Editorial: Removing Confederate Memory: How Far is Too Far?

With all the discussions in recent months about eliminating Confederate symbols such as the Confederate flag, some have called for the removal of Confederate monuments and memorials as well, everything from the local monument in the town square to the Stone Mountain carving.

It seems that the American public thinks that removing a flag and some old stone monuments will fix the racial problems of our society. While I agree that the Confederate flag has no place flying on a government building and I cringe when I interact with those Americans dead set on waving the Confederate heritage proudly in the name of white supremacy and opposition to the government, the problem is much deeper than a few symbols.  In the end, flags and monuments are just inanimate objects that people attach meanings to. The Confederate flag itself did not subject millions of people to slavery nor did it orchestrate the violent terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan; people attached that meaning to the flag and it is that symbolism that draws ire today.  Nor did the many Confederate monuments scattered across the south march into battle; they represent the thousands of southern men that fought in the war. Some Americans consider these Confederates ancestors and heroes, others see them as traitors.

It is the multiple meanings attached to symbols that get us in trouble.  To some, a Confederate monument is simply a reminder of family or local history; to others, it represents a history of oppression and treason. Some cling to the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride, while others see it as a symbol of hatred and racism. The opposing interpretations are so filled with emotion that both sides are less willing to join in conversation and find a solution together.

We fight over the symbols so much that we forget to tackle the real problem. We need to go deeper. How do we reorient our nation away from the racial inequality that has been part of our nation since the seventeenth century?  How do we break a cycle of racism and historical memory that continues to be passed down from generation to generation? We have seen great progress over the last century in fighting for racial equality, but a look at current headlines proves we still have a lot of room for improvement.

Removing controversial symbols is a start, certainly. It is almost ironic that the Confederate flag that is so controversial today is the battle flag of the Confederacy, not the national flag. If it was just a matter of celebrating the South or seeing them as traitors, the national flag (the flag that represented the newly formed government of the seceded states) should be more offensive. Instead, it is the battle flag that is waved proudly in the south and debated hotly in society.  It is this flag that holds far more negative symbolism because of its connection to the KKK and white supremacists. The flag has come to symbolize for many Americans treason, racism, and other negative sentiments. Despite its original usage, it cannot escape the symbolism that people have given it over the last 150 years. Just as it is no longer appropriate to display a swastika because of the history of Hitler and the holocaust, it is not appropriate to display the Confederate flag because of its connection to slavery, secession, and white supremacy. Period. End of story.

The Confederate flag is the easy one though. In the quest to remove Confederate memory from society, how far do we go? Do we remove all traces of the Confederacy by tearing down monuments and renaming anything that bears the name of a Confederate leader? Do we blast the carving off of the side of Stone Mountain and remove “Dixie” from the songbooks? Some argue that if Confederates are accepted as US veterans, then removing Confederate monuments would be removing tributes to American servicemen. In addition, removing the hundreds of monuments would be a daunting task, many of them beautiful works of art in their own right. Renaming schools, bridges, and other pieces of infrastructure is certainly an option too, but consider that there are lots of things in this country named after famous men with offensive pasts (do we rename Carnegie Hall because Carnegie was known for the poor treatment of his industrial workers or strike Henry Ford’s name from buildings because of his anti-Semitic views). And, finally, if we did remove the thousands of Confederate tributes around the nation, are we whitewashing history to the extent that we ignore the difficult chapters of our national past?

And our national past can be very difficult. We are somewhat unique as a country because the Southern memory of the Civil War is so ingrained and memorialized. I would take a guess that there are few places in the world where the losing side of a rebellion against the national government is so remembered, monumented, and glorified in the national memory. In addition, the later acceptance of Confederate veterans into a national story has overshadowed the fact that their actions during the war were definitely treasonous towards the United States. This makes the discussion far more difficult because this contradictory memory is so ingrained into our culture.

None of this is to say that these steps should not be taken because, as we know, symbols can be highly charged with emotion and can stand as roadblocks to progress. Use of the Confederate flag should be reserved for educational or interpretation uses (in a museum for example), and not fly above government buildings (or plenty of other places) and communities have to decide what role Confederate memory will play in the institutional names and monuments around them.  I have a personal soft spot for monuments so I would hate to see any destroyed, but I can also understand the motivation behind calls to remove them.

More importantly, though, we have to move past the symbols and tackle the real problems of society. Instead of just blindly removing reminders of the past, we need to use them as tools to open up discussion (which I am aware will be very difficult to do). Many (if not most) Americans are unware how historical interpretation has shifted in the last 150 years, even though it greatly affects how they grew up understanding the past. The process of reinterpreting the history of race, slavery, and the Civil War is already underway among academics and institutions such as the National Park Service which in the last few decades dedicated itself to interpreting slavery at its Civil War sites. We need to find ways to expand those changes to the greater public. In some places offensive monuments with difficult histories have successfully been used to educate the public on the changing interpretations of events. In others, monuments had served as rallying points for those determined to continue the Confederate legacy. The Civil War sesquicentennial also went a long way in reinterpreting the themes of the Civil War and giving museums funding and opportunities to update their interpretations, but those changes need to reach the greater population that does not visit the parks and museums.

Just like in my previous post, I do not have the answer here. I myself am conditioned by the society I grew up in and my research on the Civil War has led me to be sympathetic to memorials for both northern and southern soldiers. When you really think about it, it makes no sense how our nation glorifies a rebellion that sought to divide the nation, yet the legacy of the Confederacy is so deeply part of the American heritage that we may never truly get rid of it.  This is something that will take time and effort to fix in our society. What I do know is that really understanding the past and how it led to this point is crucial for the discussions that need to happen. Our history has brought us to this point and we need to use it to write a (positive) future.

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.