Following the events of Saturday, August 12, in Charlottesville, Virginia and President Trump's subsequent comments, the debate over Confederate monuments in the United States has hit overdrive. Perhaps a quick recap is in order.
On Saturday, August 12, white nationalists rallied in Charlottesville ostensibly to oppose the proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in the city, but it was more of a coming out party for many members of the far right. Anyone who actually did show up to defend the monuments should have left when chants of "Jews will not replace us" and "blood and soil" began. Opponents of these white nationalists staged a counter protest, which tragically culminated with James Alex Fields, Jr., purposely driving his car into a crowd, killing one activists Heather Heyer, and injuring almost two dozen.
Far right activists rally in opposition to the proposed removal of the Robert E. Lee statue
On Saturday, President Trump condemned the "egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides" without specifically singling out neo-Nazi white nationalists. President Trump's comments were, predictably, met with derision and scorn for failing to single out theracism and violence on parade in Charlottesville. On Monday, President Trump gave a prepared speech in which he declared "racism is evil" and this time specifically singled out and denounced members of the KKK and neo-nazi groups. This, however, was seen as too little too late to many, and the furor seemed to continue. President Trump then, in a press conference on Wednesday, doubled down and returned to his original statements that there was violence on both sides.
Ironically, the "United the Right" protest and President Trump's comments have resulted in serious debate about Confederate monuments, and have accelerated the removal of many of these statues in cities such as Baltimore and Lexington, KY. Historians, many of them mentors and colleagues, have been asked to weigh in on these Confederate memorials. Caroline Jenney has supported keeping the monuments up, but with historical contextualization plaques or sings. Most historians, however, have supported removing them. In a piece for Vox, Fitzhugh Brundage had one of the best, available here: https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/8/18/16165160/confederate-monuments-history-charlottesville-white-supremacy
As many other historians and writers have pointed out, these monuments and memorials often have little to do with the Civil War and often more to do with Jim Crow and White Supremacy. The building of Confederate monuments and memorials was virtually unheard of in the immediate years after the war. It was only after the "Redemption" of the South, that is, when white southern Democrats came back into power, that monument building began in earnest. As Fitzhugh Brundage has pointed out, these monuments are odes to white supremacy. They glorify the Cult of the "Lost Cause," which whitewashes the role of slavery in the conflict and instead emphasizes the federalist constitutional issues of the war: such as states rights. But more seriously, these statues were erected years after the war during the Jim Crow Era. The Robert E. Lee statue was erected in 1924. This was a time when racial segregation was widespread, and they were often a reminder to black southerners that they did not have claim to public space in the South.
Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia
At the very least, we must contextualize these memorials and statues, so that the public knows they have very little to do with the Civil War, and much more to do with white supremacy, Jim Crow and the Lost Cause myth. But I support communities who decide that they want to remove these statues from their public space. New Orleans is a good model for how to do this. The city held numerous public forums on this issue, with pretty widespread agreement that they wanted the statues removed, and they carried out the communities wishes. Mayor Mitch Landrieu's speech is a wonderful explanation of the process and why they opted for removal.
City of New Orleans removing their Robert E. Lee statue
Opponents of removal, such as President Trump, argue that removing statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and others could put us on a slippery slope that would culminate in the removal of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. I disagree with this argument. I believe regular Americans, who look at this with clear eyes removed from the taint of partisanship, will be able to differentiate between George Washington and Robert E. Lee. George Washington had a 25 year career of public service, including positions of Lt. General of the Continental Army and President of the United States. He was a slaveholder, but he was a slaveholder at a time when there was virtually no opposition to the institution, and he also manumitted his slaves after his death. While none of this justifies the immoral act of slavery, it adds some much needed context. Robert E. Lee had a long career of public service in the armed forces, and then committed treason in 1860, siding with the Confederacy over the United States. Many southern born members of the army, Lee's colleagues and countrymen, such as Winfield Scott, Montgomery Meigs, and George H. Thomas, remained loyal and fought for the United States. The only reason Lee was not executed for treason after the war was due to the leniency of the United States. Lee was also a slaveholder, but he was a slaveholder in a time where there was plenty of opposition to the spread of slavery, and a strong vocal opposition to the institution of slavery itself.
Moreover, many veterans of the war itself opposed Confederate memorials and statues being erected. Most notably, Robert E. Lee himself opposed the memorialization of himself and the Confederacy in the postwar years. Asked to attend the unveiling of statues at Gettysburg, Lee refused, but he went further than a simple refusal writing: "I think it wiser moreover 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 and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered."
Union veterans also, perhaps unsurprisingly, opposed the erection of Confederate monuments in the South as well. Elisha Hunt Rhodes, a Union veteran of the war who achieved moderate posthumous fame when his letters became a major voice in Ken Burns' Civil War documentary, visited the South years after the war and commented on their statues and memorials. In Athens, Georgia (where I spent several years in graduate school), he stood before the memorial to Confederate soldiers that sits in the middle of downtown. He was asked if he objected to such a monument. Rhodes responded: "Oh no...if you people want to perpetuate your shame, I care little about it. You are simply telling the story to your children of how you tried to pull down the old flag and how you failed." Rhodes went on to visit Winchester, Virginia. There he came up on a memorial to Confederate soldiers with an inscription which read that the rebel soldiers had died for liberty, constitution and country. He was again asked by a local what he thought of the statue and the inscription. Rhodes again left no doubt where he stood. "Oh...the day will come when you will put a ladder up against that monument, and you will hire a colored man who once wore the shackles to climb that ladder and efface every word of that inscription, for it is false. There is no truth in it."
Indeed, there is no truth in the Lost Cause mythology and if communities want to remove these statues and memorials from the public space, this historian is in favor of it.