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.'"
That monument, funded by the UDC, was dedicated in 1914 with a speech from President Woodrow Wilson—the first Southerner elected president since 1848, and whose election marked the peak of Northern conciliation with the South. Wilson's presidency was remarkable for his racism: He moved to resegregate the federal civil service and screened Birth of a Nation in the White House. And Wilson spoke at the dedication of the Confederate Monument, held on Jefferson Davis's birthday.
For Malanowski, there's a moral difference between that kind of memorial and the message inherent in providing Confederate headstones, "because you don't want to humiliate the poor soldier" by leaving him in an unmarked grave.
"On the one hand, you don't want to be small, you don't want to begrudge this poor soldier a headstone, but once it begins to add up to a lot of money, it feels like another government boondoggle, and you might be able to have fun with these people placing themselves on the government tit," Malanowski said. "When did the Southern states give up their support of these gravesites? That would seem to be the appropriate party that ought to be maintaining them."
But the sheer size of the headstones project and the fact that a great many of the headstones are ordered by members of Confederate "heritage" groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) and the UDC complicate things.
"Every time the federal government gives them a headstone, it's an opportunity to hold an event, and a gathering" for these groups to engage in Confederate nostalgia, Ed Sebesta, co-editor of Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction. While not all, or even perhaps most, members of the SCV and UDC hold racist views, Sebesta says that at the leadership level, they've recently become much more open about their views of Confederate history and the values it represented. These include leaders—sometimes in official SCV and UDC publications—defending racist government policies of the past, or decrying the civil rights changes of the past 60 years.
For example, the December 2012 issue of UDC Magazine had an article defending the Black Codes. A 2003 article in the official publication of the SCV's Educational Political Action Committee, in Sebesta's words, "explains why segregation is justified." A 2006 article in Southern Mercury decried the judicial and legislative milestones of the Civil Rights Movement, asserting that in the 1960s, "The cultural Marxists relentlessly hammered away at Western cultural norms using the sledge of anti-racism as a battering ram to bring down the walls of traditional Western culture."
Just last March, Boyd Cathey, a former member of the SCV's executive council, wrote in Confederate Veteran, "Southerners have understood perforce that the races must live and work side by side, and hopefully harmoniously, but that did not imply legal and social equality for all, either black or white."
Sebesta pegs the new, open airing of these views by some UDC and SCV leaders to around 2002, and he says it's relatively anomalous in the groups' modern era. But even this is a far cry from the rhetoric a century ago. In 1914, UDC Historian General S.E.F. Rose wrote a book, Ku Klux Klan, which Sebesta notes she dedicated to "the Youth of the Southland, hoping that a perusal of its pages will inspire them with respect and admiration for the Confederate soldiers, who were the real Ku Klux Klan, and whose deeds of courage and valor, have never been surpassed, and rarely equalled, in the annals of history."
The Forsyth, Georgia, Confederate Cemetery shows the role that the UDC and SCV play in obtaining Uncle Sam-funded headstones for rebel graves. The graveyard was in extreme disrepair when Linda Hallman, a member of the UDC and a daughter, wife, and mother of SCV members, decided to restore it in the 1990s. She gathered local SCV groups—"camps," as the members call them—to clean the cemetery, and did research to find out who was buried there.
Years later, she had assembled a long list of names detailing who had been interred there and wanted to order headstones from the VA to mark their graves. There was one problem, though, she told me in 2003: Hallman knew who was buried in the cemetery, but she didn't know which bodies were in which graves. Nevertheless, Hallman ordered headstones, and relied on fellow Confederate heritage activists—like Commander Jack Grubb of the Thomaston SCV camp in Southeast Georgia—to place them.
Grubb told me in 2003 that his camp alone had planted more than 1,000 headstones over at least 15 years. But the work came to halt when the VA found out Hallman didn't actually know the identities of the bodies interred in the graves she was marking with VA-provided headstones. So Grubb contacted the office of Rep. Saxby Chambliss, now a U.S. senator, for help with Forsyth. Soon after, 30 new headstones arrived; somehow, Chambliss's office had gotten the VA to bend its rules to aid the Thomaston SCV. (In fact, the VA seemed so eager to help out after Chambliss's request that the camp eventually received duplicates of all of those headstones.) Chambliss's office also helped local SCV groups obtain an old Confederate cannon as a loan from the Army. And whenever other local heritage groups had difficulty obtaining headstones from the VA, they said, they recommended Chambliss's office as the place to call. Chambliss's office declined to comment for this story.
Elsewhere, the federal government is developing something of a habit of stepping in when states no longer are providing the funds needed for Confederate heritage and history projects. FEMA provided $14 million to rehabilitate the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library that just reopened in Biloxi, Mississippi, according to the Los Angeles Times. The museum was largely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and the federal government stepped in to rebuild what the state of Mississippi had originally funded with $4 million in 1998.
For most Americans, all of these monuments, memorials, headstones, and even military base names go without much notice. After Malanowski published his column, he said, many people responded with a shrug. "A lot of people say, nobody knew who this guy was, or what it means … and maybe it has no meaning anymore, like I live near Ossining and don't know what it means," he said. "Maybe in 60 years, no one will be left who knows what any of this means."
But of course, there will be at least some who will know: the Confederate heritage groups ordering these headstones, erecting these monuments, and continuing to teach a version of American history that conflicts with our basic sense of morality. This kind of sense of heritage, activism and politics is part of why some see the federal government paying for any Confederate memorials—even for headstones of unmarked graves of Confederate soldiers—as something that should be beyond the pale.
I spoke in 2003 with the historian and ethicist William Lee Miller, who died last year, after he had written an "ethical biography" of Abraham Lincoln. When I talked to Miller, he was full of bile on the topic of neo-Confederates: He'd recently attended the Richmond, Virginia, dedication of a statue of Lincoln where someone had flown a plane overhead towing a banner with the message, "Sic semper tyrannis"—the phrase John Wilkes Booth said that he'd shouted as he shot Lincoln. (It's also the commonwealth's motto.)
Miller was appalled to hear that the VA was funding Confederate memorials and providing headstones for soldiers. When I asked whether Lincoln would have supported providing these headstones, he responded with a firm, "No. These were people who shot at and killed Americans."
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