Thoughts on This Transformative Week in Civil War Memory

Confederate Monument, Thomaston, Georgia

Confederate Monument, Thomaston, Georgia

I am still reeling from the past week’s developments: the massive shift in public opinion regarding the meaning and display of the Confederate flag and other Confederate symbols. I have been studying Civil War monuments for much of the past eight years, and I have thought about Civil War memory in one way or another pretty much every day since 2010, when I finished my Ph.D. qualifying exams and began working on my dissertation. Through those years, I have often grappled with the problem of Confederate memory – as a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee raised in New Jersey, I have often had little sympathy for a cause devoted entirely to the maintenance and extension of slavery. But while I often found it difficult to immerse myself in the Confederate cause and the dark days of white supremacist terrorism that broke out after the failure of Reconstruction, I found the issues raised by Confederate monuments to be both intellectually compelling and deeply troubling.


Elbert County Confederate Monument, or “Dutchy,” Elberton, GA

My current book project, tentatively titled Army of the Dead: Civil War Soldier Monuments and the Politics of Permanence, is a step forward from a dissertation that focused on means of production and cultural resonance of nineteenth-century soldier monuments. The book will focus specifically on moments since the end of the Civil War when soldier monuments have been vandalized, damaged or altered: communities’ responses to these moments of rupture speak volumes about our nation’s continued struggle with the meaning of the war. I was first inspired to investigate this path when I came across the story of the first Elbert County Confederate Monument, erected in 1898 in Elberton, GA, and torn down by an angry populace just two years later. Pejoratively called “Dutchy” for his supposedly Germanic facial features, the statue was pulled from his pedestal in a nighttime act of mischief later characterized as a lynching, all for the crime of sullying the Confederate soldier’s memory with his pathetic appearance. For the purpose of my dissertation chapter on Confederate monuments, this bizarre tale served as a framing device, introducing the themes of political uncertainty, racial strife, and materiality that would run through my writing on the subject. But after spending some time with the story of “Dutchy,” a strange thing happened: more and more tales of deliberately or accidentally damaged monuments kept surfacing in my research. And as I worked these tales into conference papers and public talks, I found that I enjoyed working with these fractured objects, and that audiences responded to them, too. When it came time to begin revising the dissertation as a book project, it was clear that this was the direction to pursue.

Confederate Monument, Berryville, VA

Confederate Monument, Berryville, VA

And so, I have sat and watched this week’s developments with amazement. I couldn’t believe that Gov. Nikki Haley advocated for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol, or that Gov. Robert Bentley ordered the flags quietly furled two days later. I was even more shocked when Walmart, Sears, Amazon, eBay, Etsy, and even the National Park Service all agreed to pull merchandise bearing the Confederate flag. I understand the sentiments that led taggers to target monuments in Charleston, Baltimore, Richmond, and Memphis with the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” And then there have been the calls to dismantle Confederate monuments entirely – Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans is all for it, but Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts argue in another direction for the Atlantic. My astonishment at this week’s developments is not due to any affection for Confederate symbols – rather, I did not expect a sea change on the Lost Cause and its visual culture to come so immediately and completely. As a result, this week has been a wonderful and astounding time to be a historian of Civil War memory.

