What Do Confederate Statues Say?

by Robert VerBruggen

Like a lot of people I struggle somewhat with the issue of Confederate monuments. I understand why a devastated region would want to memorialize its war dead, and why we wouldn’t want to tear such memorials down years later; I also understand why a black parent wouldn’t want to walk his kids past a monument to people who fought to keep their race enslaved.

A seductive argument, however, is that these aren’t really war memorials at all. The greatest burst of memorial-building happened not right after the war, but roughly a half-century later, when the South was still getting Jim Crow up and running and North–South tensions were on the wane. Could it be that these are not monuments to dead ancestors, but rather intentional representations of white supremacy? If so, a hard question becomes a pretty easy one.

The answer is different for different monuments, and I think case-by-case determinations are necessary. But today I spent a little time playing amateur historian, mining Google Books for references to Confederate statues published between 1895 and 1920, years that roughly bookend the huge surge of statue-building. I didn’t find any smoking gun directly tying Confederate memorials to Jim Crow (which is not to say there necessarily would be one if that was the purpose). But alongside paeans to dead soldiers, I found a lot of endorsements of the Confederate “cause,” which of course had been the preservation of slavery even if southerners couldn’t bring themselves to admit it decades later. Many of these monuments, in other words, celebrate the Confederacy and its goals, not just the men swept up and killed in the war.

Here is a particularly good source, the History of the Confederated Memorial Associations of the South. It draws together articles and letters from various groups that worked to build these monuments and was published in 1904. The entire volume is dedicated to “the Confederate Soldier and All who loved, lost or suffered, in that Cause, The grandest that ever rose, The purest that ever fell.” Search the book for the word “cause,” and you see that many of the individual groups saw fit to mention similar sentiments in their essays.

Another haunting report comes from a 1915 edition of Confederate Veteran, reporting on a statue in St. Louis that was removed last month. (Missouri was a border state, but some residents chose to fight for the Confederacy.) The inscription on the statue reads, in part,

To the Memory of the Soldiers and Sailors of the Southern Confederacy.

Who fought to uphold the right declared by the pen of Jefferson and achieved by the sword of Washington. With sublime self sacrifice they battled to preserve the independence of the states which was won from Great Britain, and to perpetuate the constitutional government which was established by the fathers.

Actuated by the purest patriotism they performed deeds of prowess such as thrilled the heart of mankind with admiration.

A final tidbit I stumbled upon and found interesting: An enormous statue in Raleigh, N.C., boasts that the state was “First at Bethel, Last at Appomattox,” both of which refer to times its soldiers were shooting at Union troops.

For me, the question of whether a statue should go is very much tied to the question of what it was supposed to say. I’m from Wisconsin, and living in Northern Virginia probably doesn’t give me any southern cred nowadays, either. But personally, I wouldn’t want my state, local, or federal government celebrating the South’s “cause” in any context.

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