Erasing History? Monuments and Memory

The year 2015 saw impassioned debates over whether to remove monuments to prominent Americans now deemed to be fatally flawed for one reason or another, as well as other monuments glorifying events now seen to be embarrassing or shameful, such as the monument in New Orleans commemorating the Battle of Liberty Place in 1874. There have been impassioned debates for and against the removal or relocation of such monuments, with at least as much heat as light being generated.

One of the claims we hear by people opposed to the removal or relocation of such monuments is that to undertake such actions is to “erase” history. Apparently, the existence of a particular monument is an explanation of history that is timeless. Such a claim betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of history, the relationship between history and memory, and the role monuments play in marking and expressing historical memory.

First, let’s remember what history is … and what it is not. History is not the past: it is a reading of the past that inevitably is also an interpretation of it. That’s right … historical narrative, however expressed, is inherently interpretive, marked by what it includes, what it omits, what it values, and what it emphasizes. There is no such thing as “just the facts” history, nor is that history “objective.” After all, in determining what facts to include, you exclude others, and an honest historian will have to admit that some “facts” are simply not recoverable. Carol Reardon reminds us of this very simple premise in her fine book exploring the Confederate assault on the Union center along Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863. What you call that charge is in itself an act of interpretation. Is it Pickett’s Charge, the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble attack, or Longstreet’s assault … or something else? As Reardon suggests, even simple questions defy easy answers. When did the Confederate artillery bombardment begin? How long did it last? How many cannon participated? What damage did it inflict? Try giving me a “just the facts” answer to any of those questions that goes beyond vague assertions and carefully qualified wording.

History is a creative act undertaken by human beings seeking to understand the past, both on its own terms and for the light it may shed on present issues … and often the questions asked by historians about the past reflect present concerns. This is evident when it comes to battlefield preservation and interpretation, for example. The Gettysburg battlefield is a narrative that’s an exercise in historical interpretation. You can see that in the monuments and markers that populate the battlefield, in the choices of what to preserve and how, and so on. Anyone who ventures there simply to learn the facts will be sorely disappointed, in part because it depends what facts one wants to learn. This became evident two decades ago when people began talking about the need to explain why there was a battle at all and what impact it had on the civilian population, black as well as white. Some people wanted to limit their understanding of “the facts” to the battle itself as an exercise in killing between two groups of organized armed men, as if it was simply a sporting contest. Yet the “sporting contest” analogy sells short one’s understanding of the importance of sporting events: a history of Super Bowl III that simply focused on the game that took place in the Orange Bowl on January 12, 1969, would be poor history when it comes to assessing the importance of that contest.

History is not erased: it is rewritten. Yes, it is revised, and it is revised all the time … because we learn more about what happened (look at the use of archaeology on battlefields such as Little Big Horn), because we have new questions to ask, because we test older interpretations that we now find wanting, and so on. Ranting about “revisionist” history misses the point that all history is revisionist (and people who rant about it do so because their particular understanding of history is now being challenged). There are interpretations fashioned by scholars who do their best to be fair and who employ evidence skillfully, and there are interpretations that are drowning in bias and incompetent displays of the the historian’s craft, so simply to say that all history is subjective simply doesn’t tell us much. It’s a bit more complicated and difficult than that.

And so we turn to monuments. Monuments reflect an interpretation of the past that in most cases meet the creators’ desire to remember a person or an organization or an event in a particular way. Take, for example, the equestrian statue of Winfield Scott Hancock on East Cemetery Hill in Gettysburg. Why is it there, and not somewhere along Cemetery Ridge, where Hancock did much to contribute to Union victory? Why did the sculptor pose Hancock as he did? Answering those questions involve how people wanted in remember Hancock as well as how they wanted to interpret his service (in contrast, few people recall that Hancock is also featured on the Pennsylvania monument not far from his scenes of greatest service on July 2 and 3).

