Confederate Monuments: History?

On the general subject of Confederate monuments, I’ll start by saying that I prefer that monuments be relocated rather than destroyed, and interpreted in an appropriate context, and that monuments on places like battlefields are generally appropriate. A statue of Stonewall Jackson on a National Park site where he fought a battle is an example of a statue of a Confederate leader within an appropriate context, as are monuments in cemeteries and to units on the battlefields where they fought. But removing monuments from places where they are no longer considered appropriate, like public parks and squares, is very much within the realm of reason in the current public debate, and I’ll discuss the reasons why below.

As the argument against removing Confederate statues, what I hear most often from various acquaintances is that removing the monuments is tantamount to erasing or destroying history. But monuments are not history in the sense that this argument implies. The history of what happened in the Civil War does not disappear if a monument does. The monument is a piece of physical history, yes, and when interpreted within the proper context, monuments are useful. But there is not one “true” history that the monuments represent that is equally valid for everyone, either at the time or today. Different peoples had different experiences of the Civil War, slavery, etc, and unless you manage to put up monuments for just about everything, then you’re prioritizing certain histories over others.
The existence and creation of monuments to Confederate leaders is in and of itself a function of white supremacy; wealthy whites in the post-war South and the Jim Crow era, and wealthy white Southern sympathizers in places like Baltimore, were the people who had the money and pull to get such monuments installed. This fits the tragic general pattern of the post-Civil War period, which is that with the effective failure of Reconstruction, many Northern and Southern whites, in their rush to reconcile with each other and commemorate their own versions of the Civil War, were more than happy to increasingly exclude the black Americans who suffered under slavery from their commemorations and remembrances of the war.

The entire idea behind putting up a historical monument is that you are setting your interpretation, your version, of history in stone, and to an extent, tethering the entire historical narrative to it. A monument by itself doesn’t change how we look at history, but in the post-war South, through both their memorializing efforts and other means, the Lost Cause movement succeeded in tying understanding and discussion of the Civil War to their own version of it for well over a century. Historians today still have to deal with many aspects of the Lost Cause when writing about the Civil War. Over time, we will value different experiences and stories, and historically, monuments do get removed or changed in accordance with changed values and understandings of history, or simply because the monuments honored something that people actually found deplorable; see what happened to statues of Stalin and Lenin when the Soviet Union fell, or Saddam Hussein’s statue in Iraq. The history of those regimes did not die with the statues. But the people of those countries understood that the statues had no place in their new epoch.

Fundamentally, what monuments generally do is commemorate or celebrate something that the creators of the monument valued. The context of what exactly the monument was put up to commemorate is thus highly variable, and monuments should be judged more on that basis than on some inherent value just based on it being a monument. The Confederate statues that spark so much of the current controversy were largely not put up in the immediate aftermath of the war, but instead at various times after the end of Reconstruction; the Charlottesville Lee statue, for instance, was put up in the 1920s. Particularly in some Upper South examples which I am familiar with, it’s no coincidence that these monuments went up as civil rights activists and black populations began to be more bold in striving to attain equal rights.

These monuments, the effort to memorialize and honor Lee in particular, were very much driven by the Lost Cause movement’s effort to expunge slavery from the historical record of the war. Lee, as a primarily military figure with less obvious ties to slavery than say, the political leader and plantation owner Jefferson Davis, was the perfect choice in this regard. Southerners could present Lee as their heroic figure, not hard to do because of his already immense reputation in the South during the war, and memorialize him with the same sort of heroic equestrian statues that you might use for George Washington, while also making the argument to Northerners that Lee loved the Union, hated slavery, fought in the war only for love of his state, and happily re-embraced the Union after the war. In their efforts to divorce slavery from the public remembrance of the Civil War, monuments to the Confederacy are not history, they are a constant reminder of an agreed upon fiction about the Civil War.

And it is a fiction, because the question of slavery was absolutely central to the Civil War; the writings of every contemporary secessionist leader make it clear that slavery was why they fought the war. It was the sine qua non, without which there would be no Civil War. These Lost Cause monuments are one component of the movement that after the war, between the Reconstruction and modern eras, quite literally whitewashed the role of slavery out of the war. (The other main component, besides the writings of former Confederates seeking to rewrite their own story, would be the influence Southerners exerted on textbooks’ versions of the Civil War, something else that has carried on to the present day, see the controversy a few years back over a textbook claiming there were black confederate soldiers) If it wasn’t for these textbooks and these monuments and other celebrations of the CSA as something other than what it actually was, then the identification with the Confederacy that many continue to exhibit today would likely die within a couple of generations, leaving only the outright and explicit white supremacists that you saw in Charlottesville as actively celebrating the Confederacy.*
In this regard, the existence of these monuments in public spaces does an active disservice to the country. And that’s before taking into account that such monuments, ironically, have now been reattached to the history of slavery and white supremacy in the public view not by opponents of the monuments, but by the neo-nazis who treat these monuments as altars.

*While some Confederate reenactors probably fall into the aforementioned category, I am not including them wholesale as a group here, most just like doing it and feel a personal connection to their past or the common Civil War soldier through it

In sum, history is about more than honoring the past just because it is the past, or in this case, literally placing it upon a pedestal. Keeping controversial Confederate monuments in public places is not about protecting history from being somehow erased, it’s about sustaining the deeply flawed and exclusionary view of Southern heritage and the Confederate States that put those monuments up in the first places.

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