These comments were presented on November 30, 2017, as part of the University of West Florida College of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities Downtown Lecture Series, featuring a faculty panel on “Public Space, Collective Memory, and Community Identity.” The opinions expressed are those of the author. Technical content is based on Recalling Deeds Immortal, Florida Monuments to the Civil War (William Lees and Frederick Gaske, University Press of Florida, 2014).
It has been over two years since the Confederate battle flag was found associated with the perpetrator of hate-inspired murders in a church in Charleston, South Carolina (See FPAN blog post of June 27, 2015). Although push-back against Confederate symbols, including monuments, has been with us since Reconstruction, in the time since Charleston these monuments have become central to a national discussion of race, privilege, and equality. Confederate monuments, previously ignored by most, have become a focus of discourse which reaches into every segment of our society, inside the academy and out, in serious academic and political discussion, and as a topic of casual conversation among family, friends, or others we encounter in our lives.
The debate over monuments can be recast, I think, as a question of what type of nation we should be … informed as we are by the words in our founding documents, because of the outcome of the Civil War, and despite the repercussions of a failed National Reconstruction which ultimately led us to our national era of Civil Rights that bracketed the Civil War centennial and continues today. I have my own answer to this question, as I suspect we all do. Here, however, I would like to focus my comments on the place, if any, that monumental reminders of this uncomfortable past have in our contemporary and future heritage landscape: What should we do with our Confederate monuments?
Civil War monuments are not all the same. They often have different, mutually exclusive aspects that may deserve individual consideration. They contain layers of symbolism, some overt and some less so, and inscriptions that likewise are open to interpretation. Even when newly placed, monuments had different meanings to different people, and this remains decidedly so today.
They have always stirred controversy. The original monument at the Olustee Battlefield, funded largely by the State, sparked deep seated controversy centered on issues of race and commemoration in the first years of the 20th century. The collective memory of the Civil War evolved in a controversial context where the post-war United States spent its treasure on Union veterans, Union soldier dead, and commemoration of battlefields of importance to the Union memory, leaving the South to do for their own as if they were, ironically, a different country.
Civil War monuments were first erected by both Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, and they are still being placed on our landscape today. In Florida, the first monuments were to the Union and date to 1866. The first Confederate monument was erected in Euchee Anna in 1871, and moved later to DeFuniak Springs where it stands today.
Forty-seven Confederate and eleven Union monuments were erected within Florida prior to the end of the Civil War Centennial in 1965. This number is small compared to many other states. The dates of construction of Florida monuments reflect to some degree the aging of the veteran population. By itself this might suggest these are simply monuments to veterans—who in this country we honor—but the story is not quite that simple, especially when we consider the history of the Confederate monument “movement.”
The first Confederate monuments were the work of local ladies’ or womens’ memorial associations. These grew out of wartime associations focused first on provisioning locally raised troops (sons, husbands, brothers, fathers) and eventually on the care of returning wounded soldiers. At war’s end these associations shifted their focus to local veteran care and the proper burial of the war dead. For those war dead, whose graves were usually far away and likely unmarked, these groups also erected local monuments bearing names of local dead; these took the place of the grave in the local cemetery that was important for mourning in the 19th-century south. Monuments in DeFuniak Springs and St. Augustine are prominent examples of memorials to local soldier dead: sons, husbands, brothers, fathers. Both are inscribed with lists of names of individual, local soldier dead.
Following the sudden end of Reconstruction in 1877, the nation began to move from a memory of the war that was related to individual, personal involvement and loss, and began to construct regional, and different, memories of the war. For the south, this memory emerged almost immediately in Edward A. Pollard’s book, published at war’s end, The Lost Cause, A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates. As local ladies’ memorial associations banded together, eventually becoming the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), the promotion of the “Lost Cause” narrative became their cause célébre.
Very simply put, this narrative sought to vindicate the south and the southern soldier for military loss by focusing on the righteousness of his cause. This righteous cause substituted protection of slavery with the protection of state’s rights and the constitution. What the UDC called “a useful history” of the Civil War was promoted through textbook and pageantry, and by placing monuments carrying a Lost Cause message in prominent places. The problem is that the message of the Lost Cause went hand in hand with successful efforts to reclaim or retain (White) privilege by former Confederates, and those who looked like them, following the end of Reconstruction.
