Confederate War Memorials: Perspectives on Confronting the Past

Reigniting a debate over the morality and necessity of monuments

Published over 2 years ago in North America and Opinion

confederate memorials confederacy american history

800px jefferson davis slave owner

The debate over removing Confederate war memorials is in essence a debate between preserving history and recognizing the atrocities of slavery

It is often said that to deny one’s past is to deny oneself. This phrase strikes a particular chord at the current juncture in American history, as the debate over removing Confederate war memorials continues to polarize the nation. 

The Civil War was fought over many contentions: state sovereignty, economic differences, controversial Supreme Court rulings, etc. But, undeniably, the Civil War was most notably fought over slavery. And this is where the controversy arises. True debate over these monuments was first ignited in the wake of the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. White supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African-Americans in a Charleston church, citing his motive as the start of a “race war.”  

Since the shooting, the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified approximately 1,503 places and symbols named after Confederate leaders and/or soldiers. Of these, 718 are monuments or statues. These monuments are divisive figures to different groups across the nation. Some see the recognition of Confederate soldiers as a celebration, or at least a reminder, of Southern heritage and history. On the contrary, civil rights activists find these monuments and statues to be offensive, as a constant reminder of institutional racism and segregation. 

Within the two opposing views on the significance of the monuments, there are three prominent proposals as to what should be done about the issue. The first is to remove and destroy all statues relating to the Confederacy. Americans in support of this proposal view the monuments as antithetical to abolitionist ideas and values. 

The second, coming from the opposing camp, proposes taking down the monuments as well, but subsequently selling them to private collectors or museums instead of destroying them. This may be seen as a middle ground between preserving history and acknowledging the atrocious institution of slavery for which Confederate soldiers fought. 

The last proposal stands diametrically opposed to the first position: keep all the monuments and statues as they are in a fight not to “erase” history. President Trump aligns with this group of people, as he is adamantly against the removal of Confederate statues. In a series of tweets, Trump called this act “foolish,” called the monuments “beautiful,” and stated that any removal of a Confederate statue “ripped apart” the history of our country. Trump also presented a slippery-slope argument, asking if statues of Washington and Jefferson were next to be taken down. This type of argument is extremely common amongst those who oppose removing the monuments because they see that prominent historical figures as Washington and Jefferson were also slave owners. However, some find this argument baseless, as monuments of those leaders were erected not to honor their slaveholding or defense of slavery like Confederate monuments were, but rather for their vast accomplishments and advancements for America at its founding. 

On all sides, this debate has seen a renewed energy since the events in Charlottesville on August 12th, where a white nationalist rally erupted in the city and resulted in casualties. Violence quickly ensued, as a car being driven by 20 year old James Alex Fields Jr plowed into a group of counter-protesters, including protester Heather D Heyer, aged 32, who later died as a result of her injuries.

In the days following, two Confederate statues, that of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, were covered in black tarp to mourn Heyer’s death. 

In the aftermath of the subsequent investigation in Charlottesville, it appeared as though the rally was a response to a municipal plan to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville. As such, the event was a clear and convincing catalyst to reignite the debate on removing such monuments. 

In the aftermath of the Charlottesville white-supremacist rally, the predominantly left-wing campaign to remove monuments gained momentum. Five days after the rally took place, the Hall of Fame of Great Americans at Bronx Community College removed its busts of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The next day, officials in Annapolis, MD removed a statue of Roger Tanney, the Supreme Court justice who ruled on the Dred Scott decision, in the dark of night. As more protests arise and leaders hear public opinions on this issue, more cities across the country are making plans to remove their statues. 

An exhaustive list of the Confederate monuments that have been removed thus far can be found here