In my last post, I proposed a look at the present-day conflict over removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces as a way to explore both the objective history of, and the widespread beliefs about, the American Civil War in the context of today’s culture. A little homework has convinced me that, like some other projects recently, this is no small endeavor. In fact, the smart thing to do would be to admit pre-emptive defeat and move on to explaining something relatively simple like quantum computing.
But, having started on some research, let’s go with the monument issue for a while. There’s a lot to learn. Let’s start with 3 questions:
1. When were the public monuments built? We need to explore the social and political context that fostered a flurry of Confederate monuments in public spaces across the South.
2. Who built them? With this question, we want to understand who organized the community; who obtained the land and the permits, and who paid for the materials and labor?
3. And finally, why?
After Lee surrendered to U.S. Grant, on April 9, 1865 and Johnston surrendered to Sherman on April 26, the Civil War effectively ended. The confusion of Reconstruction consumed another dozen years, only to be followed by almost a century of Jim Crow laws, mandated segregation, and the “separate but equal” travesty of Plessy vs. Ferguson.
Against that political backdrop, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and Confederate veterans’ organizations took up the burden of vindicating the defeated South through the conscious, purposeful promotion of the “Lost Cause” myth. (The UDC itself grew from at most 4000 to almost 30,000 women between 1894 and 1904.)
The Lost Cause had three central themes. First, the “War Between the States” occurred when patriotic Southern states took up arms to defend states’ rights. Second, in the ante-bellum South with its “peculiar institution,” Black slaves had been happy and content with life under benevolent, patrician masters. And third, after a gallant, chivalrous conflict the forces of the South were overwhelmed by the vast armies and brutal strategies of Grant, Sherman and Lincoln.
From roughly 1880 to 1910, construction of grand monuments in public spaces played a central role in making the Lost Cause myth the primary “true history” of the war in the South; it was taught in the public schools from “approved” textbooks, related to the public by Memorial Day speeches, celebrated with the birthdays of Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, and Jefferson Davis, and symbolized by the unveiling of statues of these and other Confederate heroes. Looking back on the development, spread and acceptance of the Lost Cause mythology, it’s difficult to see it as anything other than a vindication of whites, by whites and for whites. There were, after all, laws to enforce segregation and to disenfranchise Black voters; if the laws failed, there was the Ku Klux Klan and the lynch mob.
As the Confederate veterans and subsequently the first generation of the Lost Cause proponents passed away, the Lost Cause and the dramatic Lee, Jackson, and Davis monuments became part of accepted white culture. Never mind that the memories of moonlight and magnolias, banjos and happy darkies and gallant patrician horsemen had been fabricated to justify a pro-slavery armed rebellion against the United States costing 600,000 lives, led by scores of West Point graduates who broke their vows and betrayed their country. Public attention, white public attention, turned to the Spanish-American War and then to Europe and the horrors of World War I.
But what did those monuments symbolize to the Black generations who grew up with them? Come back for another post, and watch for news about the reorganization of rmillsmd.com and theweeklypacket.com.
Karen L. Cox. Dixie’s Daughters. The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture. University Press of Florida, Gainesville. 2003
Mitch Landrieu. In the Shadow of Statues. A white Southerner Confronts History. Penguin Books, New York. 2018