A Few Points About Confederate Monuments

Confederate monuments and what they represent has been an issue I keep coming back to. In 2014’s “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” I made the case that these are “victory monuments” for the eventual triumph of white supremacy in the South after the overthrow of Reconstruction. After the Charleston massacre in 2015, I urged people to “Please Take Down Your Confederate Flag“, arguing that pro-Confederate symbols of all types are hopelessly entangled in racism, no matter what you may intend when you display them.

Those points have only been magnified by the recent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Undeniably, Nazi, KKK, and other alt-Right groups take inspiration from Confederate monuments, and regard Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson as heroes because they fought for white supremacy. All over the country, monuments are being toppled or moved or transformed-in-place by the addition of explanatory plaques or statues of civil rights heroes.

A number of white supremacists and people who claim they aren’t white supremacists, including President Trump, are defending the monuments. But the points they’re making are almost entirely bogus. Here are my responses.

The Confederacy can’t be separated from slavery. Claims to the contrary usually hinge on a few half-truths. Abraham Lincoln, for example, didn’t run for president on a platform of ending slavery, but only of preventing its expansion. Once the war started he was slow to embrace it as an abolitionist crusade, and sometimes explicitly denied that purpose. (The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t take effect until January 1, 1863, more than two years after the first southern state seceded. Congress didn’t pass the 13th Amendment until the war was nearly over.) Although Lincoln hoped for slavery’s eventual end, war-for-emancipation was not his method of choice.

But the Confederate states, on the other hand, had no similar ambivalence. South Carolina’s “Declaration of Immediate Causes” for its secession pointed to Lincoln’s opposition to slavery as the most immediate cause:

A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.

A few weeks before war broke out, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens gave his “Cornerstone Speech“, in which he found fault with Jefferson’s statement that “all men are created equal”.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

A long list of similar quotes could be produced. Slavery was the Confederacy’s reason to exist. The war to defend the Confederacy was seen at the time as a war to defend slavery; the two causes were identical. Only after the South’s defeat did the Lost Cause mythology postulate alternative causes for the war.

We should never forget our history, but not all of it deserves to be celebrated. In his speech just before the removal of a Lee statue, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said: “There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.”

To see that difference, contrast the Charlottesville statue of Robert E. Lee (particularly as it sat in Lee Park, before the city renamed it) to The Topography of Terror museum in Berlin, where the Gestapo’s headquarters used to stand. The Germans could have “remembered” that site by turning it into Himmler Park, and centering it on a triumphant statue of the Gestapo’s commander, but they chose not to.

Lee, of course, was not Himmler. A better German parallel would be Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, a brilliant military tactician whose genius was applied in the defense of an evil regime. Rommel actually deserves a somewhat better place in history than Lee, because of his suspected role in a plot against Hitler. Nonetheless, Germans don’t name their high schools after him. (According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 109 American public schools are named for Lee, roughly twice as many as are named for Benjamin Franklin, a far greater American. What’s that about?)

Vox underlines this contrast:

But unlike in Germany, where memorials to the victims of the Holocaust are erected on the ruins of Nazi buildings as a way to teach future generations about the sins and horrors of the past, most Confederate statues were designed to glorify the sins and horrors of the past.

Present-day defenders of the Confederacy create a false choice between celebrating Confederate history and erasing it. No one wants America to forget slavery and the rebellion that sought to preserve it. Critics of Confederate monuments simply want to stop glorifying the Slave Empire, particularly in cities like New Orleans, where so many citizens are descended from slaves.

Many Confederate monuments were built to promote false history. Mayor Landrieu noted that the South’s monuments are at best a selective remembrance.

So when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well what I just described is real history as well, and it is the searing truth. And it immediately begs the questions: why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame … all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans.

So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission.

Sometimes the lies aren’t by omission, but are direct Lost Cause propaganda. For example, the inscription on the Confederate monument in Decatur, Georgia tells a glorious story of the Confederacy that has nothing to do with slavery. It was erected in 1908, when Lost Cause mythology had become Southern dogma.

