The US may be one of the few countries where people who tried to destroy their nation are honored as heroes and have statues put up of them in public places. I am referring of course to the attempt by the states of the Confederacy to dismantle the Union and create a separate nation. They were defeated by president Abraham Lincoln and for a while the people who led that rebellion were viewed as treasonous. But over time, a revisionist movement sprang up that portrayed the goals of the Confederacy as not the actual one, which was to preserve slavery, which by then had become seen as indefensible, but as a fight over so-called ‘states rights’ against the power of the national government and that the leaders of the insurrection needed to be honored and not vilified. This is the ‘Lost Cause’ narrative.
The movement to rehabilitate the people who had been viewed as treasonous that had a remarkable degree of success.
While every statue in every town has a different origin, taken together, the roughly 700 Confederate monuments in the United States tell a national story. Many of these commemorations of those on the losing side of the Civil War are a lot newer than one might think.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which maintains a list of these monuments, the memorials are spread over 31 states plus the District of Columbia—far exceeding the 11 Confederate states that seceded at the outset of the Civil War.
Most of these monuments did not go up immediately after the war’s end in 1865. During that time, commemorative markers of the Civil War tended to be memorials that mourned soldiers who had died, says Mark Elliott, a history professor at University of North Carolina, Greensboro.
“Eventually they started to build [Confederate] monuments,” he says. “The vast majority of them were built between the 1890s and 1950s, which matches up exactly with the era of Jim Crow segregation.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s research, the biggest spike was between 1900 and the 1920s.
In contrast to the earlier memorials that mourned dead soldiers, these monuments tended to glorify leaders of the Confederacy like General Robert E. Lee, former President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis and General “Thomas Stonewall” Jackson.
But with the rise in protests over the killings of Black people by police, there came calls that these monuments to those who fought to retain slavery should come down. In 2020 alone nearly 100 of them were removed but more than 700 still remain.
One of the most controversial removals was the bronze statue of Lee astride his horse that stood in Charlottesville, VA, the city where we had the infamous torchlit march by white nationalists and neo-Nazis in 2017, chanting “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!” in an effort to prevent the removal of the statue.
But the statue came down anyway. The 10,000 lb sculpture was taken to a secret location, and is being broken into pieces and melted down into bronze ingots by a company whose name is kept secret for fear of repercussions from racists. Fearing trouble from neo-Nazis, very few people were allowed to witness the process but NPR’s Debbie Elliot was one of them and her account of the process is fascinating.
The process will take weeks and the next step will be to commission an artist to use the bronze ingots to create a new artwork to be displayed in Charlottesville.
You can be sure that the racists will be outraged when the new art work is installed.