The following essay was originally published one year ago, in three parts. On this anniversary of what many think of as a coming out party for white supremacists, from the shame of the shadows into the brazen light, I think it important to revisit the historical tensions that set the stage not only for racially driven violence, but for the more gentle debate about Confederate monuments, and what those monuments signify about our shared history. We simply cannot heal if we can't understand or face our history. It is glorious, it is terrible, and it serves as both our origin story and a script we won't escape if don't find the courage to see the evil in our past.
Three weeks ago, we witnessed a tableau of hate, violence and tension as white supremacist groups and others protesting them descended on the campus of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. At the center of those gathered was a statue of Robert E. Lee, Commanding General of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The violence on display there was despicable, but beneath all of the hate and frustration lurks a question haunting every American: What do we do with our past?
In Charlottesville and in many other cities, citizens are asking and yelling answers to the question of how we deal with the many confederate monuments littering our town squares. America has a wonderful history of liberation, sacrifice and generosity. We also have a lengthy past of violence against people of color, greed and hypocrisy. For the most part, we have not found a way to explore these conflicting legacies in our churches, classrooms, or in the public sphere.
Abraham Lincoln famously signed the Emancipation Proclamation; Lincoln also less famously argued that if he could preserve the Union without ending slavery he would do so. The conflict he experienced and the priorities he gave his passions can serve as a metaphor for our current conversation. Most Americans agree that slavery was bad, but many refuse to admit that the idea of the South to which they cling produced the odious institution of slavery. If monuments celebrating the Confederacy only represented slavery, people would be less likely to overtly defend their places of honor. These mementos do not only represent one story though, and if we examine what they signify we might better understand the debate surrounding them.
I believe the magnitude of passion surrounding this issue is due, in large part, to the national angst felt about the Civil War. Was secession a hateful and treasonous act of aggression in order to protect the cruel practice of slavery? Was it a noble stand to preserve states’ rights and defend against Northern aggression? Having studied many angles of American history and the conflicts that resulted in and were partially resolved by the Civil War, I would like to contextualize this debate by revisiting the history that is memorialized by the argued-over monuments. I do this hoping we can be more precise in what we are arguing about, and to help articulate precisely the history for which we advocate.
In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Southern states and their congressional representatives began to realize that they were in danger of becoming a minority in the United States’ Congress. This reality, along with the impact of William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, whose abolitionary voices were growing louder, and the active resistance of the slaves themselves, led the Southern states to actively advocate for new states to enter the Union as slave states. Battles over this desired balance led to legislation like the Compromise of 1850, the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. These acts upheld the precarious balance of states, providing equal numbers of slave and free states, and importantly, protection for the rights and legislative power of slaveowners. The South seceded when threats to that balance—and the power it protected—finally seemed to permanently favor free states.
The economic stability of the country, both in Southern plantations and in Northern factories, was dependent on harvested cotton. Harvested cotton was entirely dependent on the practice of slavery. Indeed, the work product of slavery had paid off American debts after the Revolutionary War, and continued to be crucial to the economic foundation of our country. Knowing this, many defenders of Confederate monuments, and lovers of a romanticized Southern past, remember that slavery was not only a dirty pleasure of the South, but a necessity for the United States of America. These Americans feel unfairly blamed for slavery, as if white Southern ancestors were evil and greedy, rather than making the best of a system the entire citizenry willingly endorsed and relied on for decades.
It is likely that America’s survival as a postcolonial powerhouse would have been impossible without the foundation of slavery. Slaves provided the expertise and labor that made the South financially great and culturally worth remembering. Our country was built by, on the bodies of, and under the creative leadership of African and African American men and women who were owned by white people. The entire country benefitted from this institution, and white Southern defensiveness about being solely blamed for two centuries of an atrocious moral lapse is logical when seen in this light. However, when powerful voices began to acknowledge the horrific nature of slavery, and tried to take active steps to free slaves and extricate themselves from this outrageously destructive bind, Southern states defended the practice to such an extent that they seceded from the Union that gave them their American identity. Despite the justifying narrative of Christian paternalism, the Confederacy was established and built on the idea of white supremacy and cruelty against slaves. Indeed, the Vice-President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, in his Cornerstone speech, asserted his new government was built “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Confederate soldiers fought and died to uphold a racial hierarchy, and the monuments at issue here are, by definition, representatives of this view.
Although the South lost the war, a new war quickly began for the memory of who the South was, how slavery functioned in it, and why the physical war occurred. In the words of Robert Penn Warren: “in the moment of its death the Confederacy entered upon its immortality.” Peter Kolchin, in his definitive history American Slavery, explains that during and after Reconstruction, and later while monuments were erected, “white scholars, politicians, and publicists celebrated the virtues of a Southern civilization now ‘gone with the wind’ and sang the glories of the ‘lost cause.’ An uninformed observer of the South in 1910 might well be pardoned if he or she concluded that the Confederates had won the Civil War.” The placement of Confederate monuments all over the South solidified this created—and now lasting—memory of Southern nobility, and the "racial mastery" of those who lost the Civil War (Blight).