Or take the monuments to Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr., facing each other across the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC. The Jefferson Memorial was erected during a time of Democratic resurgence in American politics where Jefferson’s reputation was on the rise, and it celebrates him as a great Democrat as well as a great democrat. Other aspects of his life were slighted or ignored altogether, as Martin Luther King, Jr., might point out. Yet the same is also true of the King Memorial. Erected at a time when Americans chose to celebrate a certain version of King as enshrined in the “I Have a Dream” speech of August 1963, it has much less to say about the Vietnam war that King came to oppose, a war remembered a short walk northwards from his memorial. We want to remember people in a particular way, and that’s that. In the future, other people may disagree, and I have no more right to claim that my interpretation should prevail because it’s “history” and to challenge it is to “erase history” than someone else does to tell me that I can’t challenge what they choose to remember or how they want to remember it because to do so is to “erase history” or is an exercise in “political correctness.” Need I remind you that Stone Mountain and Birth of a Nation are also exercises in political correctness for their time, as are the inscriptions on the monuments erected by several southern states in honor of the service of their state’s Confederate forces at Gettysburg?

Note: ranting about “political correctness” is best read as “I can’t really deal with the merits of your interpretation, so I’ll deride it largely because it doesn’t reinforce my own preferences and prejudices.”

Monuments are primarily commemorations and expressions of historical memory. As such, they are time-bound, not timeless. They are much more about the people who erected and dedicated those monuments than about the people and events they commemorate. As times change, as values change, as perspectives change, and as people change, they will view those monuments differently. In some cases, they will come to question whether those events still need be commemorated, or whether they should be commemorated in the same way. The past does not get to tell the present what to think about the past, and to defend monuments largely because they make the defender feel comfortable about their understanding of history is problematic.  Recall the addition of Confederate flags to the Lee Chapel surrounding the Valentine sculpture. That act was a revision, a re-envisioning, and a repurposing for the people who decided to augment that space. So was the recent decision to remove those flags and to restore the space to its original condition. You can’t criticize one without criticizing the other.

I have no general rule on what to do that would cover all such cases. I do have general principles grounded in the belief that memorials are expressions of the time and people when they were erected, and that they may not reflect the prevailing sentiments of everyone, then or now. They are acts of memory; the story of such monumentation is the history of memory, not of the event or person itself. Removing or relocating such monuments does not erase the history of the event or the person being commemorated; it shows that the history of memory is always evolving. If you removed every single monument at Gettysburg, nothing about the battle itself would change, any more than destroying a battlefield eradicates the history of that battle, however much it may damage our ability to understand it or remember it. But it is time to have a more serious discussion about these matters, rather than the polarizing debate that comes with namecalling and simple-minded claims about what’s at stake of what a monument really represents. Nor is that discussion limited to scholars and historians, or outsiders who want to tell other people what to do at the same time they resent being told what to do. There are far more stakeholders and constituencies involved, and is worth remembering, for example, that if the people of New Orleans put up four monuments, subsequent generations have an equal right to discuss whether they should remain. The earth belongs to the living, Jefferson once said, and past generations do not have the right to bind future generations to comply with what those past generations chose to remember about the past and how they chose to remember it.

Trouble in Danville?

One of the points of pride in the Virginia Flaggers’ efforts to put up flagpoles and raise Confederate flags all over the state of Virginia is Danville, the last capital of the Confederacy, where a good number of such flags have appeared in response to the city council’s decision to lower the flag that once flew outside the Sutherlin Mansion, where Jefferson Davis learned of the surrender of Robert E. Lee. While the city ponders what next to do (namely what to do about an abandoned gas station next to the mansion), the Flaggers have proudly populated the area with flags flown on private property. They’ve also erected a sign welcoming visitors to Danville that reminds the unwary of the town’s significance in 1865.

It now looks like Danville is fighting back.

Complaints have been filed against three of the flagpoles in town, claiming that they violate city ordinances. One report pinpoints the location of the flagpoles in question.

Although the Virginia Flaggers celebrated what they claimed were victories in Danville and elsewhere, they somehow failed to mention this event (neither did their Pensacola mouthpiece). As we’ll soon see, they might want to rethink their celebration of events in Roanoke as well.

The Flaggers Want You to Remember White Supremacy

The Battle of Liberty Place took place on September 14, 1874 in New Orleans. White supremacists, known as members of the White League, attempted to overthrow Louisiana’s Republican regime, and in so doing, attacked the city police, led by none other than former Confederate general James Longstreet, who was wounded in the ensuing clash. Three days later United States forces broke up the White League offensive and restored a semblance of order to the streets of the Crescent City.


