Monuments to the Confederacy: How a nation copes with its conflicted past

Hunter Kaap Rencis

In what organizers termed a “Unite the Right” rally, opposition turned to violence last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, when more than a thousand people gathered under white supremacist flags to protest the removal of a statue depicting Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee, according to CBSN. 

Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal and civil rights activist, was killed leaving the site of the protest when James Alex Fields Jr., a white nationalist from Ohio, drove his Dodge Challenger into Heyer and 19 other counter-protesters before slamming into the back of another vehicle. Fields then proceeded to reverse over the injured, accelerating through the crowd that immediately encircled his car, sending one man into the air and over the back bumper, while injuring several more.

In the last year, there has been increasing outcry from citizens across the South to remove public monuments that honor Confederate leaders from the Civil War. The effort to remove these statues has been met with conflicting opposition. The debate surrounding the dismantling of Confederate statues has been subsequently and strategically harnessed by what is known as the “alt-right” movement, a mixed bag of white nationalist and anti-Semitic cohorts exemplified by neo-Nazi and other hate groups, including (but not limited to) the Ku Klux Klan and the Southern Nationalists, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Increasingly, the ill-defined alt-right political movement has summoned supporters from around the country to protest the removal of dozens of Confederate statues and inserted itself at the helm of the debate surrounding the integrity of what kind of moral values monuments like these are intended to represent. There are many Americans who do not believe in racial superiority or any other hateful creed but simply protest the removal of statues remembering the Confederacy because in tearing down the statues of Lee, Stonewall Jackson and other Confederate icons, there would be an effort to rewrite history. Similarly, others agree that an attempt to eradicate landmarks of the Confederacy is to strip the South of its heritage.

So, to get to the heart of the argument surrounding the removal of these statues of the past, instead of engaging in riots, what Americans of the present need to do is look back and reflect on the decades that followed the Civil War. The majority of Confederate statues that we see today in town squares and city parks nationwide weren’t erected until long after the Confederacy fell. The decades after the war became known as the period of Reconstruction. During this time, Southern sentiments toward slavery left over from the Confederacy would eventually give way to the era of Jim Crowe and the birth of the segregated South.

Perhaps the most significant and lasting of these Southern sentimental efforts were made by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Consisting of the daughters of former Southern slave owners, these women fought to suppress literacy among black Americans by segregating libraries and other public facilities. And in addition to also erecting hundreds of Confederate monuments, they also made a unified effort to publish and distribute textbooks across the South to further ensure their legacy was preserved for generations, according to a report by VICE News.

The framers of the Confederate Constitution, like Benjamin H. Hill, vowed under the Confederate States that “the General Government, in all its jurisdiction, is required to protect slavery.” That’s why the most tragic event in our short history came during the Civil War, when brother fought against brother for the soul of the Union. Yet, the wisdom bestowed on our nation over the last century has included two World Wars, and a Civil Rights movement. After all Americans have fought for since the end of the Civil War, is the false narrative of a Confederate legacy really one worth upholding?

It is said that the horse belonging to Lee during the war, an iron-grey Saddlebred named Traveler, would buck any black rider that tried to stable him. According to many history scholars, statues of Lee across the country, 20 feet in the air, high atop his prestigious steed, are a homage to the dominance of Southern whites. However, near the end of his life, not only did Lee himself pledge his undying allegiance to the Union he once faced in battle, but the former general from Virginia also went on to denounce the idea of building monuments intended on preserving his legacy or the legacy of any Confederate generals for the sake of future generations. 

In response to a proposal for a Gettysburg memorial, the retired Confederate general advised “… not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”