While cities like New Orleans, Baltimore, and Memphis have made the distinct and meaningful decision to remove Confederate monuments, more than 700 of these monuments still stand. As the future of our nation unfolds each day we must ask ourselves, are the Southern states of America willing to be on the wrong side of history once again?
These monuments are the result of an intellectual movement called “The Lost Cause,” which is a distorted version of American History that has existed almost as long as the Confederacy has not. The ideology took shape following the South’s defeat in the American Civil War, after historians like Edward A. Pollard and former Confederate General Jubal Early started preserving the Confederate cause through their writing, defending it as a “heroic defense” of the Southern way of life. The beliefs of The Lost Cause are primarily that the Confederate fight was heroic, that enslaved people were happy and/or could not take care of themselves, and that the preservation of slavery was not the root cause of the war. The efforts of The Lost Cause have been incredibly successful in facilitating a type of public “forgetting,” understood by Historians and Psychologists to be a kind of “social amnesia” related typically to populations following a difficult or trying period of their history. This rewriting and reframing of history can be attributed to The United Daughters of the Confederacy.
The UDC was founded by descendants of elite Antebellum families, who met in Nashville in 1894 to establish their organization. Their goal was to preserve confederate culture for later generations, and were able to do so as a result of their social and political standing. These women began to promote the Southern interpretation of the war as “real history,” and their efforts are prominent and pervasive across the states, some of which were not even involved in or had not been granted statehood before the Civil War. The UDC used their tens of thousands of members and their lobbying skills to pressure local governments into allowing for their Confederate monuments to be placed in public parks, along roads, and in front of important government buildings.
Most of these monuments were constructed during the UDC’s height of influence, when a new generation of white southerners had not experienced what some provocative Southerners called “The War of Northern Aggression.” So many decades after the war had been lost, children were continually being indoctrinated with the belief system that the UDC wanted them to have — memorializing the war was a personal issue and not a political one. However, these monuments stand for something much more sinister than those who lost their lives fighting for what they believed in. That’s because “what they believed in” was defying and leaving the Union, in order to preserve slavery and continue to dehumanize Black people in pursuit of free labor and the rich Southern economy.
The Journal of Ethnic and Racial Studies found that counties with Confederate monuments – specifically monuments inscribed with rhetoric glorifying either the soldiers as “heroes” or the cause as “pure” – have higher than expected levels of black–white poverty inequality. Much of the conversation surrounding the monuments has dealt with the UDC’s interpretation of the civil war, which discounts the importance of slavery and ultimately racism in the Confederate cause. Lately however, the debate has taken on new arguments from the opposing side.
Adding to the nuanced debate surrounding these statues and memorials is the Confederate states’ treason against the United States. In a manner not surprising at all, no other treasonous organization or citizen of the U.S. has been lauded to the same degree as our brothers and sisters who argued their way of life was under attack in 1861. In addition, the cost of the war on both the finances and population of the country is among the greatest in U.S. History. For such a “good” thing, this “Lost Cause” that we should evidently aim to recognize and restore does not make it easy to see what good was actually a result of the American Civil War.
As all historians know, forgetting is just as essential to the public’s understanding of history as remembering. Confederate statues only honor a part of our nation’s history, and fails to recognize the very painful way the monuments remind African Americans and minorities that there was a time in which their home city or state was willing to take up arms to make sure their slave ancestors would continue to be oppressed. If we can memoriliaze those who fought against the union holding these tenets, where are the monuments to the victims of slavery or to the hundreds of black lawmakers who during Reconstruction served to preserve the fabric of our nation? Excluding blacks from historical recognition has been the other side of the coin of glorifying the Confederacy.
The public monuments placed atop our cities have not kept up with the progress our nation has made since Jim Crow and the Dred Scott Decision. The debate unleashed by the White Supremacist riots in Charlottesville is allowing Americans everywhere to question what it is these monuments symbolize, as well as realize that the nation’s history and culture is far more complex, diverse and inclusive than our current president appears to realize.