It was 1913, and the Civil War had been over for 48 years. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization that worked to populate the South with Confederate war memorials, decided such a monument should be erected in Rockville, Md.
The bronze statue, a soldier standing with folded arms, was constructed by a local granite company for the sum of $3,600. A plaque at the bottom read, “To Our Heroes of Montgomery Co., Maryland, That We Through Life May Not Forget To Love The Thin Gray Line.” It was dedicated in a June ceremony in front of the courthouse, with 3,000 spectators listening to a band play “Dixie” and the “Star-Spangled Banner,” according to the account of a local historian.
Supporters of the statue saw it, and continue to see it, as a historic symbol of heritage that acknowledged a painful past. The statue’s detractors saw it, and continue to see it, as deeply offensive, honoring an institution that had honored slavery. One hundred years after the statue was installed, some residents lobbied to take it down.
In the past year, debates such as this have burbled in town meetings across the country. Mostly, discussions are related to Civil War monuments — in Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia and Texas — following the 2015 mass shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C. But sometimes the discussion is broader: Last fall a cohort of Princeton students lobbied the administration to remove likenesses of Woodrow Wilson from the school’s campus because of his segregationist beliefs. And last month, Andrew Jackson was toppled by Harriet Tubman off the front of the $20 bill; supporters of the swap cited, among other reasons, Jackson’s wretched treatment of American Indians.
Ignoble history happened in America. It defines us; it is ours.
And now we are wrestling with how to claim it — publicly, in granite, iron and bronze — or reject it, by consigning Confederate statues to scrap.
How should Rockville, for example, address the fact that Maryland was a border state in the Civil War — more of its citizens fought for the Union than the Confederacy — and yet there are no Union monuments in front of the courthouse? How should New Orleans address the fact that, the day after it hired a contractor to remove four of its Confederate statues, the man received death threats and his car was torched? Is a statue in Alexandria, Va., in which the soldier is weaponless and downcast, more acceptable than a Civil War general on a horse — as some supporters of the controversial statue argue?
The problem is not going away. America has a lot of statues.
A few years ago, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, launched a research project whose goal was to determine how many statues and memorials his state had. There were no comparable national databases, and Brundage hoped his could become a model for other states. He assumed there would be a few hundred representing all wars and conflicts; instead, his team found nearly 200 for the Civil War alone, mostly Confederate.
“One reaction is that these statues aren’t a substantial issue, it’s just symbolism,” Brundage says. But the sheer volume of them made him realize that the symbolism was weighty. Confederate monuments weren’t something that citizens stumbled upon occasionally. They were part of the daily map of people’s lives. Some proposals for what to do with them would flop on a large scale. A mass tear-down could cost millions, as would another common solution: building an equal number of pro-Union statues.
“We live in a landscape that is cluttered with monuments,” Brundage says. “Even if the Confederate past could be erased” — which it can’t, he says; removing monuments wouldn’t do that — “the actual mechanics of that would take decades.”
Building them, to begin with, took decades, too. In the early days of Reconstruction, federally funded veterans’ cemeteries were reserved for only Union soldiers. Southern women founded the United Daughters of the Confederacy to raise money for Confederate soldiers to have their own modest cemetery memorials.
Over time, though, these markers got larger and more specific, says Jane Censer, a George Mason University professor who studies Southern women of the 19th century. Rather than the memorials appearing just in cemeteries, the UDC began putting them in public spaces: parks, legislative buildings, courthouse lawns. There were plenty of statues to go around — many were made en masse and sold in catalogues, by women who received marble cutting boards for meeting their sales goals.
The ballooning number of Confederate statues around the turn of the 20th century, some historians argue, was a reflection of the changing narrative of the Civil War. It was no longer seen as a grievous loss but a noble rebellion, a “lost cause.” Many of the statues that cause conflict today weren’t built in the years following the Civil War but in the decades following it, and not by widows or daughters of Confederate veterans, but by defiant descendants.
“You can really see this progression in the three major statues of Robert E. Lee,” says Gaines Foster, a historian at Louisiana State University and author of “Ghosts of the Confederacy.” In Lee’s earliest post-Civil War statue, placed on the campus of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., in 1875, Lee is lying in repose. In the second, dedicated in New Orleans in 1884, Lee, the top Confederate general, is standing erect. “By 1890 in Richmond,” Foster says, “Lee is riding his horse again.” The South had re-risen, at least in the stone representations of its leaders.
The narrative of America’s history has never been solely about what happened, but how we remember what happened. And memories change: An entrance to the U.S. Capitol used to be flanked by a pair of statues depicting American Indians as savages, saved by their white invaders. Both statues were removed in 1958, a measure of America’s changing understanding of its horrendous behavior.
Now when some people see a solitary Confederate soldier standing on a pedestal in a public area, they see historic and important artwork that should not be taken down because of the risk of history-washing. When some people look at the same statue, they see a mass-produced symbol of racism for which an industrious sales clerk received a marble kitchen utensil.
Of course, sometimes a statue can be both of those things. The newly dethroned Andrew Jackson was both a talented strategist in the War of 1812 and an architect of genocide. And historic representations can exist on a continuum. Few would argue that likenesses of American forefather George Washington should be removed from public spaces, although he, too, owned hundreds of slaves. It’s more complicated to defend a statue of, say, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate general and prominent Ku Klux Klan member, whose racist beliefs are part and parcel of his legacy.
This year, at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting in Atlanta, the organization’s attendees debated the problem of Confederate monuments and statues during a plenary session. Censer, the George Mason professor, remembers proposing the relocation of some publicly placed monuments back into private cemeteries — reclaiming the memorialization that was the original goal of the monuments.
“In public spaces, we’re saying, ‘This is something we honor,’ ” Censer says. “There’s a triumphal, celebratory aspect.” In cemeteries, she says, the mood is more subdued and more historic.
The Atlanta History Center offers an entire page on its website with suggestions to help local historians, including adding placards with detailed information about the monuments’ original intent. As a template, the History Center offers the following wording: “This monument was created to recognize the dedication and sacrifice of Americans who fought to establish the Confederate slaveholding republic. Yet this monument must now remind us that their loss actually meant liberty, justice and freedom for millions of people.”
A monument to a cause ends up criticizing that cause.
Meanwhile, in Rockville, the county executive had asked the city, in 2015, to take possession of the statue, removing it to the grounds of the city-run historical society. The city council declined in February 2016. They didn’t want to deal with the statue, either. For now, it still stands outside the courthouse and has suffered at least one graffiti attack. The bottom half is encased in a wooden box, though, and unless visitors intentionally sought it out, they may have no idea what they are looking at.