The Stubborn Persistence of Confederate Monuments, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the 1,500 government-maintained Confederate monuments that still exist around the U.S., from statues to schoolhouses. The piece drew an unusual amount of response, and I want to address a few of the recurring points. Some of them were more polite than others! Here’s my favorite, from a discussion on the Facebook page of the Gettysburg Museum of History, which described me as a “monument grabber”:

Bless this poor authors heart..… [sic]

I’m gonna guess the commenter is a Southerner. To make one thing clear from the start, I think we can draw a solid line between the monuments to generals and units that dot battlefields from Vicksburg to Sharpsburg, which are an important part of history, and those monuments that are maintained by governments elsewhere, which are less justifiable. (Although as I wrote several years ago, many battlefield plaques and displays have tended to indulge misleading historical narratives, too.) No one who wrote to me seemed willing to defend the idea of schools named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, either.

A depressing number of the comments on the Facebook page assert, incorrectly, that the war was not fought over slavery. While it is true that not every Confederate soldier was a slaveholder and so on, it is simply untrue that slavery was not the cause of the war.

This commenter argues that removal of monuments is tantamount to erasure of history:

By removing what is perceived as “politically incorrect” or “offensive” even though it is a part of our short and turbulent history which is America then we will have never existed. I suggest that we make other countries remove theirs as well then the history of man will never have existed or man.

What do these scare quotes represent? It hardly seems controversial to me that slavery and white supremacy are offensive, or that treasonous secession is politically (as well as legally and constitutionally) incorrect. The Confederate States of America sought to defeat the United States with military means, killing hundreds of thousands of its citizens in the process.

Howard Burchuk, the commenter who pointed out the Facebook page to me, also had some thoughts on it:

Lest we forget the horrors of the Past. This narrow article fails in many ways to be objective in presenting this divisive issue. The historical perspective herein presented shows resurgence of symbols when struggles have ensued. When a tiny minority embraces an old icon and empowers them with new meaning should we declare all representation as similar? Why is it ignoble to suggest that we memorialize to remember, we consecrate the past by stone and metal to remind future generations of [man’s] horrific actions on his brothers and sisters.

I don’t buy this line of reasoning. The raison d’etre of the Confederacy was also the preservation of slavery and white supremacy; it’s hardly a “new meaning” for anyone to use it in that way today. Memorializing the war, as at a battlefield, may remind us of the horrors. But what about the monument in Anderson County, South Carolina, noted in the SPLC report, that states, “The world shall yet decide, in truth’s clear, far-off light, that the soldiers who wore the gray, and died with Lee, were in the right”?

Burchuk also took issue with my assertion that “the erection of Confederate monuments has been a way to perform cultural resistance to black equality,” saying that would be hard to prove. Yoni proves it in detail here.

Here’s an email from a reader:

As for Confederate monuments, they were erected with the full knowledge (and presumed approval) of the US government at the time. Now you want to pull them all down. Apparently you know something that people of those times didn’t. You judge Confederates more harshly than the people who fought the war against them! How is that possible?

This isn’t a tough call. The federal government in the past, especially during the two periods of most frequent monument-erection, sanctioned segregation and vote obstruction, encouraged white supremacy, and refused to intervene to stop lynchings. That doesn’t even get into questions about the pernicious “Lost Cause” school of history, which convinced many Americans—including Northerners—that the war wasn’t about slavery, and that the rebels, though mistaken, were righteous. (Even Hillary Clinton just a few months ago seemed to repeat the arguments of the related Dunning School about Reconstruction.) Many American citizens in the 20th century were simply misled about the war.

One of the more thoughtful reader emails approached the controversy from a personal perspective:

The monuments were erected by the men and women who fought and sacrificed during the Civil War. I have 36 ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. They built these monuments because they want to be remembered. My namesake was at Gettysburg and was an honorable man. He took up the Oath of Allegiance at the end of the war and never broke it. He was at the 1911 dedication to the Confederate marker for Company I “Chatham Grays” which stands in front of the Pittsylvania County Court House in Virginia. He and his compatriots were Americans and they wanted to leave something behind to be remembered…

History cannot be erased, rewritten, or revised. Nor do I want it that way. My ancestors fought for a flawed cause. But because they fought a terrible war ushered in a new modern America. I am proud of my people’s role in shaping American history.

This represents one of the more interesting strains in this debate. The writer isn’t defending the Confederate cause, but he also takes understandable pride in his ancestors. Who can blame him? (I am proud of my own ancestors, most, though not all, of whom fought to save the Union.) He is also correct that many of these monuments were installed not by government, but by civic organizations that raised the money to place them and commissioned the statues that adorn them. If a private organization wishes to honor a group, who is to tell them not to? There was a time when I was much more ambivalent about statues like the Pittsylvania County memorial. Yet I’ve become more skeptical about them over the past few years, a shift that has much to do with where these monuments are placed—on public lands, where they’re maintained by public monies.

A few days a week, I pass the old Durham County, North Carolina, courthouse. In front of the building is a bronze statue of a young man, standing with his rifle on the ground and his bedroll over his shoulder, atop a granite base emblazoned with the seal of the Confederate States of America. The United Daughters of the Confederacy helped to place the statue there in 1924. “IN MEMORY OF THE BOYS WHO WORE THE GRAY” it reads. One side adds, “THIS MEMORIAL ERECTED BY THE PEOPLE OF DURHAM COUNTY.”

Who are the people of Durham County, though? Forty percent of the population is black. Inside the city, the black and white populations are roughly equal—in numbers, at least. But African Americans are more likely to be subject to police traffic stops, more likely to be arrested for marijuana, and more likely to be poor.

In an America where the products of white supremacy were vanquished, statues like this might seem like harmless historical markers. But in place where the results of Jim Crow remain so vivid, it seems hard to justify spending precious taxpayer money to memorialize an army that fought to preserve those racial divisions. And I mean it as no affront to the bravery and courage of those boys who wore the gray.