In forming our views on the monument debate, it is worthwhile to examine our own thoughts about the South, the reasons for secession, and the place of white supremacy in our past and present. After the Civil War, the Confederacy was in shambles, economically ruined. Although the Union won, the union of states that survived was deeply weakened by the death toll, the loss of a free Southern work force, and destroyed landscapes. In an intentional choice to reconcile, the congress passed laws to forgive confederate treason, allow former confederate leaders to run for federal office, and for the South to create their own racially based laws as they reorganized as a society. The South, shocked at having been defeated, reeling from the abrupt erasure of the foundation of their economy, and outraged at their forced submission, was desperate to redeem the noble purpose of the cause for which they fought the war in the first place. As the Civil War came to a close, a new war began for the memory of the war, and the South won this conflict handily.
The narrative of the Lost Cause, shared through Southern publications, memorial days, books, films, and throughout the political arena, created a memory of the antebellum South in which slaves were fiercely loyal to their masters, masters were good Christians who took care of their slaves with gentle, fatherly guidance, and all Southerners were committed to hospitality, Christianity, and kindness above all. Historian David Blight explains,
The Lost Cause took root in Southern culture awash in a mixture of physical destruction, the psychological trauma of defeat, a Democratic Party resisting Reconstruction, racial violence, and, with time, an abiding sentimentalism. On the broadest level, it came to represent a mood, or an attitude toward the past…For many Southerners it became a natural extension of evangelical piety, a civil religion that helped them link their sense of loss to a Christian conception of history.
The Lost Cause represented a Christian narrative in which masters and slaves were friends whose relationship was built on mutual sacrifice and steady loyalty. This narrative was undermined by the fact that hundreds of thousands of slaves abandoned their masters and their plantations during the course of the war. Nevertheless, the Lost Cause asserted slaves were not mistreated, but they, being either helpless children or wayward beasts, needed the paternal guidance a white Christian male could offer them. Slavery simply provided the framework that allowed generous white people to care for lost and lazy black people.
In their view, and for many Southerners today, the Civil War was not fought to selfishly protect slavery, but to defend a state’s right to do what is best for its people. Historian Walter Johnson clarifies,
when slavery was over and the slave market was closed, former slaves and slaveholder alike found themselves marooned on a shoal of history. The longings of slave holders to hold onto the past as it receded from their grasp are well-documented. Well-known, too, is the disbelief they experienced, the sense of betrayal they talked about, when their slaves left them behind.
The narrative of the Lost Cause created a context in which a man who owned slaves, committed treason by seceding, and led an army who killed others to protect the right to own, abuse and economically benefit from forcing others to do labor from which they would not profit, became a sympathetic character. After all, he was just protecting his people—slaves and family—from an overreaching North. He had worked so hard to take care of these poor wayward black folks, and he sacrificed himself to protect a way of life they appreciated.
Those who nurtured the thinking of the Lost Cause soon created societies and clubs committed to memorializing their heroes. The first Confederate statues were put in place in the 1870s, but most were erected after 1890. Although confederate soldiers were not granted pensions at the same rate as their Union counterparts, they were memorialized, honored and held up as the best of the South. The organizations who commissioned them, like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, endeavored to remind every person who walked by the town square that the South laments the death of and memorializes the life of these great men who lived honorably and fought nobly for a sweet Southern, Christian way of life that honored everyone involved, black and white.
The North, anxious to put the country back together, allowed such intense memorializing to occur. Indeed, twelve Confederate monuments were built for every one Union monument, shocking numbers when we remember the Union, who fought quite literally—in the words of Isaiah in foretelling the birth of Christ—to “release the captives”, won the war. Indeed, “The Lost Cause left just such a legacy; it was not essentially inhuman in character, but its very existence depended on dehumanizing a group of people” (Blight). Part of our American history is that the South was encouraged in this revising of history, and that they built monuments to men who defended the right to ignore and erase the dignity of other human beings in the public square. While it is perhaps true that many white Southerners cherish these monuments because they celebrate a beloved South, the monuments themselves were erected to memorialize a mostly fabricated version of the South. In this way, the monuments symbolize the collision of Christianity, white supremacy, and loyalty, ideals that Southerners conscientiously admired and promoted. Blight argues this movement, “reinvigorates white supremacy by borrowing heavily from the plantation school of literature in promoting reminiscences of the faithful slave as a central figure in the Confederate war. Together, these arguments reinforced Southern pride.”
The monuments’ place in society is problematic not because liberals want to rewrite history or because African Americans are sensitive; their place is fraught because of what they commemorate, then and now. Consider this: At the unveiling of General Stonewall Jackson’s monument in Richmond, Virginia in 1875, the KKK, the sponsoring group, was present. They wore hoods and carried arches which read: “Warrior, Christian, Patriot.” Knowing this past, should patriots—and Christians especially—be troubled by the version of history commemorated by confederate monuments? If we are concerned about erasing history by removing them shouldn’t we ensure we have learned all the lessons embedded in the history they honor?
