbols erected to remind the descendants of free slaves who is still in charge. They are objects of power and terror created during times of racial strife. They try to create a romantic and noble image of a war that was fought over the bondage of human beings. That’s not a heroic symbol of the past. In fact, that’s not even a very subtle form of terrorism. If we want to remember history, we should do it in museums or in classrooms. We should strive to learn from the past, not to create symbols that will only serve to repeat it.
Whatever, the Civil War once was; whatever you believe it stood for; you need to know these statues represent something else. They are not about remembering old battles or even honoring old generals. They are reminders of racial superiority. These statues only aim is to rewrite a shameful time in our nation’s past, and let any who gaze upon the stony visages of Lee, Jackson, or Davis, know who is still in charge… even after they lost the war.