The question of preserving Confederate memorials
This article is the second in a series. For part one, see Memory versus history: reckoning with Confederate memorials in the American South
In spite of ongoing debates, the historical community has largely reached a consensus: the Confederate States of America were founded to perpetuate slavery and other injustices against African Americans. Southern secessionists proclaimed as much in the 1850s and 1860s, for all the talk of states’ rights that some apologists emphasise in the present day. In 1861, Alexander H. Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate States of America delivered what has come to be known as the Cornerstone Speech, which laid out the causes for the secession of fifteen southern states to create the Confederacy, and in it, Stephens explicitly said, ‘our peculiar institution African slavery … was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution’. Furthermore, Stephens proclaimed that the 1776 Declaration of Independence ‘rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error’. The Confederacy, Stephens announced, ‘is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition’.
Hundreds of thousands of men and women died in the Civil War, which ultimately upheld the idea that all men are indeed created equal and ended the institution of slavery in the United States, but the conflict could not change hearts and minds throughout the country, and the legacy of this vitriol has existed, at some times more visible than others, into the present day.
Although preservationists are usually quite conservative when it comes to the destruction or removal of historic monuments, there is consensus on this issue. The National Trust for Historic Preservation released a statement calling on local communities to examine alternatives for their Confederate monuments and to ‘re-contextualise’ any monuments that remain ‘to provide information about the war and its causes, and that change are done in a way that engage with, rather than silence, the past–no matter how difficult it may be’. James Grossman, the president of the American Historical Association, has expressed similar sentiments to the press.
For many of the memorials that exist, the only context they currently have is the circumstances in which they were erected, which were times of racial persecution and entrenched segregation that made Black Americans into second-class citizens. Although the Confederate monuments purport to celebrate the military sacrifices and heroism of Southern secessionists, in truth they stand as defiant memorials to the segregationists who erected them.
Removing Confederate monuments, or at the very least, re-contextualising them with information that emphasises the racist, oppressive origins of the Confederacy, cannot and will not erase history. The history of the Civil War, its precedents, and its aftermath is well known and well documented, and historians will no doubt continue to research and interpret this contentious era in American history well into the future. Removing or re-contextualising Confederate monuments can change the collective memory of the Civil War, and as the recent vitriol surrounding the issue has made clear, a change in American society’s collective memory of the Civil War may well be in order.
The Confederacy lost the Civil War, and slavery was outlawed. Any heritage people presume to claim from the Confederacy is empty, for the Confederacy was not founded on a desire to protect ideals of liberty or a fundamental belief in states’ rights (two commonly-cited legacies of the Confederacy), but on the assumption that Caucasians were a superior people who had the right to enslave other races. This is also the fundamental difference between monuments that honour men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and those that honour men like Lee and Stephens. Although Washington and Jefferson were slave holders, and had flaws that rightly deserve mention alongside their accomplishments, they were seeking to create a nation that strove for unity and equality, while from the beginning, the founders of the Confederacy acknowledged disunity and inequality as their raison d’être.
The United States is not a post-racial society, and there are important conversations to be had regarding the legacy of the Civil War and the Confederate States of America, but allowing the monuments and memorials to continue to stand unchanged from their present form does not further thoughtful debate on the issue. History will not be erased by the removal or reinterpretation of Confederate monuments, and public spaces will not be made less beautiful by their absence. Instead, American society must acknowledge the complicated processes and motivations that lead to the formation of collective memory, and from there, work to reform society’s collective memory of the Civil War era from a more accurate understanding of that period’s history and legacy.