Rob Christensen

The complex origins of Confederate monuments

By Rob Christensen

Should Confederate monuments stay or go?

Confederate monuments on state property are something NC residents feel passionately about -- on both sides of the issue. They voice their opinions on the Capitol grounds in Raleigh, where several monuments stand
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Confederate monuments on state property are something NC residents feel passionately about -- on both sides of the issue. They voice their opinions on the Capitol grounds in Raleigh, where several monuments stand

While I was in Washington, D.C. to attend a meeting this week, wherever I walked I came across monuments to the men who conquered the South.

There were statues of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman (erected 1896), Gen. Philip Sheridan (1908), Gen. George B. McClellan (1907), Gen. John Logan (1901), Gen. Winfield Scott (1896), Gen. U.S. Grant (1924), Gen. George Meade (1927), and Admiral David Farragut (1881) among others. Many of the public spaces are named after Union fighting men – Logan Circle, Dupont Circle, and Farragut Square.

Those statues – 16 Union statues or memorials in D.C. alone – reminded me that important context has been missing from the emotionally loaded debate about Confederate memorials.

Over the past several months, it has been often stated as fact that the Confederate memorials are a product of the Jim Crow era of the South, and are therefore a symbol of white supremacy. That alone, it is argued, is enough reason for them to come down, or to be moved to some less conspicuous place. This is, at best an oversimplification, and at worse, a gross distortion.

Most of the Confederate memorials were erected between 1890 and 1920 – the same time when most of the Union memorials were built. That period is significant because 1890 was the 25th anniversary of the close of the Civil War and 1915 was the 50th anniversary.

It was also a period when many Civil War veterans were aging or dying. There was also a new nationalist fervor aroused by both the Spanish-American War and World War I that caused many people to memorialize fallen heroes.

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A few years ago, I visited the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where there are 1,300 statues, markers and monuments – more than 1,200 of them devoted to the Union cause. The statue of Meade was erected in 1895, the statue of Gen. Winfield Hancock in 1896, the New York State Memorial in 1893 and the Pennsylvania Memorial in 1910.

Because I enjoy history, I take note of statues during my trips. The gold-clad Sherman statue on New York’s Fifth Avenue, designed by famous sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was erected in 1903.

An even more famous Saint-Gaudens statue on Boston Commons, commemorating Robert Gould Shaw and the black troops he led, was erected in 1897.

This was repeated in towns and cities across the North and the South. There were so many monuments going up during this period, that the number of companies making statuary grew from four to 63 by 1915. There were Union memorials erected in 22 states.

That is why the often-repeated claim that the Confederate memorials were erected as symbols of the Jim Crow efforts to oppress black rights should be viewed with skepticism.

Certainly, the late 1890’s and early 1900’s were terrible years for African-Americans in the South, when voting rolls were stripped of black voters, strict segregationist laws were enacted, and lynchings were on the rise. It was part of a racist age around the world where it was thought that it was the white man’s right to rule over people of color – from Belgium King Leopold in the Congo, to the French in Indochina, to the Dutch in Indonesia, and the British in India.

While it is often difficult to assess people’s motivations of more than 100 years ago, critics of the Confederate monuments developed the narrative that since many of the Southern monuments were erected during the beginning of the Jim Crow era, therefore, that is proof they were racist in intent.

It is often noted that when the Silent Sam statue was erected at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus in 1913, one of the speakers, Julian Carr, made a virulently racist speech. That only proves that Julian Carr was a racist. (Silent Sam was created by a Canadian sculptor modeled after a Boston man to commemorate the 287 UNC alumni who died in the Civil War.)

The Confederate statue on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus known as 'Silent Sam' was a point of friction and protest long before becoming part of the national conversation. Here's a look at the monument's history.

There is, of course, no call to remove the countless Union monuments, across the country. Under this reasoning, one region of the country can honor the heroism and sacrifice of its forebears, but not the other.

This issue, of course, is immensely complicated by slavery and it’s a difficult Gordian knot to untie.

The issue is further clouded because the Confederate monuments have been championed by hate-mongering extremists. If you defend the continued existence of such monuments, you risk being grouped with the extremists.

That slavery was at the heart of the conflict, all but a few of the die-hards will acknowledge. In my reading of history, the average Confederate soldier was no more fighting for slavery, than the average Union soldier was an abolitionist. Men fought for various and complicated reasons – love of country (as they defined it), for family, because of peer pressure, to prove their manhood, because they were drafted, for adventure or for a dozen other reasons.

The problem with the Confederate memorial controversy seems to me not a question of right and wrong, but of conflicting rights. It is not hard to understand why an African-American would be offended by a Confederate monument if he or she sees it as a symbol of slavery. Nor is it difficult to see why white Southerners would want to honor their forebears just as Northerners honor their kin.

I have sat for months in the State Archives reading room in downtown Raleigh, doing book research, as an unending stream of North Carolinians have come in seeking more information on their long-ago relatives who fought in the Civil War. The continued intense interest of the average North Carolinian in his or her family’s involvement in the Civil War is not to be underestimated.

Unfortunately, our polarized political environment may be well suited for rallies and confrontation, but it not well suited for mediating conflicting rights.

Rob Christensen can be reached at robc@newsobserver.com or at 919-829-4532.

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