Silent Sam and the messages in our monuments

Visitors stop to inspect the campus monument dedicated to UNC alums or students who fought in the Civil War.
Visitors stop to inspect the campus monument dedicated to UNC alums or students who fought in the Civil War. Harry Lynch

Soon after arriving in Chapel Hill in 1962, about to begin a career in the English department at the University of North Carolina, I began my acquaintance with “Silent Sam.” Ohio-born, I had lived most of my youth in Michigan and had received my degrees from the University of Michigan. There had been no Civil War battles in Michigan, and I had had little familiarity with Confederate monuments save for those I encountered during a graduate school visit to Atlanta.

Now at the front of the campus, I discovered the monument commemorating the bravery of the young men of the university who in 1861 put down their books and marched off to the bloodiest war in the nation’s history. On the east side of the base, a citation praises the volunteers for heeding the call to “Duty, the sublimest word in the English language.” The citation announces that the monument was a gift from the North Carolina Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy aided by the generosity of university alumni. On the west side of the base, a woman, sword in hand, touches the shoulder of a young scholar about to take up arms.

The statue’s moniker was born because the soldier wears no cartridge box for ammunition. It did not take long, of course, before I heard the risqué explanation popular with students.

Lessons about Chapel Hill and the state, destinations I soon learned to love, came fast. North Carolina was the last state to vote for secession, and that decision came reluctantly. There were tears in Raleigh when the final vote was taken. Once committed, North Carolina would pay dearly, its casualty list the lengthiest of the states, its economy shattered.

In Chapel Hill, following the surrender at Bennett Place, Union troops kept the peace. Occupational forces inevitably distress the occupied. At the commencement exercises in June 1865, there were four students present to receive their degrees; 35 Federal soldiers stood guard. Chapel Hill citizenry seethed when the daughter of the university’s president fell in love with the presiding Union officer, and they did not hide their displeasure when the couple married.

Closed four years

But greater gloom than any caused by the wedding was ahead. Its student population base decimated by the huge mortality toll among North Carolina troops and by the necessity of survivors to return to the farms to assist their impoverished families, the university had to close its doors. It would be four long years before the bells in South Building could be tolled and the university reopened. Recovery would not be easy. Any memorial marker for the young men of the university who had marched off to defend the Confederacy would have to wait.

On Commencement Day, June 2, 1913, the North Carolina Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy presented to the university president a monument designed to give those students full honor. In accepting the gift, President Francis Venable surely believed that the UNC students who marched to war felt a call to duty, that they represented a laudable bravery. The graduating seniors and their families likely did, too, as did the alumni who had donated to the campaign. Venable would also know that the women who had worked to get the monument were honoring sons, brothers, cousins. As was Gov. Locke Craig, who delivered the commencement address.

The UNC monument came as part of a wave of public statuary commemorating the Lost Cause, a mythology that downplayed the evil of slavery, promoted states’ rights as the cause of the war, glorifying a Southern gentility. Before the 1880s, there had not been much public sculpture in the South, excepting Richmond. The Confederate capital set a high standard for commemorative statuary, in number and in grandeur. The commemorative frenzy lasted into the late 1920s. Images of the Confederate soldier and Confederate leaders became focal points in Southern towns and cities. Art critic Randolph Delehanty has judged the UNC monument and the monument to the Women of the Confederacy on the Capitol grounds in Raleigh as “fine pieces of Beaux Art bronze statuary.”

That statuary and other commemorative statuary in the South must be viewed as valued art, but also in the context of the post-Reconstruction era. The dedication ceremony during the UNC commencement in 1913 would not have found African-Americans on stage or in the audience. The ceremony that day was deeply marred by hateful racial abuse spoken by Julian Carr, industrialist and generous philanthropist. (Carrboro is named for him, as is UNC’s Carr Building.)

Probably most in attendance on that day would now be called “racist” and were not shocked or deeply disturbed. But they loved the university; they honored the memories of the soldiers who had fought for the Confederacy. They could not know, though we do, that in just a few years the UNC campus would again find young men training for war, many eager to fight for the USA. Perhaps some of those students looked at Sam and found new meaning. Julian Carr’s words on that 1913 commencement day do not define the meaning of the monument.

John Wilson, the artist who sculpted the UNC soldier, was a Canadian. His vision had nothing to do with Jim Crow realities. He aimed to portray the young soldier on the way to battle. The figure is appropriately muscular, the face expressing purpose and innocence. A few weeks ago, walking across McCorkle Place, I saw that well-meaning students had visited Silent Sam during the night. There was a mask covering his eyes. I could appreciate the gesture. Sam was fighting to preserve an evil system. Soldiers often go to war with little understanding of the issues. Soldiers often fight for a cause not in their own best interests or the interests of their families.

Our monument tells a more complex story than do most Confederate monuments. It captures a key moment in the university’s history. It tells us where we have been, how far we have come and how far we have yet to go. Sam has seen great change in the university’s demographics.

The west side of the base of the monument beautifully reminds us of this reality: Societies put pressures on young men to enlist. The Civil War was fought to preserve slavery, a system chiefly beneficial for the planter class. Some soldiers who fought for the Confederacy did not approve of slavery but decided that their duty was with their state. So we think again of the words that the UNC monument accented. When teaching a Faulkner text or Donald Davidson’s poem “Lee in the Mountains,” I sometimes suggested that the students revisit Silent Sam and read the inscriptions, and I quoted British author George Eliot: “Duty is peremptory and absolute.”

For more than a century now, the monument has been reminding students and townspeople of a catastrophic moment in the university’s history: the closing of books foretelling the losses ahead for those students and for the university. About one-third of the UNC soldiers died in the war. It is also appropriate that we recall Jim Crow’s power during the era when the monument came into being. That story also belongs to Silent Sam.

Reading hearts of others

But we should be cautious of too easily reading the hearts of the Daughters of the Confederacy or of the alumni who contributed funds for their efforts. Toppling Silent Sam or the Confederate monuments throughout the South would not be a step forward. Those monuments, all of similar birthing, are part of Southern history and should be read in all their complexity.

Our monument tells a more complex story than do most Confederate monuments. It captures a key moment in the university’s history. It tells us where we have been, how far we have come and how far we have yet to go. Sam has seen great change in the university’s demographics. Antebellum, it had served mainly the plantation class. Following each of the world wars, the base broadened, dramatically so after World War II. The GI Bill opened many doors for Tar Heel veterans, William C. Friday among them. In the 1950s, women students numbered few among the student body. That percentage would change dramatically, beginning in the 1960s. In March 1966, Silent Sam provided a striking backdrop for UNC students, men and women, assembled in large numbers to hear banned speakers Herbert Apethaker and Franklin Wilson speak from the other side of the Franklin Street wall.

On the wall today, words from student body president Paul Dickson III highlight the students’ vision and effort to help secure a freer, more open society. Sam carries some messages that the Daughters of the Confederacy did not intend. He needs to remain right where he is.

But he is in need of company – another impressive statue or monument, this one to tell the story of the first entry of African-Americans into the student body. Not until the 1960s was the university truly able to become the place “as it was meant to be – the University of the people.” I have been witness to great courage and vision from students, white and black, during the integration struggle. The path of those first African-Americans who enrolled at UNC was not easy and was often lonely. Their valor also merits commemoration. They could see what Silent Sam could not, and they made UNC and Chapel Hill a better place. Yes, Silent Sam needs company!

Joseph M. Flora of Chapel Hill is a professor of English emeritus at UNC-Chapel Hill.