[SC] Yes, Confederate Statues are Racist

Unless you have been living under a rock, Confederate Statues in the United States have become increasingly politicised over the past several years in the wake of fresh racial wounds and divisions. Opponents to these statues claim that they are racist and deserve no place in public squares and national, state, and communal veneration. Defenders of the statues argue that they represent tangible evidence of the Civil War historical period and that removing them means we will forget our history about the war. Other defenders of the statues recite white supremacist slogans, arguing that removing the statues is tangible white genocide.

Public historians in the past several years have examined the problem and have come up with some interesting analysis of the history and contexts of these statues. I will use a few examples of recent statues taken down in Baltimore, Maryland, from near where Sandus is located.

In April 1861, after several states had seceded, Southern and Eastern Marylanders—those who owned slaves—advocated for Maryland’s secession from the Union. The governor at the time, Thomas H. Hicks, called a special session of the legislature, but it voted overwhelmingly (53-13) to remain in the Union. Later that year, in September, the Federal government declared martial law, disbanded the state government, and withdrew the right of habeas corpus in Maryland—a still controversial and unconstitutional move.

Key to this issue is the debate over memory and history. While memory and history often go hand-in-hand, memory is not the same as history. We remember events differently from how they happened, and tend to make history one-dimensional when, in fact, history is complex and complicated. This seems to have been the case with how contemporary people see the statues. They appear to us as remembrance of the war itself, when they are in fact artistic symbols. They are “receptions” of the war and people’s later memory of the war, not symbols of the war itself. They are realistic idealisations of what the war meant.

Image by Jerry Jackon of the Baltimore Sun, after protesters doused the statue in red paint.

Take, for example, the Spirit of the Confederacy statue, also known as the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument, in Baltimore. The statue depicts the goddess Victory holding up a dying Confederate soldier, the CSA’s battle flag falling toward the ground, and the goddess crowning the soldier with glory. The base of the monument reads Gloria Victis, “Glory to the Vanquished”—I am sure other ancient historians appreciate the irony of the text! They will know that gloria never goes to the vanquished—it is always vae victis, “woe to the vanquished.”

There are many problems with thinking that these statues are the history of the Civil War. First, they are not history of the Civil War. The history of the Civil War involves battles and battlefields, real physical strife, not statues extolling the onlooker’s memory. Second, these statues were not produced during the Civil War or even after.

Many historians have recently pointed out, however, that these statues were constructed and placed in public during the post-Reconstruction period, when segregation and Jim Crow laws were replacing the integration of freedpeople during Reconstruction. They belong to the resurgent, idealised memory of the “Lost Cause of the South” (i.e., white supremacy) and to Plessy v. Ferguson, which made segregation and the legal practice of “separate but equal” the law of the land. They belong, in other words, not to the history of the Civil War, but to the history of a resurgent, pernicious racism in the United States.

Lee-Jackson Monument.
Image by A. Aubrey Bodine, 1948, held by the Maryland Historical Society.

For example, the Lee-Jackson memorial, which was taken down quietly in Baltimore early Wednesday morning, was erected in 1948 by J. Henry Ferguson, whose father was a friend of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. It depicts the two generals, Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson riding horses, an art historical tradition reserved for victorious generals.

The Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument, the one mentioned above, was erected in 1902, more than 37 years after the war ended. It was erected by the Maryland Daughters of the Confederacy—a group, like other “Daughters of the Confederacy,” which promoted the “Lost Cause” idealism. Maryland, moreover, a border slave state divided between staying in the Union or seceding and joining the Confederacy, contributed some 30,000 troops to the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia; more than 80,000, however, decided to join the Union army.

Statues are not the only public symbols which were used as tools to further the notion of white supremacy in the segregation period. Before the political debate was about statue, it was about the CSA’s battle flag. This symbol, which is not the flag of the Confederate States of America, saw a resurgence during the Civil Rights movement and the onset of desegregation. Between Reconstruction and up to the 1950s, the battle flag was not a public symbol. But, with cases like Brown v. Board of Education, the flag was out in broad daylight being waved for the first time since the Civil War. As Becky Little has put it, the flag’s popularity and tool as a symbol “has more to do with the Civil Rights Movement than the Civil War.” It was a used then, as now, as a racist symbol against integration and for segregation.

Even phrases and alternative names for the Civil War, like “War of Northern Aggression” and “War between the States,” absolve the South from responsibility for waging a war for slavery. “Northern Aggression” has become a euphemism, when it was in fact the Confederacy which fired the first shot of the war. Some argue that the war was about “states’ rights”—but they forget that it was about states’ rights…to own slaves and to be slave states. Slavery and the preservation of slavery was the key objective and cause for the war.

Some argue that removal of these statues from public veneration will mean that people will forget about the history of the Civil War. That is an interestingly fallacious argument, especially since—even though visible signs of Nazi Germany, Tsarist Russia, or the Roman Empire may remain in ruins or may be utterly destroyed—we still know much about subjects of history which have since “disappeared.” Furthermore, many—especially the protests who advocate for the monuments to be removed—have advocated for their conservation, not their destruction. Current plans for the statues recently removed in Baltimore include donating them to museums, historical societies, and even Confederate cemeteries. These monuments are not necessarily being destroyed: they are being removed to more appropriate public settings, and out of the place of public veneration because of their segregation history. They are being put into museums as testament to the Civil War, of which the monuments sought to venerate and alter memory, and as testament to segregation and racism.

Therefore, if you think that destroying post-Civil War monuments which venerate the “Lost Cause of the South” means we will forget our history, then I would recommend you pick up a book and engage in that history, not its faulty memory. History, historical knowledge, and memory do not fade so instantaneously, but racism lingers.

C. Soergel Publicola

This article relied significantly on Cindy Kelly’s Outdoor Sculpture in Baltimore: a historical guide to public art in the Monumental City.