Although the coup d’etat effort failed, many white Louisianans remembered it fondly,  and in 1891 they erected a monument commemorating the clash at the head of Canal Street.


By the middle of the twentieth century, residents of New Orleans were increasingly embarrassed with this tribute to white supremacy in the midst of their city. Efforts were made to conceal the monument with vegetation, and eventually it was removed from Canal Street. One needed to walk north of Canal Street to find it in a location near a parking lot (which is where I encountered it years ago). The  monument’s been in a relative state of disrepair, and graffiti artists and others have vandalized it more than once. New markers attempt to explain the monument in context, but that has done nothing to erase it as a point of controversy.

Currently New Orleans is debating what to do with several Confederate monuments as well as the Battle of Liberty Place monument. Despite the protests of those advocates of Confederate heritage who seek to deny any connection between the Confederacy and white supremacy, one could say that what happened in 1874 was a continuation of what had been going on in Louisiana for years … the use of violence to secure a white supremacist order (as the New Orleans riots of July 30, 1866, as well as the Colfax Massacre of April 13, 1873, and the Coushatta Massacre of August 25, 1874 suggested … the last-named served as a prelude for White League paramilitary operations the following month in New Orleans).

It was left to our favorite Confederate heritage group to deplore recent vandalism to the Liberty Place monument.

Liberty Place

It is interesting to note that the Virginia Flaggers finally admit that a monument to white supremacist violence is part of the Confederate heritage they desire to honor. Rise up Dixie, indeed.

Oh … and just so you know … Susan Hathaway lives in Sandston … so guess who posted this? Remember that the next time someone tell you that she doesn’t celebrate white supremacy. All lives matter, indeed. Tell that to the victims of white supremacist violence during Reconstruction … for those lives didn’t matter, least of all to the Virginia Flaggers.

St. Paul’s Church: Another Challenge for the Virginia Flaggers?

St. Paul’s Church in Richmond is just a block away from the Virginia State Capitol. It is but a short distance from where Robert E. Lee returned to Richmond after Appomattox and from the Confederate White House, where Jefferson Davis and his family lived.

Students of the Civil War and Reconstruction will recall that the church was the site of two events in 1865 that have made it into the history books. It was while attending St. Paul’s that Davis received word from Lee of the need to evacuate Richmond and Petersburg. Later that year Lee attended services. So did an African American, and someone who claimed to be there reported what happened next:

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In years to come this story would undergo a transformation, to the point that Lee was presented as a tolerant fellow who set an example for welcoming a new worshipper. As Andy Hall has reminded us, the original story was far different.

Now St. Paul’s is in the crosshairs of a new controversy about Confederate heritage.  As Kevin Levin has reported (here and here and here … with useful links to other discussions), the church’s vestry, after much discussion over several months, has decided to remove some of the Confederate iconography present in the church. The Richmond Times-Dispatch, which reported on these deliberations, has also endorsed the church’s decision.

Needless to say, this decision was greeted with controversy. Among those who protested were some familiar names.

In August, one notes among the commenters the following observation:

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Now, in November, guess who appears again?

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As Kevin notes, it remains to be seen whether the Virginia Flaggers will take their objections to the streets … and whether the always outspoken Susan Hathaway will be among them. There’s no evidence that the reasons that deter her from showing up once more at her old stomping groups by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts are in play at St. Paul’s. And, as Kevin suggests, this is a heaven-sent opportunity to give the cause of Confederate heritage some much needed publicity.

But the recent track record of the Virginia Flaggers suggests that they are not so committed to their cause as they might once have been. The effort to protest the InLight display at the VMFA fell far short of previous efforts to draw attention to Confederate heritage, and of course Hathaway did not act on her own call to action. This time Hathaway has no excuses not to heed her own advice.

Or perhaps they’ll just put up another flag at Danville and declare victory. After all, Jefferson Davis abandoned Richmond for Danville as well.

Confederate Heritage and Terrorism

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday Americans have again engaged in a discussion about terrorism, including a lively debate over the wisdom and the humanity of admitting refugee populations seeking sanctuary in the United States. It’s a revealing conversation, betraying barely-hidden assumptions about peoples and religious faiths.

