The Rise and Fall of Confederate Memorials

Copyright Adam Fagen

Copyright Adam Fagen

It’s been a momentous month in the long, sad history of race relations in the United States.  In the aftermath of the tragic killings of nine black parishoners in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol on Monday.

“For those who wish to show their respect for the flag on their private property, no one will stand in your way,” Haley said. “But the Statehouse is different, and the events of the past week call upon all of us to look at this in a different way.”

On Thursday, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley ordered four Confederate flags be taken down from a Confederate memorial at his state’s capitol.  Throughout the U.S. South, protests to Confederate memorials seem to be growing louder by the day.  Students at the University of Texas at Austin continue to protest the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on that school’s campus.  Yesterday in Richmond, Virginia’s Hollywood Cemetery, where Jefferson and 28 Confederate generals were laid to rest, Davis’ monument was vandalized.

As many of you who follow my blog regularly already know, I’ve spent the past few years working on the documentary Dixie, which chronicles the history of protest surrounding the South’s anthem.  One of the most glaring realizations I came to during filming was that the specter of the Confederacy is still very much alive in modern America–and these battles have been fought generation after generation.  The Lost Cause, the name given to the religion-like devotion displayed by proceeding generations of southerners towards their Confederate ancestors, is still alive and well.

One of the most visible symbols of the Confederate legacy stands in the heart of the United States.  In Washington D.C.’s statuary hall stands a1931 Henry Augustus Lukeman sculpture of Jefferson Davis, donated by Mississippi.  Each state in the Union is allowed two statues in the hall.  In all, 11 of the 100 people featured in the hall have ties to the Confederacy.  Just the idea of a Davis statue in Washington D.C. was enough to cause protest in the early 20th Century.  In 1910, after hearing that such a statue was being discussed, Union veterans protested the move.  Members of the Grand Army of the Republic post in Tiffin, Ohio, petitioned congress to stop the move.  Protesting Confederate symbols goes back even earlier.

The June 18, 1902 issue of The New York Times features a lengthy response to an addresse given by Charles Francis Adams to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at the University of Chicago.  Adams, who commanded the 5th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry during the Civil War, said that someday Americans would have a calm, academic approach to Civil War history.  He told the Phi Beta Kappa Society that someday Confederate General Robert E.  Lee might even have a monument in Washington D.C. overlooking the Potomac.  The Times gave a definitive response:

“The treason of the Southern rebels in which Lee became a reluctant accomplice was entered into to defend and establish the right of succession and slavery, twin curses to the country which could never be safe from destruction until they were destroyed.”

The article continued:

“The success of their cause would have yielded at the very best two nations doomed to be forever second-rate and endangered by mutual hate and jealousy.”

Thes battles have happened before and they will, no doubt, happen again.  As Americans, we live with the ghosts of the Civil War in a myriad of ways every day.  As new battles over Confederate imagery are waged, how we fight those battles becomes as important as why we fight those battles.  If we are a noble people, if we are the sons and daughters of strong, resilient slaves, of gallant southerners, and idealistic northerners–if we are the nation of Lincoln offering ‘malice towards none,’ then the solutions to these divisive symbols can be found through reason and understanding.  Maybe reasoned debate outlasting violence isn’t a lost cause.

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