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.
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.
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.
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.
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.