At the same time, there is an ongoing debate on college campuses concerning whether the icons celebrated on those campuses deserve their place of honor and remembrance. Today media coverage focuses on whether Princeton University should continue to honor Woodrow Wilson, who served as president of that institution before he became first governor of New Jersey and the the 28th president of the United States. After all, Wilson promoted segregation and endorsed Birth of a Nation. “It is like writing history with lightning,” Wilson asserted after viewing the film, “and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” That the movie freely quoted from Wilson’s own scholarship must have pleased the president greatly.

These are troubling times for advocates of Confederate heritage, because a discussion of the horrors and evil of terrorism reminds us that such terrorist activity was an essential element of how white southerners defeated Reconstruction. Moreover, it stands to reason that many of these white supremacist terrorists were Confederate veterans. If we accept estimates that the Confederacy mobilized some 80% of its white male adult population to serve in the Confederate military, and that a healthy percentage of those who were not mobilized actively opposed the Confederacy, it stand to reason that white supremacist terrorist organizations drew a significant proportion of its membership from the ranks of Confederate veterans. Indeed, it was logical for such people to view their service in such organizations as an extension of their service in the ranks of the Confederate military, because both Confederate independence and the overthrow of Republican regimes and the suppression of black freedom shared the same goals of preserving white supremacy and protecting one’s way of life by making sure that white southerners would be in control of their own lives as well as of the lives of black southerners. One may be able to distinguish between the fight for Confederate independence and the redemption of white supremacist rule, but one is hard-pressed to separate them altogether.

One need not remind Americans that some defenders of Confederate heritage imitate white supremacist terrorists in their behavior. Indeed, some, such as the League of the South‘s Pat Hines, advocate terrorist acts. Other defenders of Confederate heritage honor Confederate leaders who after the war were associated with terrorist organizations, including Nathan Bedford Forrest, Wade Hampton, and John B. Gordon. Indeed, some defenders of Confederate heritage have no problem with their work appearing in antisemitic white supremacist newslettersbut you already knew that.

So, how do we address the call to honor Confederate leaders and soldiers, given these circumstances? Do we ignore what these leaders and soldiers did after the war? Do we recognize that their actions after the war were of a piece with their actions during the war? And what do we make of the warm embrace of these people (including some outright justifications of post-Appomattox white supremacist terrorism) by individuals who sometimes look as if they wished to emulate those whom they celebrate?

You tell me.


Dr. King Goes to the Mountain … Stone Mountain

There has been so much discussion lately about whether existing monuments should stay in place that we haven’t heard much about interest in erecting new ones. Word now comes from Georgia of one such effort that should attract attention: a monument to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is planned for the summit of Stone Mountain.

Specifically, an elevated tower — featuring a replica of the Liberty Bell — would celebrate the single line in the civil rights martyr’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech that makes reference to the 825-foot-tall hunk of granite: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.”

Sounds like a good idea … but there’s more. The park will also house an exhibit on the service of African American soldiers in the American Civil War. I think we can safely assume that it will focus on those men who wore blue in the fight for freedom. Sorry, H. K. Edgerton.

I’ve written about Stone Mountain here, here, here, and here. Fans of Outkast may be disappointed at the news of this new proposal, but I don’t think they’ll be the loudest voices. Haters gonna hate, as Taylor Swift reminds us. Just shake it off.

After all, southern heritage is too important, too rich, too education to be left in the hands of Confederate heritage advocates. This proposal makes Stone Mountain a more welcoming place for more people, and a place where one can weigh the forces of tolerance, freedom, and love against the forces of … well, you know.

The Decline of Confederate Heritage

One of the favorite pastimes of historians is exploring the evolution and transformation of historical memory — that is, how people remember the past. Often, in fact, people’s understanding of the past is little more than a patchwork of memories not grounded in any familiarity with basic historical narrative, let alone scholarship, but derived from various notions, many of them dated, derived from family lore, local tales, civic ceremonies, and scattered exposures to history in primary and secondary school. Some of this survives first contact with real research, while other assumptions collapse immediately or wither away as one learns more about what happened in the past. This is often the case with family history, where those stories one once heard don’t hold up very well when someone’s curiosity gets the better of them … or one discovers part of the family past that no one talked about, and not always because they were ashamed of it.

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