(Special thanks to my most erudite and scholarly friend Jeffrey Shanks for allowing me to publish this piece, which I think complements my recent post on lost history: I think it neatly fills in the gaps in my knowledge regarding Southern/Confederacy heritage. It helps when it comes from an actual Southerner! All images & links except the above I have added for illustrative purposes.)
I want to try have a difficult discussion with my fellow white Southerners on the Confederate monument controversy. This is an attempt to help foster understanding about why many feel so strongly about this. I know that many of you white folks from the South, when you see people wanting to get rid of Confederate monuments and the flag, feel like you and your ancestry and heritage are being personally attacked. You don’t think of yourself as racist and you feel you are being accused of it. I’ve seen good people I know express that sentiment. I understand that – but I have a very different perspective. I want you know am not coming from a place of hate and I am not judging you or virtual signalling. I just want to provide some context for this issue to help you understand the other side of it. This is long so bear with me.
The first point I want to address is the idea that removing Confederate monuments is erasing or destroying history. I completely understand why you might feel that way, especially if you are a history buff — it *feels* like history is being censored. But let me explain why that isn’t the case. For those who don’t know, a large part of my job is determining whether or not places, buildings, objects, etc. are historically significant from a preservation standpoint. There is a huge amount of regulatory structure and historiographical philosophy dedicated to historic preservation. So I think about this stuff a lot. This is probably a good place to point out that my comments are mine alone and do not represent the views of my employer.
So, let me state emphatically that there is no intrinsic historical significance to the vast majority of monuments of any kind. Monuments by their very nature are not a part of history, but rather a way to commemorate and honour a person or event from history. This is the reason why monuments are generally not considered for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places or as National Historic Landmarks. There are exceptions, of course — a statue by a famous sculptor, a unique example of architecture, a monument that has become an important part of a cultural landscape, etc. That’s why comparing a statue in a small town park to the Washington Monument or Mt. Rushmore is apples and oranges (Stone Mountain might have a case though). So monuments, generally have no intrinsic historical significance for what they represent, but instead are meant to honor and celebrate history. Nobody is talking about tearing down Robert E. Lee’s boyhood home or putting a shopping mall on top of a civil war battlefield.
My second point — and this is the important one and most contentious — is about the nature of the history that these monuments are celebrating. The vast majority of the monuments in question were erected in the early part of the 20th century, beginning around the 50th anniversary of the war. It was a significant part of a movement at the time to rebrand the South and its role in the Civil War. This was the beginning of the creation of the Lost Cause myth that painted the antebellum South as a doomed golden age of chivalry and gentility destroyed by Northern invaders and harsh and unfair Reconstruction policies. The institution of slavery was minimized in both significance and in cruelty — this is when the idea that war wasn’t really about slavery was created, as well as the stereotypes of the kindly master and happy loyal slave.
Popular culture reflected and reinforced these fictions, from Birth of a Nation to the Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris to Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind. Confederate leaders were heroes, not traitors, who were just defending the sovereignty of their respective states, not fighting to preserve an horrific institution of enslavement. And many monuments were put up to help emphasize that idea. And let me be clear — this is understandable. Imagine the cognitive disconnect in the 1910s and 20s when many veterans of the war were passing away and the current generation of white southerners understanding the barbarity of slavery but wanting to absolve their parents and grandparents of their role in perpetuating it and defending it, needed these myths.
And that’s why the mythologised South still persists so strongly today. It sucks to know that your ancestors only a few generations removed did terrible things to other humans. And fought a war for the right to continue to do those horrible things — not preserve some lost golden age where happy “darkies” sing Stephen Foster songs in the fields while the kindly master sips a mint julep on the porch. That version of the South never existed – it is a fiction, a creation of early 20th century popular culture. It’s a myth and false narrative that all white Southerners my age and older grew up with and had drilled into our brains from cradle to grave, whether by Disney’s Song of the South or Bugs Bunny in drag as Scarlet O’Hare (and a frigging black face minstrel – Jeebus!). And it’s incredibly difficult to accept and come to terms with the fact that this picture is not real history. That is the “history” these monuments were erected to celebrate. A false history of a place and time that never really existed and the beatified gentlemen officers that defended it. It’s a PR cover story.
And while this story and these monuments and films and children’s books might have helped white Southerners in the early 20th century come to terms with grandpa’s role in the war, it had a very different effect when it came to African-Americans. On this it’s important to understand what else was going on in the early 1900s that the rehabilitation of the South’s image contributed to and helped justify. This was the period that Jim Crow laws really went into to full swing. This was the era that membership in the KKK reached an all time high. This was a time when lynching was taking place at an unimaginable rate (Texas alone averaged one lynching a month from 1900 to 1925 — think about that). This the period in my home state that the Rosewood massacre took place. This was a time when a championship prize fight led to race riots that left dozens dead because a black man had the temerity to knock out a white man. This was a time when 10,000 cheering spectators showed up to witness a black teenager being hanged, mutilated, and burned – as though it were a prize fight. Kids had their pictures taken with his corpse and other photos were taken and sold as postcards. This was the racial context in which small towns around America were putting up monuments celebrating the Confederacy, encouraging the fantasy of a lost agrarian paradise of content slaves destroyed and replaced by nation of dangerous black “bucks” that have to be controlled. It’s a fantasy that is still alive and well today and still causing people to be killed unjustly.
So these monuments were put up to celebrate a history that is dubious at best and helped contributed to some of the ugliest parts of our shared history at worst. If these monuments do have any historical significance, it’s not for whom or what they commemorate, but rather as artifacts of that creation of the Lost Cause Myth that still hangs over us today; never allowed real closure of the wound of the civil war, never allowing the South to come to grips with the darker parts of its past, acknowledge them and try to move forward from that. Ironically, that’s something Robert E. Lee himself warned against.
Just to add, another smaller wave of monument building took place in the early 1960s as part of the Civil War Centennial. Many of these however were erected as a reaction against desegregation and the civil rights movement, using the Centennial as an excuse. These truly have little or no historical value and no one should mourn their loss if they are removed.
There are many great things about the South and Southern people and culture that are worthy of celebration: hospitality, community, cuisine, a love for the outdoors, and yes, a passion for history. The legacy of the Confederacy is NOT one of these things. It is not a part of the South that should be honoured and celebrated. Remember the regular soldiers that fought and died for what they thought was a noble cause, flawed though it may have been? Absolutely. Interpreted for educational purposes with a critical approach? Of course. But put on a pedestal in a public space and celebrated? Not anymore. So I want to implore you to let go of the myths that you have been brought up with. That WE have been indoctrinated with. They aren’t real. Let it go. And let’s try to move to forward from here.