Elbert County Confederate Monument, or "Dutchy," Elbeton, GA

Elbert County Confederate Monument, or “Dutchy,” Elbeton, GA

I am glad to see so many Americans repudiating the Confederate flag. The prominence of this symbol has long bothered me, and I have found defenses of its use to be disingenuous at best. The recent spate of graffiti is also, in my mind, understandable. While we often think of the monuments in our public spaces as immutable, unchanging hunks of stone, little more than furniture in our civic landscapes, we must remember that choosing whom to memorialize in a town square is a political act with serious implications. Tagging a monument that could be interpreted as a symbol of oppression with a slogan naming that oppression should also be interpreted as a serious political act, not dismissed as vandalism or a meaningless prank. These monuments to Confederate leaders and the rank-and-file soldiers who supported them were not idly placed on the lawns of Southern courthouses and state capitols. They were meant to mark the most visible spaces of government power in order to further an agenda that the Civil War failed to stamp out, and any speech that aims to point this out should not be discounted. And yet, when it comes to the question of removal or destruction, I am torn. Part of this is that I am an art historian, and my training generally pushes me toward preservation. Part of it is that I have studied these monuments for years, and I have a weird soft spot for them (I certainly felt an odd attachment forming the first time I gazed into “Dutchy’s” glazed eyes). Part of it is that I know how many there are – at least 500 soldier monuments and many more statues of Confederate leaders – and I still find it hard to imagine the current climate sustaining a will to track them all down. But most importantly, I hope that if anything does happen to these monuments, that it is done through community consensus that promotes healing. If any monuments are altered or removed, I hope that it sparks a conversation that leads people to listen to one another with compassion.

Caspar Buberl, Confederate Monument, Alexandria, VA

Caspar Buberl, Confederate Monument, Alexandria, VA

Over the years, I have read about many forms of iconoclasm and removal of state symbols after the fall of a hated regime. One of my favorite is Memento Park in Budapest, a collection of Communist-era statues from around Hungary removed from their original context and placed in an outdoor museum. Here, visitors can view the visual relics of Hungary’s past. The works of art are preserved but separated from the contexts that once made them powerful, and additional installations by contemporary artists comment on the statues and on the nation’s collective memory. Visitors to the park often pose for silly photos with the monuments, imitating the statues’ exaggerated poses or performing other ironic acts. I wonder whether a strategy like this one could ever work for Confederate monuments – preserving the works of art, but allowing for education and the kind of play that robs these symbols of their power. Personally, I’d love to put bunny ears on Nathan Bedford Forrest. Could we agree on something like this? I’m not sure yet what will happen – I imagine that we will have a better idea how things will turn out once the dust settles after this incredibly emotional week. But in the meantime, I will keep watching and recording what’s happening, because this feels like a new era in our remembrance of the Civil War.

For a brief interview on soldier monuments that I recorded with Larry Mendte of “The Delaware Way” before this week’s developments, click HERE.

All photographs of Confederate monuments taken by Sarah Beetham.

My Interview on Civil War Soldier Monuments with Larry Mendte of “The Delaware Way”

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to talk about my research on Civil War monuments with Larry Mendte on “The Delaware Way,” a weekly news program that airs on KJWP2 in Wilmington and covers Delaware news. The producers had seen Chris Carola’s article on soldier monuments, for which I was interviewed, and thought it would make a good segment for the show. We taped on Tuesday, May 12. I was pretty nervous when I arrived at the studio for the taping, but everyone treated me wonderfully and I had a great experience. The segment aired over the weekend, and now I am glad to share it.

It was a little bittersweet to receive the YouTube clip of the interview on a day when Gov. Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the lawn of the state house in Columbia, S.C. and news reports surfaced that a Confederate monument in Charleston was tagged with the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” Today’s events have reminded me once again of how Civil War history and monuments remain a current part of our culture, implicated in the thorniest political issues of today. I hope to post about these developments further later in the week.

But for now, here is the interview:

New Article on the Copying of Civil War Soldier Monuments

beetham figure 1

The latest issue of Nierika: Revista de Estudios de Arte is now out, and it includes an article I wrote on the replication of stock soldier figures in the wake of the Civil War! The article is part of a special section in the new issue organized by Amanda Douberley and me addressing the ways in which sculpture is copied, multiplied, and replicated. Based on a panel we organized at the 2013 Southeastern College Art Conference (SECAC), “Sculpture’s Multiples,” the issue examines the ways in which exact multiples of sculpture can be produced through mechanical means and the implications these processes have on the theme of originality in art. The three essays are by Amanda Douberley, Leda Cempellin, and me, and they explore the changing attitudes toward replication and originality in sculpture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

My essay is titled “’An Army of Bronze Simulacra’: The Copied Soldier Monument and the
American Civil War,” and the abstract is below:

In the wake of the American Civil War, memorials to citizen soldiers who died during the conflict proliferated across the national landscape. Many of these monuments were replicated over and over using available mechanical processes to reproduce sculpture. Critics often complained that the monuments lacked originality or failed to memorialize the soldier properly. But the very formal sameness of the soldier monuments contributed to their effectiveness, connecting the statues to nineteenth-century popular culture with a visual repetition that linked local trauma with national memory. Ultimately, the soldier monument’s repetitive mimetic qualities made it a highly recognizable and legible form that continues to telegraph the enormous human cost of the Civil War.

