The Stubborn Persistence of Confederate Monuments

A new report identifies some 1,500 memorials to the Civil War’s losing cause, from schools to state holidays, ranging from the Deep South to the Pacific Northwest.

A protest held by the Virginia Flaggers, a group that flies the Confederate battle flag, at the Jefferson Davis statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. (Steve Helber / AP)

For most Americans, today is the second day of work this week. But state employees in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia are just kicking off the work week: They had Monday off for Confederate Memorial Day.

Last July, it seemed like the momentum against the Confederacy had turned definitively, the biggest reversal since July of 1863. After the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina lowered the Confederate battle flag from the capitol grounds. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley ordered it removed in Montgomery, the former capital of the Confederacy, too. Cities and states began tearing down or quietly removing statues, flags, and other memorials.

But as Abraham Lincoln and the Union Army discovered, there’s a long road between reversing momentum and actually winning the war. For all the high-profile removals, there remains a stunning number of Confederate Civil War monuments, memorials, and namesakes in public spaces around the country, as a new inventory taken by the Southern Poverty Law Center makes clear.

Relying on federal, state, and local databases, the often-controversial liberal group took a tally of Confederate-related sites around the country and found more than 1,500 in 31 states. They range from East Wenatchee, Washington, to Miami, Florida, and take in everything from a workaday obelisk in Anniston, Alabama, that commemorates Major John Pelham, to the bas-relief of President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson that looms hundreds of feet at Stone Mountain, Georgia.

The day after Dylann Roof committed the massacre in Charleston, my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates laid out the moral case for removing the flag and, with it, other Confederate sites:

The Confederate flag’s defenders often claim it represents “heritage not hate.” I agree—the heritage of white supremacy was not so much birthed by hate as by the impulse toward plunder. Dylann Roof plundered nine different bodies last night, plundered nine different families of an original member, plundered nine different communities of a singular member. An entire people are poorer for his action. The flag that Roof embraced, which many South Carolinians embrace, does not stand in opposition to this act—it endorses it. That the Confederate flag is the symbol of of white supremacists is evidenced by the very words of those who birthed it.

Establishing monuments to Confederate war heroes, in turn, celebrates men who committed treason and sought to break the nation apart in the name of slavery.

It will come as little surprise that the greatest number of these sites are in the states of the Confederacy, and to a lesser extent in border states. Nor is this a case of the Deep South being somehow behind the times, as opposed to their more forward-thinking neighbors. In fact, the upper South is dotted with rebel symbols. The greatest collection is in Virginia, with 223. That makes some sense, since Richmond served as the Confederate capital for most of the war; the commonwealth hosted more battles than any other; and the Confederacy’s two most famous generals, Lee and Jackson, were both Virginians. Texas, with 178, comes next, followed by Georgia, North Carolina, and Mississippi.

But a surprising number of sites are not in the South. A handful of symbols bear Confederate dedications in Northern States, including New York, which furnished more soldiers to the Union war effort and saw more of them die than any other state, and California, where schools in San Diego and Long Beach are named for Robert E. Lee. (Illinois, the land of Lincoln, has none.)

Those schools are perhaps some of the most egregious examples—unlike monuments to the local war dead, for example, they go out of their way to celebrate the rebellion in a venue otherwise unconnected to the war. Lee, the great beneficiary of the late-20th century “Lost Cause” myth, is the most common honoree, with 52 schools named for him. Other common namesakes include Jackson (15 schools), Jefferson Davis (13), and P.G.T. Beauregard and Nathan Bedford Forrest (seven each). Forrest is a particularly appalling choice. A cavalry general and probable war criminal, Forrest was the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Several years ago, a school board in Jacksonville, Florida, removed his name from a high school—which hadn’t been integrated until 1971, and then only after a federal court order. SPLC notes that 27 of these 109 schools named for prominent Confederates are majority black.

Confederate lionization manifests itself in other ways. Six states include elements of Confederate flags in their official flags today. There are nine official state Confederate holidays. And as SPLC notes, there’s also the especially weird case of the 10 forts and military bases named for heroes of a cause that sought to defeat the U.S. military and killed tens of thousands of its soldiers. At the heat of the renaming push last summer, the Department of Defense was asked whether it was considering changing those names. A Pentagon spokesman said it was not.

