While the manner in which the statue was removed is debatable, the question of whether it should have been removed is not.
In defending Silent Sam and his brethren, Confederate apologists have relied upon two main talking points. First, they concede that the Ku Klux Klan and other extremist groups have rallied around these statutes. But they argue that these groups have distorted the true meaning of the statues, tainting noble heritage items merely intended to honor local veterans of the bloody Civil War.
Second, apologists maintain that statues of the Confederate everyman are free of the racist connotations of the slaveholding South. How, these apologists argue, could an average soldier like Sam have been fighting for a slave system of which he was not a part? After all, as apologists are often quick to point out, the vast majority of Confederate rank-and-file soldiers did not own slaves. Silent Sam was no slaveholding elite like Robert E. Lee.
The only logical conclusion, they claim, is that he wasn’t — he was merely fighting to defend his home and his family from the threat of invasion.
On both points, however, defenders of Confederate monuments are unequivocally wrong. Everyman Confederate statues were always intended as symbols of white supremacy — a legacy perpetuated, not perverted, by modern hatemongers. They honored men who very much fought to maintain the institution of slavery for the tangible benefits that institution provided even non-slaveholders.
Silent Sam and his ilk were erected as the curtain of Jim Crow descended upon the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were intended as tools of white power, as white Southerners worked to create a rigid, racial caste system.
They were specific reminders that, after the setbacks of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the white South had risen again — the same white South that had fought a war to protect black slavery, that Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens had labeled as the “corner-stone” of the rebellion.
These new statues were intended to send a clear message to local African Americans: Slavery might be dead, but white supremacy was the order of the day and would be for all time, cemented forever in bronze and stone. Blacks had to remain in their places of political, social and economic subordination — or else.
Silent Sam was part of this violently racist program, as the men who spoke at his dedication ceremony in 1913 made clear. Local industrialist Julian Carr lauded the statue as a monument to the “Anglo-Saxon race in the South.” He then launched into an anecdote, boasting about how he had “horse-whipped a negro wench” soon after the war, “one hundred yards from where we stand,” for supposedly insulting a Southern (white) lady. White supremacy, as he laid bare, was a system maintained by fear when possible, and by brute force and terrorism when not.
The KKK — of which Carr was an ardent supporter — was, and is, an extension of this despicable worldview, not an adulteration of it. In fact, modern hate groups channel the true meanings of the statue much more than the “heritage” apologists who have tried to obscure them.
Nor can defenders of the statue retreat to their second argument, dissociating the Confederate everyman from slavery. Statues to the average, anonymous Confederate soldier are ubiquitous in the South, popping up in the squares of the smallest towns around the turn of the century. Part of their allure was their cost: They were mass-produced (in the North), virtually identical and therefore cheap. Everyman statues also provided a way for towns where Confederate giants such as Lee and Stonewall Jackson had never trodden to honor their local sons.
But these local sons fought for far more than their homes: Even though most were not among the elite minority that actually owned slaves, they still aimed to uphold a racial system that provided them with goods, jobs, and, most importantly, a sense of dignity and self-worth.
Nonslaveholding whites benefited economically from the presence of slave plantations in their areas. Local farmers would often trade for the surplus crops grown on plantations. They found employment as overseers and as slave-hunters, employed on roving patrols to capture fugitives.
These everymen were as invested socially as they were materially in the perpetuation of racial slavery. They were the beneficiaries of what James Henry Hammond, an especially perverse slaveholding politician from South Carolina, referred to as “mud-sill” democracy. As he explained in an 1858 speech, “In all social systems there must be a class to perform the drudgery of life” — to sit at the bottom rung of the social ladder, in menial subservience. In the antebellum South, that lowest class — that mud-sill — was African American slaves.
In this racial caste system, nonslaveholding whites were thus able to partake in a shared sense of racial superiority by virtue of the color of their skin. Slavery gave them a dignity conferred by whiteness that they would not otherwise have had. It was this way of life — a system that bound all whites, slaveholding and nonslaveholding alike — for which the Confederate everyman fought.
After the war, gaps briefly opened up in this racial system. During congressional Reconstruction in the late 1860s and early 1870s, a small but significant number of white Southerners, known derisively by their opponents as scalawags, joined with white Northern transplants and black Southerners to support reform-minded Republican regimes in the former Confederate states.
After white supremacists reclaimed these states through violence and intimidation, they sought to dismantle these dangerous cross-racial class alliance, reminding poor whites how the old idea of racial superiority had kept them from the bottom rung of society. Jim Crow returned the South to the racial order of old, which remained largely intact until the civil rights movement toppled it in the 1960s.
While Silent Sam is, indeed, a piece of the local country, such an argument is hardly a reason to rally to its defense. Rather, that ugly truth is all the more a justification for why these statues have to be removed. Only through such reckonings can we finally come to terms with the real legacies of the past, and potentially forge a better future from its rubble.