Anti-racist activists say that UNC-Chapel Hill’s “Silent Sam” and other statues honoring Confederate soldiers memorialize the fight to preserve slavery and are symbols of resistance to racial equality. As such, they offend contemporary morals and should be relegated to museums or scrapped.
But if the only thing the statues memorialized was the defense of slavery, or if all they did was exalt white supremacy, they would have fewer defenders, and it would be easier to get rid of them.
What the statues also memorialize, even celebrate, are manhood and militarism. This is why Confederate statues can be found not only in the South but in some Union states as well. It’s also why the statues have such staying power. They visually echo today’s insistent demand to “support the troops.”
Those who want to keep the statues in place are partly right when they say that the statues aren’t about slavery but about recognizing men who fought honorably to defend their home states. In this view, memorials to Confederate soldiers are no more celebrations of slavery than memorials to those who died in the Vietnam War are celebrations of capitalism. The morality of the system being defended is to be distinguished from the sacrifice and valor of the soldier.
In this breach between the virtue of the soldier and the ignobility of the cause lies another meaning of the statues. Men are honorable, the statues say, when they take up arms to fight and kill others at the behest of their leaders, even if those leaders and the system at stake are morally corrupt.
Political and economic elites need to reinforce this message about the links between manly honor, duty and war. Young men of each new generation must believe they will be revered for their willingness to commit violence on behalf of the state. If this belief does not take root, elites can muster no armies to fight their wars.
Defenders of the statues, both neo-Confederates and their pundit allies, inadvertently make the same point. They say, correctly, that most Confederate soldiers were not slave owners and did not fight to preserve the wealth and ease of the planter class. Yet fight and die they did—for a class that elevated them only slightly above their unfree, darker-skinned neighbors.
The ordinary soldiers memorialized by Silent Sam and other Confederate statuary became fodder in a power struggle between agrarian and industrial capitalists. As Confederate officer and North Carolina Gov. Zebulon Vance put it, the conflict was “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”
This is the truth that is obscured when the statues are seen as only about honorable sacrifice, on the one hand, or about white supremacy, on the other. Many memorials to dead soldiers hide similarly tragic truths about who benefits and who pays for war.
To make this point is not to deny that the statues serve a different purpose for the families and descendants of those whose deaths are memorialized. Ennobling these sacrifices makes them bearable and provides comfort. Perhaps the more dubious the cause, the more important the comfort.
Proposals to relocate and contextualize the statues raise the question of what kind of information should accompany them. What shall we say to future generations?
If we say that, once upon a time, white people, not knowing any better, fought and died to defend a society based on enslavement of people of African descent, how will we account for “not knowing any better”? Can we add that young men went to war because older, richer men led them to believe that fighting to preserve an oppressive system was their duty and would make them heroes?
Perhaps if that information accompanied all war memorials there would be fewer new wars to memorialize. It would diminish the power of dishonest and reckless politicians to send young people to their deaths. Instead of supporting the troops without question, more people might ask whose interests the troops are supporting. About these matters, Sam remains silent, but in service to humanity, we should not.