Monuments contain symbols, quotes, and verbiage that require interpretation by the viewer. The furled flag on an early Confederate monument, such as the one erected in 1881 in Quincy, certainly means something different than the prominent battle flag found on later monuments. Through appropriation by various hate groups starting with the KKK, the Confederate battle flag has gained meaning way beyond “heritage,” which may be why they became prominent on later monuments. The names of Confederate heroes—Davis, Lee, Jackson, Forrest—on later monuments have nothing to do with the local community but are instead central to a Lost Cause narrative that is unfamiliar to most citizens today.
The words specially crafted for the monuments embrace, to different degrees, the narrative of the Lost Cause. The 1908 Ocala monument reads, “THE SOUTH REVERES HER WASHINGTON, JEFFERSON, MADISON, MONROE, ANDREW JACKSON, AND OTHERS, WHO LAID THE FOUNDATIONS OF OUR GRAND REPUBLIC. SHE HONORS HER LEE, STONEWALL JACKSON, STUART, JOHNS[T]ON, FOR[R]EST, AND EVERY BRAVE SON WHO FOUGHT TO PRESERVE OUR LIBERTIES, GUARANTEED BY THE FATHERS, UNDER THE CONSTITUTION.” This is a perfect Lost Cause juxtaposition of our nation’s founders and the constitution on the one hand, and the” just and righteous” Confederacy on the other.
Civil War monuments in Florida were placed in public spaces such as city parks, prominent street intersections, and courthouse lawns. They were placed in cemeteries. They were placed on hallowed ground, such as battlefields. Confederate monuments were common in all these locations, but in Florida, and probably other southern states, Union monuments found their most welcome home in veteran’s plots in cemeteries and were in some cases excluded from other public spaces.
Finally and undeniably, Civil War monuments are historic outdoor sculpture. Some of these are uniquely crafted by skilled artisans and have artistic value in their own right. Possibly the most significant in this respect is the monument constructed in front of the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa in 1911. Hand-sculpted marble soldier statues grace the pedestal; one depicts a Confederate private headed off to war, the other the same soldier—wounded, worn down, and demoralized—on his way to an uncertain homecoming. Other monuments are not unique at all and were purchased from companies that mass produced the pedestals and statues and had sales staff actively promoting their products to heritage organizations such as the UDC.
What to do? The answer to this question is already irrelevant to many monuments that have been taken down or destroyed since the summer of 2015. In Florida, a number of monuments have been either relocated or taken down and placed in storage. The fate of many others is under debate.
I do understand, knowing the history and context of Confederate monuments, why they offend many Americans and especially Americans of color. Some are so egregious it is amazing they have stood for so long. Some specifically honor local soldier dead and should, I believe, be left in place but contextualized so their meaning can be understood; it is not easily apparent why these differ markedly from others.
An early example of contextualization is the so-called “faithful slave” monument in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Another I saw recently was in Natchez, Mississippi, at a Lost Cause monument dating from 1890. Both featured companion waysides that explain the history of the monument in a broader context. Together, the new dismantles the power of the old, and becomes a lesson important for today. Contextualization of this sort is currently being considered by the St. Augustine City Commission for their 1879 monument.
As to the rank and file Lost Cause monuments, which honor the Confederacy rather than local soldier dead or veterans, the case for preservation is more difficult. These certainly represent Constitutionally-protected free speech, but if they stand on public land cannot the case be made for others that might be as, or even more, objectionable? We have seen recently in Gainesville that if free speech is extended to one it must be extended to all.
Lost Cause monuments—and perhaps that is a better name than Confederate monuments—may not have a legitimate place at our seats of government, or even on public property other than museums or historic sites, any more than any former flag of state of a belligerent nation or of a failed rebellion. But are we comfortable with the wholesale removal of these sentinels of our uncomfortable past? Will removal of elements of our heritage landscape in itself allow the collective “us” to move past this history? Are preserved and contextualized monuments perhaps a more effective way to dismantle their power—by explaining the reason for their original creation and adding the many voices of our contemporary society to the narrative?
Dr. William B. Lees
Executive Director, Florida Public Archaeology Network