Memory versus history: reckoning with Confederate memorials in the American South
Over the past few months, debate over the issue of Confederate memorials in the American South has been rising steadily. The city of New Orleans, Louisiana, removed four Confederate memorials after much contention across April and May. In June, the city of St Louis, Missouri, removed its Memorial to the Confederate Dead from a public park. The push for the removal of Confederate memorials gained ground after the 2015 mass shooting by a white supremacist at a Charleston, South Carolina, African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church, but the debate has been fraught with contention from the beginning.
The removal of a statue honouring Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, has become a flashpoint for white supremacists, who believe that the removal of statues and memorials relating to the Confederate States of America amounts to an erasure of history and a denial of what some see as their heritage. White supremacists held a torch-lit rally at the site of the statue, Emancipation Park (which had been renamed from Lee Park in June 2016) in May, and in July, the Ku Klux Klan held another rally at the site. Although both events were met with counter-protests and widespread condemnation, white supremacists were not deterred by such opposition and held a further rally over the weekend of 11–12 August.
The August rally has proved to be a critical moment for the American political response to the vitriol espoused by various far-right groups, and for many people, the rally and the subsequent responses, especially by President Donald Trump and his allies, has revealed the substrata of anti-Black, anti-Semitic, and anti-minority sentiment that has existed unchallenged in some corners of the country since well before the Civil War (1860–5).
At the heart of the debate are the scores of Confederate monuments and memorials that exist throughout the former Confederate states and even well beyond them; the Confederate memorial in Los Angeles’ Hollywood Forever Cemetery was only removed in response to the August rally in Charlottesville. As historical specimens, the monuments to the leading men of a failed state and the losing side of a devastating war are an anomaly; there are no monuments to Adolf Hitler in Germany or Slobodan Milošević in Serbia. A common rallying cry against the removal of monuments, and one that has even been echoed by Donald Trump, is that the removal of such physical memorials to the past effectively erases history. Such a belief amounts to a mistaken conflation between memory and history, and the distinction between the two concepts is fundamentally important.
Collective memory is an important tool in shaping a society’s understanding of its history, but that memory itself does not amount to a complete reckoning with history. Rather, memory is consciously shaped by monuments, texts, ceremonials, and other practices that a society creates to acknowledge historical people and events. By their created nature, such memories are selective, and rarely do the monuments and ceremonies designed to celebrate history paint a complete picture of nuanced historical events and actors.
The context in which monuments are created is another important aspect of collective memory that is often overlooked. In the case of Confederate memorials, the context of their creation serves to further highlight the true intent behind those physical reminders of the past. Very few Confederate monuments were erected in the aftermath of the Civil War, and in fact, Robert E. Lee himself was known to oppose such memorials, writing in response to a planned monument in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: ‘I think it wiser … not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered’.
Lee, the commander of the Confederate army, understood that monuments and memorials have the power to perpetuate the sentiments upon which movements are built, and to enshrine them in the collective memory. And indeed, many Confederate monuments were ultimately erected for just such a purpose.
From the 1890s to the 1950s, as white men cemented their control of the post-Reconstruction South by entrenching legal segregation with the Jim Crow laws, and then fought against the Civil Rights movement, sympathisers across the South erected monuments to the Confederacy, ostensibly to honour the last living Confederate soldiers. In reality, the monuments had a more nefarious purpose: they were tangible, unavoidable reminders of what the South had been capable of, and what it continued to stand for.
Removing Confederate memorials does not change or erase history, it merely changes the way American society collectively remembers the Confederacy, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and even the Jim Crow South. Allowing monuments to the Confederacy to continue to stand celebrates the racist attitudes that allowed hundreds of monuments to be erected throughout the United States in the decades after the Confederacy lost the Civil War.