The debate continues, in part because no one agrees on its terms, much less what conclusions they dictate. Some defenders of the Confederacy continue to insist, incorrectly, that the war was fought over something other than slavery. But some people, including those who deplore the Confederacy, have staked out middle grounds, like arguing for the removal of flags but not all monuments.

“Leaving Confederate memorials up and supplementing them with more accurate historical monuments as well as contextualizing markers is not a perfect solution,” Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts wrote in The Atlantic last year. “But the statues also bear mute witness to the Jim Crow culture that venerated men who initiated a bloody civil war to protect an inhumane institution. If they make the public uneasy, that is because this past is uncomfortable.”

This argument seems to founder on the details. Does the grand boulevard of Richmond’s Monument Avenue stand as a rebuke to the white-supremacist South where it was built? Or does it simply glorify the traitors it depicts in elaborate, heroic fashion? The unanimous vote by city leaders to add a statue of the black tennis star Arthur Ashe in 1995 certainly implied the latter, but the tacked-on juxtaposition simply accents the inherent flaws in Monument Avenue’s existence.

Some of the sites on SPLC’s list raise more subtle questions, however. The organization says it has excluded “approximately 2,570 Civil War battlefields, markers, plaques, cemeteries and similar symbols that, for the most part, merely reflect historical events,” but some are judgment calls. Does a 10-inch cannon installed at Mobile, Alabama, glorify the Confederacy? Others mark easily defensible and historically important sites in unfortunate ways: A marker in Bloomfield, Iowa, that marks the furthest northern incursion of rebel forces into the Hawkeye State, for example, sports a Confederate flag and a plaque placed by the neo-Confederate group the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

A monument to Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, who fled the country as the war ended, may be plainly out of line. But what about Joe Wheeler? The Confederate lieutenant general’s name graces 11 separate sites, according to SPLC’s count. But Wheeler is a particular rarity: After serving as a top CSA officer, he rejoined the U.S. Army at the age of 61 in 1898, and served a major general in the Spanish-American War, leading into battle units of the same army he’d tried to defeat decades before. (According to legend, Wheeler became disoriented in the midst of a battle, encouraging his troops by shouting, “Let's go, boys! We've got the damn Yankees on the run again!”) Is Wheeler a goat, or a redeemed hero?

The many public sites identified in the SPLC report point to one of the most compelling critiques of Confederate monuments. Maintaining them requires taxpayer dollars. Even when there’s strong support at a local level for an individual monument, many of them exist in part by taxing populations that may not otherwise support them, but have no choice—like any black Southerner whose property taxes support a school named for Nathan Bedford Forrest. As Steven Weiss pointed out in The Atlantic several years ago, the federal government has spent millions of dollars in recent years alone to create and install headstones to Confederate veterans. Federal monies also fund such odd sites as the Stonewall Jackson Shrine—it’s really called that—a National Park Service site in Virginia where the general died.

But what about the importance of historical memory? Even that argument may be somewhat spurious, as the SPLC report demonstrates. Many of the treasured monuments that seem to offer a connection to the post-bellum South are actually much later, anachronistic constructions, and they tend to correlate closely with periods of fraught racial relations, as my colleague Yoni Appelbaum has noted. South Carolina didn’t hoist the battle flag in Columbia until 1961—the anniversary of the war’s start, but also the middle of the civil-rights push, and a time when many white Southerners were on the defensive about issues like segregation and voting rights.

A timeline of the genesis of the Confederate sites shows two notable spikes. One comes around the turn of the 20th century, just after Plessy v. Ferguson, and just as many Southern states were establishing repressive race laws. The second runs from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s—the peak of the civil-rights movement. In other words, the erection of Confederate monuments has been a way to perform cultural resistance to black equality.

Fittingly, in this era of Black Lives Matter and criminal-justice reform, there’s once again a reactionary backlash involving Confederate monuments. The goal here isn’t to build more—that seems outlandish to all but the most hardened neo-Confederates—but instead to defend the ones that exist. In Louisiana, legislators tried to pass a bill that would ban the removal of Confederate monuments, but the bill seems to have stalled for the moment. In Virginia, a similar bill made it as far as the desk of Governor Terry McAuliffe, who vetoed it. North Carolina’s version made it into law.

The fierce resistance when Confederate monuments are in question stands as a reminder of the issues at stake in the Civil War, and the ways in which they remain unsettled in contemporary American society. It is perhaps a more eloquent and evocative reminder than any of the 1,500 remaining Confederate symbols can ever be.