Material Culture and the Confederate Monument Debate

As the fall semester began, rolling in off an eventful August,  I asked my students on the first day of class what they would say the major events were in the U.S. in the past month.  Even as Hurricane Harvey was still devastating Texas, and social media had just recently been flooded with everyone’s eclipse pictures, jokes, and reflections, their response was sobering.  They replied, “Charlottesville...Charlottesville...and Charlottesville.”

In the wake of Charlottesville, many people expressed shock that such hatred was alive and well in 2017.  This is somewhat surprising, because it does not take a particularly engaged person to know that rhetoric in the United States, and issues related to race, are nothing short of explosive, divisive, and devastating.  For those of us here at Civil Discourse who have worked at various Civil War sites, we can further attest that the ideas expressed at Charlottesville are not new.  While they were never particularly prevalent (or at least as visible), we have all had those conversations with visitors who have a twisted view of the Confederacy that goes beyond the Lost Cause narrative of the war to claims such as Lincoln was a tyrant and something akin to the antichrist.  Until recently though, those views were more likely to be expressed in one-on-one conversations rather than in decidedly public settings.

History, of course, is always with us.  And memorials in particular are a battleground of clashing identities, a place where commemoration is far more about making claims in the present than about accurately describing the past.  As such, I think it is important to remember the basics of Civil War memory, in particular, as we continue to debate the presence of Confederate monuments and their representations. In the end, we do not need to debate what kind of a man Robert E. Lee was.  While some certainly find that important on a personal level, his statue is indicative of a larger misunderstanding of what monuments did and continue to do in public space, not whether or not he was a good person.

Yes, I said that.  What monuments - inanimate objects - do.  They have a function, and a purpose, but more than that, they do things.  What we often fail to consider is that the work that they do depends upon the viewer, on the particular circumstances of their encounter, and that just because that experience might differ from person to person does not mean that one is any less real and legitimate than another.

Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia

Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia

In the case of Confederate monuments though, there is a long history that tells us much about the work those representations were intended to do.  One of the most common arguments in the current debate is that to remove Confederate monuments is to “white-wash” U.S. history.  The problem with that statement is that the monuments themselves white-washed history long before we ever got around to considering them.  Their very construction sought to eliminate the undecided legacies of the Civil War, to erase the hard questions from the narrative, to quite literally white-wash complicated outcomes.

There are a lot of reasons for this, and the South is not solely to blame.  To oversimplify what was a complex reality, the Union army did not originally go to war to end slavery, but the Confederacy seceded to protect slavery.  As Union policy shifted increasingly towards emancipation, it did not always do so with the full support of the Northern public.  Lincoln, ever the skillful politician, tread a precarious line between doing what was right, and ensuring he could get the support for the war effort that he needed.  In the end, we know, slavery ended.  Emancipation was the war’s greatest accomplishment, even if it was not necessarily its original goal.

The Civil War wrecked the United States and brought destruction primarily to the South, but also to the North.  Northern families lost sons too, and militarization of the home front meant that violence extended far beyond lines of battle.  It is perhaps no surprise then, that when the war was over, people were unwilling to wrestle with the implications of the United States’ deadliest war.  Though eventually the 15th Amendment would enfranchise millions of former slaves, it also enfranchised free African-Americans in the North whose voting rights had been revoked well before the outbreak of war.

It is also no surprise then, that both sides tacitly agreed to forget the racial implications of the war.  To forget to really consider what freedom meant. As historians have skillfully illuminated, some kept the memory of emancipation alive, but the majority of Americans were happy to avoid thinking about what equality should look like.  Becoming citizens, gaining the right to vote, did not mean equal rights. 

Monuments are a reflection of this as well as a reflection of the growing dominance of the Lost Cause narrative that asserted that slavery had nothing to do with the war, that the antebellum South was a bucolic place of mutual affection, and that slavery was not a system predicated first and foremost on violence.  Obviously, I cannot speak for each and every monument.  Different committees, veterans, and “ladies’” groups constructed monuments in particular places, at particular times, with particular motives ranging from grief to indignation.  But broadly speaking, the cumulative result was a memorial landscape that reflected ideals such as honor, sacrifice for cause, and protection of home and said nothing about the darker reasons soldiers met on battlefield after battlefield.  Moreover, monuments were a material reflection of the push to reassert racial and social hierarchy on the South.  By depicting certain people, and certain interpretations of the past in public spaces, monuments asserted who had a voice in the body politic.  They laid claim to a triumphal American past, and imposed a closed vision of whose stories mattered in that past. 

