The Civil War monuments across the American South are dead monuments. They were once living things, thanks to all who celebrated them. It was impossible to live in the American South in the early 20th Century, let alone the late 19th, and not know about the Civil War monument near you. Chances are, if you’re white, you’ve partied right next to one, dressed in your Sunday best, on Confederate Memorial Day in April (which began in our home state of Georgia), singing, dancing, or—on solemn days—praying, gardening, or cleaning the monument. Everyone would be wearing white, including the former slaves and their children who are tending to your white family or working for the mayor on cleanup. Monuments were a thing, you see. And many towns in the South had them. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, would show up to their unveiling and dedication. And everyone would gather to pose for a photo-postcard after the festivities.
From Monument to Artifact
But this isn’t only about a hypothetical you at a memorial a long time ago. This is also about your relative who sure as day would proudly mail this photo-postcard to the serial newsletter The Confederate Veteran, which might as well be called The Confederate Monument. From its first issue in 1893, it published information about the construction of monuments across the South and sometimes in such places as Chicago. It enjoyed wide circulation, surprising even its founder, Sumner Archibald Cunningham, who in every issue asked readers like your relative to keep the cards and letters coming about events at monuments or new monuments going up. Print publications like this amplified and embroidered the culture of monument appreciation. This was a culture of celebrating and sanctifying Civil War monuments (plural) but—this is the key part—doing so at a remove, reading about other monuments across the South, donating to their construction, and enjoying the fandom and fanfare of it all. By these means, the ritual cultures around Civil War monuments grew from local events to a whole national and nationalist conversation about these structures. And retailers were at the ready to sell and ship monuments to anyone with the funds to purchase them.
Yet, ironically, this is how Civil War monuments died. As soon as they became appreciable at a remove, as soon as they were codified as “art” in collectors’ books like Mrs. B. A. C. Emerson’s Historic Southern Monuments: Representative Memorials of the Heroic Dead of the Southern Confederacy (1910), where you could flip the pages from example to example, style to style, the ritual culture waned and in its place arose an abstraction: Civil War monumentality laying everlasting claim to other abstractions like Southern identity and Confederate causes to which adjectives like “lost” were always attached. As with the newsletter, the Confederate veteran became a monument in a different sense, an idea rather than a stone figure whose eyes filled with moss from eventual neglect.
The Heritage of Violence
Along with Civil War monumentality, there emerged a culture of violence on a monumental scale happening with such regularity as to be a ritual itself. Take the monument in downtown Athens, Georgia, where I live. This obelisk was erected in 1872—just five years before what Rayford Logan famously called “the nadir” of American race relations. The year 1872 is when President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Amnesty Act for Confederate secessionists, making their return to civic life in the Union possible. And it is the year that the torturing, burning and lynching of African Americans began to markedly increase in reaction to the ratification of the 14th (1868) and 15th (1870) Amendments. White terrorists lynched 4,084 African Americans between 1877 and 1950, often in front of thousands of people smiling (again) for the camera in hopes of making it onto a photo-postcard. Georgia was second only to Mississippi in the number of known lynchings in this period, 589 to 654 (https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/). In 1917, a newspaper in Alabama observes that people “meekly hold that it might be good for this whole section of the nation if Georgia would kindly mend its ways and quit spilling human blood on the picturesque theory that ‘it’s no harm to kill a n——-.’” [The Literary Digest 54, no. 1 (January–June 1917), p. 178]. Closer to home: Oconee County, Georgia, had 11 documented lynchings. For Athens’ Clarke County, there’s one recorded lynching. Yet we recall that Oconee County is only six miles from City Hall in downtown Athens, and was carved out of Clarke County in 1875 to serve as a white haven. The Confederate monument in downtown Athens stood in the midst of this local violence. This is literally what it stood for.
Monuments to Monstrosity
To get a feel for that bloody context, we have to perform an uncomfortable thought experiment, which our current circumstances unfortunately allow us to do. We have to imagine that for every lynching, every police shooting, every strangulation by cop of a black person, every hate crime against a person of color, every bombing, every Charleston-like massacre, we gladly and ceremoniously add more Confederate symbols to our public squares (rather than remove some, as happened after Charleston). This background of violence as monument after monument goes up conveys, by analogy, the mindset of white Americans in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Certainly there were some whites who rejected these monuments on account of what was happening at the edge of town at the old oak tree while hounds barked into the night. But most whites embraced these monuments for exactly those reasons. There was no indifference to the matter, no escape from witnessing murder or hearing about it, because the world was too small. No monument in the South, nor any white family, is clean of this history, because absolutely everyone at the time knew what the monument was about.
Civil War monuments never “document” any specific violent act against African Americans. What we find instead on monuments are crossed muskets beneath statues of heroic soldiers looking out at the horizon, or a placard recording a certain battle at a marsh—symbols and signs of violence, sure, but none expressing proudly the founding violence of chattel slavery by which absolutely everything was built. None own it. None can. The very materialization of a Civil War monument is one big indirection about the violence that exceeds it, which is why it’s so easy for white people today to deny the racism of such structures.
The Violence Remains
But the violence remains, and the monument is slow to slough it from its surface. That much is clear in the way monuments today are sites of raw violence. We all saw the young men gather round the memorial to Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville in August 2017. They came to psych themselves up for a fight, so much so that one of their fascist ilk mowed down counter-protesters with his car, killing one and injuring 19 others. That much is clear to every African American visiting the old courthouse in Durham, NC, passing the Confederate monument on their way into the building and feeling a certain violence done to them in the very thought that justice inside won’t be blindfolded—this before protesters tore the monument down in response to Charlottesville.
Yes, the monuments must go, including the one standing on West Broad Street in the heart of downtown Athens. They must go because they’ve already been abandoned by their admirers, bereft of ritual apart from straggler celebrations of creative anachronists in the few states that still recognize Confederate Memorial Day. Whoever says the monuments should remain for whatever reason should celebrate them accordingly on all due occasions, year in and year out, and they should be seen doing so. Otherwise, such advocates argue against their own case and disrespect the monuments, which have now been abandoned to the task of “remembering” all by their lonesome selves, distorting history in mute stone.
Above all, history tells that siting Confederate monuments is how we value them. People spoke out over a hundred years ago when sponsors were scouting for locations to install monuments, insisting that they be placed in very prominent places in town and objecting to potential locations like sleepy graveyards. Now people are vocal in saying that these monuments should be removed from our public spaces—because they are no longer at the center of our civic consciousness—and instead retired to cemeteries as artifacts of a dead culture.
Andrew Cole teaches at Princeton University. Born in Alabama, he has lived in Athens, GA for two decades. This essay first appeared in October 165 (2018): 33–35. © 2018 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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