Reconstruction history has been similarly misrepresented. One of the most shameful episodes of the Reconstruction Era was the Colfax Massacre, where a disputed election led white Democrats to attack blacks defending a county courthouse and murder those who surrendered. Such violence was a key element in whites regaining control of southern state governments and ultimately disenfranchising blacks completely. The official marker describes it like this:

Many Confederate monuments were intentionally built to celebrate white supremacy and intimidate uppity blacks.  “Historical” monuments are rarely entirely about the era depicted; usually their builders are also trying to make a symbolic statement about their own era.

You can see that in the following graph of the creation of Confederate monuments. There are two peak periods: During (and just after) the establishment of Jim Crow early in the 20th century, and when Jim Crow is being disestablished during the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 60s; this is also when the Confederate flag regained popularity.


Between 1890 and 1910, ten of the eleven former Confederate states, starting with Mississippi, passed new constitutions or amendments that effectively disenfranchised most blacks and tens of thousands of poor whites through a combination of poll taxes, literacy and comprehension tests, and residency and record-keeping requirements.

National Geographic:

Once the Dixiecrats got a hold of it as a matter of defiance against their Democratic colleagues in the north and the African Americans in their midst, then the Confederate battle flag took on a new life, or a second life. In the 1950s, as the Civil Rights Movement built up steam, you began to see more and more public displays of the Confederate battle flag, to the point where the state of Georgia in 1956 redesigned their state flag to include the Confederate battle flag.

The timing suggests that Confederate symbolism has less to do with remembering the Civil War than with reminding blacks that whites are in power.

There is no slippery slope from Robert E. Lee to George Washington. In his Tuesday new conference, Trump asked:

So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?

George Washington did indeed own slaves. Thomas Jefferson not only owned slaves, he fathered children with one of them and raised those children as his slaves. None of these facts should make Americans proud, and the monuments we build to Washington and Jefferson should acknowledge such failings. (Mount Vernon and Monticello do acknowledge them.)

In each case, our challenge is to see our Founders as people of their time and place, rather than as faultless gods. Slave-owning complicates our pictures of Washington and Jefferson, but doesn’t undo the positive roles they played in creating the United States, defining ideals we still struggle to live up to, and leading the nation through its difficult early decades.

The difference between the Founders and Confederate heroes like Lee, Jackson, and Davis is that the Confederacy is their only claim to historical significance. When we honor them, then, what we are honoring is their defense of slavery, because they have no positive accomplishments of comparable importance. You cannot, for example, separate the Charlottesville statue of a uniformed Lee on his horse from what he is doing on that horse: leading the defense of a government created to protect the right of whites to enslave blacks.

By contrast, I know of no monuments to Washington and Jefferson as slave owners — no statues showing Washington with a whip in his hand and blacks cowering before him, and none honoring Jefferson’s sexual abuse of Sally Hemmings. If there are any, they should come down; those are not the things we want to celebrate about Washington and Jefferson. But monuments to the Declaration of Independence, the Yorktown victory, and the early presidencies should stand.

What should be done with Confederate monuments? Each one should be judged separately according to

  1. what the purpose of the monument is, and
  2. how the local community feels about it.

Let me start by describing two monuments I think should stay. After the war, Robert E. Lee became president of Washington College, which is now Washington and Lee University. He is buried on campus beneath Lee Chapel, where there is a statue of him sleeping. The statue is clearly a remembrance of the man rather than a celebration of white supremacy. Similarly, Stonewall Jackson was a professor at the Virginia Military Institute before the war; it is entirely appropriate for VMI, a military school, to honor their most famous general.

Other remembrances should stay as well: Plaques and monuments enhance cemeteries and battlefields, as long as the inscriptions are accurate. And of course there should be museums that give a broader context to historical events.

No one really wants history forgotten, least of all the victims.

But a monument is suspect if it glorifies people or events that those who have to live with it find shameful or insulting. (To bring that point home to white Southerners, someone started a Facebook page proposing to erect a statue of General Sherman in Atlanta.) Some historical names are so offensive they could pass for inventions of The Onion, like the majority-black high school in Florida that until recently was named for KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest. (Forrest had no personal connection to the area. The name appears to have been chosen in the 1950s to protest court-mandated school desegregation.) If Arlington, Virginia wants to rename its segment of the Jefferson Davis Highway, it should be allowed to do so.

