On June 19, an array of top government officials gathered for the unveiling of a statue of Frederick Douglass, the 19th-century African-American man born a slave who rose to be a vice-presidential candidate. That politicians and the federal government continue to memorialize black leaders and abolitionists of that era surprises no one, but few are aware of the other side of that coin: how much Washington pays to memorialize the Confederate dead.
The most visible commemoration comes every Memorial Day when the president places a wreath at the Confederate Monument in Arlington National Cemetery, the vast memorial built on an estate confiscated from Robert E. Lee. Lower down in public awareness is the fact that 10 military bases -including prominent installations like Fort Lee and Fort Bragg -- are named after Confederate leaders, a fact that Jamie Malanowski highlighted and criticized in a Memorial Day New York Times op-ed that stirred a heated debate.
But even most Civil War experts don't realize the federal government has spent more than $2 million in the past decade to produce and ship headstones honoring Confederate dead, often at the request of local Confederate heritage groups in the South, and overwhelmingly in Georgia. Going back to at least 2002, the government has provided more headstones for Confederate graves than for Union soldiers' graves. In that time, the Department of Veterans Affairs has provided approximately 33,000 headstones for veterans of the Civil War. Sixty percent of those have been for Confederate soldiers.
I found out about this program in 2002 while researching the resurgence of political activity by so-called "neo-Confederate" groups in the early part of the last decade. Since then I've spoken to at least a dozen Civil War experts who had no idea it existed and were surprised to hear about it.
But they -- we, our federal government -- do provide headstones for Confederate dead all over the country: 18,593 of them in the last 10 years, and an average of more than 2,000 per year going back at least several years before that, according to the VA. At an average cost of around $176 to manufacture each headstone, and an average shipping cost of $75, that's more than half a million dollars every year. (The total cost over the last 10 years is lower due to inflation: In 2003, the VA told me manufacturing was closer $100 per headstone, and shipping was around $10.) By far the lion's share of these headstones are for graves in Southern states and for a number of years, Georgia had more than twice as many orders as any other state.
The Confederate headstones are provided by the VA's National Cemetery Administration. Providing headstones for America's fallen soldiers is a tradition that goes back to laws passed in 1867 and 1873 that ordered the Department of War to properly establish national cemeteries and furnish graves with headstones. In 1879, the country began furnishing headstones for veterans buried in private cemeteries, too.
It wasn't until the 20th century, though, that Confederate veterans were included in this tradition. It started with legislation passed in 1906, at first providing headstones for a very limited number of Confederate veterans, specifically prisoners of war, "who died in Federal prisons and military hospitals in the North and who were buried near their places of confinement." That mandate for the Department of War was expanded to all Confederate graves with a law passed in 1929.
Responsibility for headstones was transferred to the VA in the National Cemeteries Act of 1973, which declared, "The Administrator shall furnish, when requested, appropriate Government headstones or markers at the expense of the United States for the unmarked graves of" a number of categories of veterans and those who'd served the country or were buried in a national cemetery, including specifically, "Soldiers of the Union and Confederate Armies of the Civil War."
In addition to headstones, the NCA is now responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of a total of 33 monuments and memorials that honor Confederate soldiers and causes, according to NCA Senior Historian Sara Amy Leach. The monuments were often erected by private groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Looking through a list of them gives a sense of the various waves of Confederate nostalgia in America: Nine were built in the years 1910 to 1912, four were built in the 1920s and '30s, and the most recent wave saw four more built between 2003 and 2006, with other key periods of concentration in the century and a half since the Civil War.
It's no coincidence that many of these changes in attitude and law, and the erection of so many Confederate monuments and memorials, occurred around the turn of the 20th century. They followed the federal withdrawal from the South in 1877, a strategic retreat from the failed policies of reconstruction. "Power is recovered by the local governments, and all the gains that black people had pretty much are erased," Boston University Professor William Keylor explained in a recent interview.
"By the end of the century, particularly after the Spanish-American War, there's this new mode of American nationalism and patriotism and there's this emphasis on reunion and reconciliation, and that's good news for the whites in the South, but bad news for blacks in the South," Keylor noted. "The Ku Klux Klan reaches its height [around 1877] and then it [starts to] decline about that point, really because it's no longer needed, because the local governments have just effectively disenfranchised African-Americans."
As blacks lost access to their rights, the federal government turned a blind eye and embraced the South in this period, "emphasizing unity, emphasizing reconciliation" among whites, while disregarding blacks, Keylor said. Southerners sought a return to full involvement in national life, and the North was prepared to forgive, forget, and ignore.
The desire for more Confederate memorialization at the turn of the century came not only from a sense of respect for history, heritage, or states' rights, but amid a torrent of racism and racial suppression. Celebrations of Jefferson Davis' 100th birthday in 1908 were held without restraint. The novel, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, became a runaway hit when it was published in 1905; a theatrical adaptation successfully toured the South and was even staged in Washington, D.C. (Most of us have heard of the story of that novel and play because of the screen adaptation, D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation). And Confederate heritage groups like the UDC began erecting monuments and memorials that recalled a righteous cause.
Today's federal memorials to the Confederate dead include holdovers from this era of nostalgia. In addition to a plain headstone, Confederate headstones are available with what the VA calls "a special style," which includes an engraving of the Southern Cross of Honor -- a military decoration the Confederacy created as a sort of analogue to the U.S. Medal of Honor. The cross was revived by members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in 1898 to honor Confederate veterans who had displayed "loyal, honorable service to the South and given in recognition of this devotion." The medals bore the Latin motto, "Deo Vindice," which translates roughly as "God will be our vindicator." The motto is not included in the Southern Cross of Honor engraved on Confederate headstones, which simply bears the outline of the cross and a laurel contained within it.
Not far from many Confederate gravestones at Arlington, however, is an actual engraving of a motto with more bite to it. "Victrix causa diis placuit sed victa Catoni," reads an inscription on the Confederate memorial. It's a quote from the epic poem Pharsalia, written by Lucan about the Roman Civil War, and literally translated means, "the victorious cause pleased the gods, but the conquered cause pleased Cato." As Malanowski told me, "You have to know your Latin history to know they're talking about the Roman Civil War, that the dictator Julius Caesar won, and that Cato was pleased with the republicans' sacrifice." With that background in mind the inscription is "a 'fuck you' to the Union. It's that sneaky little Latin phrase essentially saying 'we were right and you were wrong, and we'll always be right and you'll always be wrong.'"