To access the entire issue, click HERE.

Citation: Sarah Beetham, “‘An Army of Bronze Simulacra’: The Copied Soldier Monument and the American Civil War.” Nierika: Revista de Estudios de Arte 4, no. 7 (January-June 2015): 34-45.

Thoughts on Academic Book Reviews

reviewed books

Since the beginning of 2015, I have been solicited to write reviews of four recent books on American sculpture and monuments. Before this year, I had never received an invitation to write a review before, and I imagine the increase in requests might be related to my recent graduation from the University of Delaware. I have accepted all four requests, and at times I have been unsure whether this is the right step at this point in my career – for instance, Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In has suggested that early career scholars should not write book reviews at all. Certainly, I am (and should be!) spending much of this summer focused on my own research and writing projects.

But despite Kelsky’s excellent advice, I have found the process of writing book reviews quite enjoyable and rewarding for my personal growth. First of all, all of these books are closely related to my field of research, and as I work on my book, I am happy to keep abreast of the important work going on around me. Many of them are by scholars I have long respected, and I enjoy keeping up with their work. Along with this, I am glad to have the incentive to devote time to reading in my field, a pleasure that is sometimes lost in the pressures of research and teaching obligations. And the process has proved useful for my teaching portfolio as well, as I have encountered readings and ideas that will appear on future syllabi.

In addition, as I begin to consider shopping my own book to publishers, I am thinking about the materiality of books and the work of university presses in a way that was not as much on my mind when I was a graduate student studying for comprehensive exams. And I certainly enjoy receiving a free book from time to time!

All in all, while this activity may or may not have an impact on my search for permanent employment or an eventual case for tenure, I have found it deeply rewarding and useful for my growth as a scholar and educator. For now, that is enough for me.

“Bizarro” Cartoon: Soldiers on a Pigeon Statue

While I was organizing my workspace for summer writing this afternoon, I came across a clipping of a cartoon from the Bizarro strip by Dan Piraro, which originally ran on March 15, 2015:

From "Bizarro," by Dan Piraro, March 15, 2015

From “Bizarro,” by Dan Piraro, March 15, 2015

Made me chuckle all over again! My favorite thing about the cartoon is that the figures sitting on the pigeon are all the sorts that would appear on soldier monuments – this really speaks to the way in which these statues have become “part of the furniture” in a way, mostly not recognized in our day to day lives unless something drastic happens to them. Or perhaps it shows that no matter what grand ideals we have for our public monuments, pigeons will find a way to perch on them. Either way, I’m saving this one for the next time I give a public talk on my research.

To read more about the author’s thoughts on this cartoon, click HERE.

Excellent Monument News: Ulysses S. Grant Memorial Under Restoration

Yesterday I took the bus down to Washington, DC to give a guest lecture in Jennifer van Horn’s summer class, “Art and Myth of the Old South,” co-sponsored by George Mason University and the Smithsonian Institution. As I was walking from Union Station to the Ripley Center, I decided to take a small detour to visit my favorite equestrian monument of all time, the statue of Ulysses S. Grant sculpted by Henry Merwin Shrady as part of the 1922 memorial placed in front of the U.S. Capitol. But when I got there, I found the monument completely shrouded in scaffolding!

grant memorial shrouded

It seems that the Architect of the Capitol has undertaken conservation efforts to restore the appearance of the entire memorial, which has fallen into disrepair in recent decades due to exposure to the elements and acts of vandalism. I am so glad to know this is happening, as I’ve been thinking for years that this wonderful work of memorial sculpture is in sore need of attention.

For more information on the conservation efforts, go to