One hopes that local people can meet each other with empathy and work out compromises. Sometimes moving a statue to a more obscure park or to a museum would suffice. A critical plaque could be added, or the impact of a monument balanced by new competing monuments. What will not do is an attitude of “We like it, so deal with it.” That’s what supremacy is all about.

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  • Roger Owen Green  On August 21, 2017 at 10:35 am

    Yes, the Confederacy cannot be separated from slavery. Nor can the statues be separated from Jim Crow, as you know.

  • Herb Jay  On August 21, 2017 at 10:08 pm

    Our history is full of horrible acts by those supporting ideas that denied others freedom and the right to live freely. Not only slavery, but our treatment of Native Americans, the Japanese Americans in WWII, and other instances. We need to recognize our shortcomings and work to make ourselves and our Nation better. That is the true American way, that no man or woman is tied to birth status, that color or religion are not determinants, that we all have the opportunity to improve our lives as we can.

  • Tom Amitai (@TomAmitaiUSA)  On August 22, 2017 at 8:51 am

    As far as I’m concerned, the only act that Lee should be “honored” for is surrendering at Appomattox. Let them have statues of that, and fly the white flag instead of the battle flag.

  • dougsan2  On August 22, 2017 at 2:15 pm

    You have made excellent points and I agree with removing or replacing monuments generally, but the one sticking point for me is the immense carving, perhaps the largest in the world, on the face of Stone Mountain outside of Atlanta. It covers about 3 acres with the figures of Lee, Jackson, and Davis being about 100 by 200 feet. I see it as a work of art that should not be blasted away like the Taliban and Isis have done in areas they control. Preserving a memorial that obviously was intended to glorify the Confederacy and white supremacy is a problem. Maybe the exhibition building at its base could be used to educate about the social and political atmosphere that existed at the time the carving was done. Any thoughts?

  • jh  On August 22, 2017 at 6:47 pm

    I’ve always asked that if the pro-confederacy anti-americans want their statues, they should have no problem putting up a few statues honoring Osama bin Laden. To be an American means to honor the US. By honoring those who we have fought against makes me question their patriotism.

    I only go this way because they claim to be the “real” Americans. Last I checked, real Americans fought against both the Confederacy and the Nazis.

  • Dan Cusher  On August 23, 2017 at 8:49 am

    I’m calling BS on your defense of the Lee monument at Washington and Lee University as “clearly a remembrance of the man rather than a celebration of white supremacy.” It has FOUR confederate flags around it! Their intent is crystal clear: they are honoring his contribution to the Confederacy. If they want to solely honor his contribution to the university, they need to first take down the flags, and then add a plaque that a) makes their (new) intent perfectly clear and b) explicitly denounces his participation in the war to preserve the institution of slavery.

    On top of that, Stonewall Jackson is not VMI’s most famous general, but their most INfamous general. He fought on the side of slavery and white supremacy. That’s not something that should be revered.

    • weeklysift  On August 23, 2017 at 12:52 pm

      I agree about the flags. And I’ve never been to Lee Chapel, so I can’t evaluate the overall impression it leaves. But honoring Lee at a place where he lived and is buried seems to me to be very different than putting a triumphant statue in front of the court house, so that everybody who comes looking for justice has to be overshadowed by it as they enter.

      As for Jackson, I go back to the Nazi analogy. If I were running a military institute that specialized in, say, tank warfare, I’d probably put up a portrait of Heinz Guderian somewhere, because he made major contributions to the field, even if he did do it while fighting for Hitler.

      By most accounts Jackson was a very able commander. If I were running a military institute, I would claim him.

  • ccyager  On January 16, 2018 at 10:56 am

    Here in the Twin Cities, we’re dealing with the naming of one of our city lakes, originally named after a supporter of slavery and a Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun. When Calhoun was Secretary of War, he sent an expedition to Fort Snelling to map the geography around it, and this expedition “discovered” the lake and named it after Calhoun. It looks like the lake will revert to its original Dakota name and we are all practicing pronouncing it. I live just a few blocks from this lake. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Calhoun


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