Now, more than 150 years later, we have the opportunity to think critically about these monuments and what role they should and should not play in public space.  Some might say that current issues of white-supremacy or systemic racism are unrelated to monuments that took shape 100, or even 150 years ago.  But they are.  We have inherited a memorial landscape that reminds us of our uneasy relationship with race, and the ways in which we, as Americans, have chosen to remember our triumphs rather than see them as imperfect victories. 

I would also add that we need to look at more than just monuments.  Civil War memory is everywhere, and that is why it is so important to interrogate whether or not we are still choosing to selectively remember that past.  Street names.  Elementary schools.  Military bases.  And even less obvious places.  For example, Clingman’s Dome, the iconic observation tower in the middle of Great Smoky Mountains National Park - the most visited National Park in the U.S. - is named after Thomas Clingman, a Confederate general. 

Clingman's Dome observation tower in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Clingman's Dome observation tower in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

To be clear, I am not advocating for a complete overhaul of each and every object, space, or place that is named for someone related to the Confederacy.  But I am not advocating against it either.  More than anything, I think we need to think critically about our past and about what messages we want to inhabit our public spaces.  What do they tell us?  What do they not tell us?  What do they say about who or who does not have a place in our shared history?  Do we still agree with those ideas?  If so, why?  How far, if at all, have we moved beyond exclusionary history?  If we want to rename things, does that really solve the problem?  If not, how can we better address these issues? 

As historians, and as public historians in particular, we are loathe to lose objects that can tell us so much about the past.  We realize that those who designed, constructed, and consecrated the Confederate monuments that now pepper our world had visions of the past that do not match our own -- and we know that as such, they are useful tools for talking about and studying the past.  What I think, sometimes we fail to consider though, is that adding a plaque or contextualizing a monument does not inherently alter the object’s meaning.  It does not stop it from dominating the landscape and making a claim about whose story belongs in the middle of our shared spaces.  They continue to exclude people and they obscure historical realities.  And they continue to take up space to the exclusion of other potential visions of our collective identity.  Thus we also need to remember that the monuments we build, the sites we preserve, and the places we name are never just about history.  They are and have always been about who we imagine ourselves to be in the present and what we want to be, as a community, in the future.  So I would suggest that one of the most important questions we need to consider as we move forward with the monument debate is whether or not these objects best reflect the elements of our collective identity that we want to perpetuate.  Is this who we are today, and is this who we want to be in the future?

Becca Capobianco received her M.A. in U.S. and public history from Villanova University and is currently a Ph.D. student at the College of William and Mary. She also works as a park ranger and has served as an educational consultant for the National Park Service.  ©

Sources and Suggested Reading:

On Civil War Memory and Commemoration:

Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: the Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.

Blair, William A. Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865- 1914. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Fahs, Alice and Joan Waugh, eds. The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Neff, John R. Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2005.

Janney, Caroline E. Burying the Dead but not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations & the Lost Cause. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Janney, Caroline E. Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

Harris, M. Keith. Across the Bloody Chasm: The Culture of Commemoration among Civil War Veterans. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014.

On cause of the war and the evolution of emancipation policies:

Brasher, Glenn David. The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation African Americans and the Fight for Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Manning, Chandra. Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War. New York: Penguin Random House, 2016.

Masur, Kate. An Example for all the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

McCurry, Stephanie. Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.

On politics and social conflict before the war:

Cimbala, Paul A., and Randall M. Miller. The Great Task Remaining before Us: Reconstruction as America’s Continuing Civil War. New York: Fordham University Press, 2010.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Vintage Books, 2008

Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863-1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

Foner, Eric. Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and its Legacy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.

Merritt, Keri Leigh. Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Richardson, Heather Cox. The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the post-Civil War North, 1865-1901. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.