The rally by white nationalists to defend the monument to Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville last weekend, and the destruction of a monument to Confederate soldiers in Durham, N.C., two days later, have stoked the ongoing debate over these statues. President Trump suggested Tuesday that the torchlight rally by neo-Nazis and other white supremacists was merely a defense of the past: “So this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” On Thursday, he picked the argument back up on Twitter: “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson — who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also, the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”
But what do we learn from the history of these monuments? Are they truly innocuous symbols of Confederate heritage, as their defenders argue? The facts tell us otherwise.
Almost none of the monuments were put up right after the Civil War. Some were erected during the civil rights era of the early 1960s, which coincided with the war’s centennial, but the vast majority of monuments date to between 1895 and World War I. They were part of a campaign to paint the Southern cause in the Civil War as just and slavery as a benevolent institution, and their installation came against a backdrop of Jim Crow violence and oppression of African Americans. The monuments were put up as explicit symbols of white supremacy.
The group responsible for the majority of these memorials was the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), among the most influential white women’s organizations in the South in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Honoring Confederate heroes, generals and soldiers was one of its primary objectives, and hundreds of monuments throughout the South — and beyond — serve as testimony to the Daughters’ aggressive agenda to vindicate the Confederacy. The lasting power of the mythology they created is evident today in the raging battles over the fate of the memorials: While Baltimore officials acted quickly to take down four Confederate monuments in that city Tuesday night, laws prevent the removal of such memorials in some of the states that seceded from the Union during the Civil War. Most of those laws were passed only recently, in reaction to calls to remove the monuments or change street names honoring Confederate generals.
The 1890s, when the UDC was founded and monument building began in earnest, was a decade of virulent racism across the South. Not content to disenfranchise black men, Southern whites went on a lynching spree. Ida B. Wells, the African American journalist and anti-lynching crusader, documented 186 lynchings of black people in 1893 alone — mostly men, but women and children, too. As she wrote in her account “The Red Record,” these “scenes of unusual brutality failed to have any visible effect upon the humane sentiments of the people of our land.”
Violence against blacks only increased in the early decades of the 20th century. In addition to continued lynching across the South, the Atlanta race riot of 1906 demonstrated how seriously white men took their supremacy over African Americans: An estimated 10,000 white men and boys in the city went after black men, beating dozens to death and injuring hundreds more.
Amid that brutality, the pace of Confederate monument construction quickened. The UDC and other like-minded heritage organizations were intent on honoring the Confederate generation and establishing a revisionist history of what they called the War Between the States. According to this Lost Cause mythology, the South went to war to defend states’ rights, slavery was essentially a benevolent institution that imparted Christianity to African “savages,” and, while the Confederates were defeated, theirs was a just cause and those who fought were heroes. The Daughters regarded the Ku Klux Klan, which had been founded to resist Reconstruction, as a heroic organization, necessary to return order to the South. Order, of course, meant the use of violence to subdue newly freed blacks.
During the era of Jim Crow, Confederate monuments could be placed most anywhere. Some were in cemeteries or parks, but far more were erected on the grounds of local and state courthouses. These monuments, then, not only represented reverence for soldiers who fought in a war to defend slavery. They also made a very pointed statement about the rule of white supremacy: All who enter the courthouse are subject to the laws of white men.
Monument building, and the suppression of African Americans, did not occur in a Southern Jim Crow vacuum. White Northerners were complicit, either through their silence or via the process of sectional reconciliation. Many shared white Southerners’ beliefs about what was then called “Anglo Saxon” supremacy. Northerners likened immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe to the South’s “Negro problem” and essentially turned a blind eye to the violence used to subdue African Americans.
That reconciliation took many forms during the era of Jim Crow. For instance, white audiences across the nation showed their appreciation for the South in popular culture. During the early decades of the 20th century, they bought the sheet music of “Dixie songs,” whose words glorified the Old South, by the millions. The most successful film of the silent era, “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), and the bestselling book of 1936 and 1937, “Gone With the Wind,” which also became an international film sensation, were essentially popular celebrations of white supremacy and Southern civilization.
Monuments, though, were much more tangible signs of reconciliation. The ultimate such symbol was the Confederate memorial unveiled in Arlington National Cemetery in the summer of 1914. On June 3, Jefferson Davis’s birthday, Union veterans joined Confederate veterans, and members of the Daughters of the American Revolution joined members of the UDC, for the dedication of what was billed as a “peace monument.” The “peace” may have been about ending hostility between the regions, but the monument itself honors a Lost Cause narrative that met the white South’s litmus test, as it contains images of heroic Confederate soldiers, faithful slaves and wording that vindicates their cause.
While Confederate monuments honor their white heroes, they do not always rely on the true history of what took place between 1861 and 1865. Nor was that their intent. Rather, they served to rehabilitate white men — not as the losers of a war but, as a monument in Charlotte states, preservers of “the Anglo-Saxon civilization of the South.”
Today’s defenders of Confederate monuments are either unaware of the historical context or do not care. Like generations of whites before them, they are more invested in the mythology that has attached itself to these sentinels of white supremacy, because it serves their cause.
This story has been updated since it was first published.