Confederate monuments were erected as a permanent public reminder of the Lost Cause, which revised the history of the South, making it a kind and loyal place, gently controlled by Christian men who protected their women and nurtured their slaves. Many of the organizations that funded the monument movement were openly founded on the Christian legitimacy of the South and on the supremacy of the white race. We now find ourselves in a battle over this contested past. Many proponents of the Lost Cause, mostly white people who love their Southern heritage, are understandably frustrated that some non-whites, liberal whites, or Northern whites, want to remove Confederate monuments, erasing history. They feel defensive, as if their entire legacy is being vilified and erased by people with no right to speak into Southern history. This viewpoint makes perfect sense if the only history of the South is the Lost Cause.
However, most Southerners—of all races—do not know the full history of the South. They don’t know that most plantations were owned by absentee landlords, and were simply plots of land, worked by people under the lash of an overseer, with no “humanizing” white family nearby. They don’t know that Christianity and baptism were twisted and manipulated, finally shared with slaves only when evangelism could be used as a tool of coercion against the new converts. They don’t know that the vast majority of white people did not own slaves, and were victimized by a system that allowed huge plantations with a self-replicating work force to thrive while they struggled to get ahead. They don’t know that the institution of slavery fueled, funded and built every economic gain America experienced, and that America itself owes a deep debt of gratitude to the people of color who made America great and possible in the first place. They don’t know that statues of men who prioritized personal gain over loyalty to America were erected to honor a fabricated Southern legacy. This historical ignorance must be confronted in order to think clearly about the current Confederate monument debate.
Here are the two sides of this debate as I understand them:
For many, the Civil War and the Confederacy are part of our history, and the men who fought in the war were valiant warriors loyal to their families, fighting for the rights of those in their states. Honoring them has nothing to do with slavery, but instead commemorates the noble leaders who fought and died for their values in the bloodiest war America has ever known. They are part of our history, and should be remembered.
For others, the monuments of Confederate leaders honor men who betrayed their country through legislated mutiny, and then fought for the right of their fellow statesmen to own, abuse, and control every aspect of the lives of their human chattel. For these folks, the antebellum South, the Confederacy, the flag, and the soldiers who fought for the states who seceded are all fruit of the poisoned tree of slavery. This past is fluid and invasive and one cannot separate part of the memory for honor when slavery was the reality that created the whole.
So what are we to do with this history? I do not think that we can praise every confederate honoree as an unblemished hero or as a despicable tyrant who should be shunned. That said, we cannot pretend that this debate is about a choice to honor history when the statues themselves were created to erase history. America is a mixed bag; we are brave and free and fair, while also being cowardly and abusive and greedy. The idea that this debate has a side who want to ignore or erase history (those in favor of removing them) and a side who wants to learn from or honor history (those who want to leave them alone) is problematic. The history memorialized by confederate statues is a history created after the Civil War to erase the evil of the history that established, paid for and built our country.
As a Southern American, I agree that we cannot erase or ignore history by removing confederate statues. We have inherited a legacy of erasing and white washing the very histories of hierarchies based on race left to us by our ancestors, and this debate gives us a chance to reckon not only with our past, but with the ways we continue to remember and disremember that past. We are responsible, each of us, for what we do with the legacy left to us by our ancestors. For my part, I do see a place for confederate monuments in public life, but only if the following changes are made:
1) The monuments should be joined by other conflicted “heroes”, like slaves, slave rebellion leaders, abolitionists, and leaders who spoke truth to the power of white supremacy when it was dangerous to do so. (It still is dangerous to do so, in fact…) The commemoration of others will create a robust dialogue about the role of individuals in promoting or confronting systems of injustice. America has a legacy of abusive oppression, but we also have a legacy of resistance and seeking justice for all.
2) Existing monuments should be moved to museums or accurately contextualized with posted explanations. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a brave confederate general AND a violent promoter of racial hatred as a slave trader and the Grand Wizard of the KKK. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence AND forced a teenage slave he owned to have sex with him and bear several of his children, whom he freed while continually writing that interracial mixing was an abomination and abhorrent to God. Robert E. Lee was a tenacious general who believed slavery was “evil”, supported abolishing it, AND held racist views that slavery civilized Africans and that he would kill soldiers who fought to abolish it. The question about moving statues to a museum instead of honoring them in public parks in not a question of who is willing to remember history, it is a question of who is willing to place these statues in the historical context in which the men they honor lived and died, rather than the manipulative context in which they were originally placed.
Our history is neither all progress nor all degrading shame; we are and always have been mixed bags. We would do well to take an honest look at what our “heroes” accomplished on their best and worst days, allowing that knowledge to explain the legacy we all carry, and what we are to do with it today.