Confederate Monument Removal

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Stop messing with our United States History. If you don ‘t like our heritage, then get the hell out of our country. This message found on Facebook was printed on the background of the Confederate flag. It is a reference to the removal of statues of Confederate Generals in a number of southern cities. As if the removal of those statues is a denial that the Civil War ever took place. It is not. The majority of the public is not aware of what the monuments in question represent. If they understood the statues’ true meaning; there would be no such messages on Facebook.

As a historian I must point out that no one has yet suggested that we stop teaching the Civil War. I would be the first one to stand up against that should it happen. Robert E Lee’s tactics are still taught at West Point, Annapolis, the Air Force Academy, and the Army War College. As they should be. They are worthy of study and need to be understood. Any understanding of this nation needs to be based on an understanding of the Civil War. It defined us and opened us to all we became both good and bad things. A community in the South deciding to remove a statue of a Confederate General regardless of who that General is, is a matter for that community and any other community that wishes to do the same thing. It is not a denial of History. It is merely the recognition that society is changing.

A reasonable argument can be made that statues of Confederate Generals erected in the South after the Civil War from the 1890s-1920s were symbols of the system of Jim Crow, African-American disenfranchisement, segregation, and lynching, which were meant to keep former slaves in their place. During that thirty-year period, the Confederacy was idealized by the myth of the Lost Cause, which taught generations of southerners that the only reason the South lost the Civil War was because of the North’s superior numbers. In the twenty-first century, people in southern communities decided that they no longer want to look at those statues because of what they represent not because of a denial of history, but in recognition of it.1

The fact is the Civil War was fought over slavery not over State’s Rights or Northern aggression. Alexander Stevens, Vice President of the Confederacy, unequivocally stated the fact in March 1861. The cornerstone of the Confederate government, he said, 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 moral condition.2 The Lost Cause maintains slavery was a benevolent institution benefiting both blacks and whites. Indeed, when examined through the clouded lens of the Lost Cause the institution was a reciprocal relationship, which insured domestic peace that abolitionists threatened.3 The monuments of Robert E. Lee and others that appeared throughout the former Confederacy perpetuated that myth. Additionally, Confederate monuments to the Lost Cause supported the myths that emancipation had been a grave mistake, and Reconstruction had been driven by a vindictive desire to impose a dangerous racial equality on a prostrate white South, and that the redemption of the South by Klan violence and electoral fraud had been a heroic moment in southern history.4

The mythology of the Lost Cause was set down in history books such as Olin E. McKnight’s secondary textbook, Living in Arkansas. In that 1951 history text African-Americans were depicted as idle, penniless, lawless; they stole, plundered, burned houses and at times committed other crimes—often encouraged by carpet-baggers and scalawags in these acts of lawlessness, it pontificated, and this justified Reconstruction violence against them.5 Such a distortion of history led many white Southerners to oppose the modern Civil Rights Movement vehemently and violently. In fact, in Little Rock in 1957 the opposition was so vigorous that it actually threatened the lives of nine African-American students attempting to enter Little Rock’s Central High School. State and local government, and the National Guard could not be relied upon to either protect the students or enforce the Supreme Court’s order to end segregation in public schools. As a result, President Eisenhower had to send the 101st Airborne division to protect the lives of the nine students.

In 1961 the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) sent a group of African American and white freedom riders on buses to check the Federal Court ruling that banned segregation on buses, trains, and in terminals. In Alabama mobs attacked the travelers, burned one of the buses, and assaulted Justice Department observers. Then in 1962 the governor of Mississippi defied a court order and refuse to allow James Meredith, a black student, to enroll in the University of Mississippi. Even though the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, attempted the same thing five years earlier and failed. Attorney General Robert Kennedy dispatched Federal Marshals to enforce the law. These are just three examples of the Lost Cause myth and the monuments that perpetuated it being accepted as history.

Monuments to Confederate Generals are implicit reminders of the suppression of African-American people. The suppression continues, on March 19, 2021 the West Virginia State House passed a bill that would make it illegal to remove Confederate statues unless that removal is first approved by the state’s historic preservation office.6 If the bill passes the Senate, then city councils, universities, schools, and other organizations would have to seek approval before removing Confederate monuments in West Virginia a state born out of the Civil War. Statues of Confederate Generals were erected to support the false historical narrative of the Lost Cause, which has been discredited by historians beginning in the latter decades of the twentieth century. To understand the true meaning and impact of the Civil War on this nation the conflict needs to be examined honestly–its events have to be seen for what they were to be completely understood and appreciated. It is time for the narrative of the Lost Cause to be laid to rest. It is nothing more than a historical dead end whose existence explains more about early twentieth century society than any aspect of the Civil War.

Notes

1 Eric Foner, Confederate Statues and Our History, The New York Times, August 20, 2017, http://inside.sfuhs.org/dept/history/US_History_reader/Chapter7/Confederate%20StatuesFoner.pdf.
2 Alexander Stephens, Primary Source: Alexander Stephens on Slavery and the Confederate Constitution, 1861 | United States History I, accessed April 9, 2021, https://courses.lumenlearning.com/ushistory1os/chapter/primary-source-alexander-stephens-on-slavery-and-the-confederate-constitution-1861/.
3 Christopher A. Graham, Lost Cause Myth, The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook, May 13, 2020, https://inclusivehistorian.com/lost-cause-myth/.
4 Graham, Lost Cause Myth.
5 Fred Arthur Bailey, Free Speech and the Lost Cause in Arkansas, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly 55.2 (1996): 143.
6 Zack Harold, West Virginia Republicans Seek to Criminalize Removal of Confederate Statues, The Guardian, April 8, 2021, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/apr/08/west-virginia-republican-bill-confederate-statues.

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