Former State Historic Preservation Officer Fred Gaske and I have been watching with interest the nation’s – and Florida’s – reaction to the display of the Confederate Battle Flag on public property following the shocking murders in Charleston on June 17. The Battle Flag became part of the narrative of the shootings because of an association of the alleged shooter with this Confederate symbol, as well as by the presence of a Confederate Battle Flag flying on the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse where the Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a victim of the shooting, served as Senator for the past 19 years (see photo).
Fred and I authored the book Recalling Deeds Immortal, Florida Monuments to the Civil War in 2014 (University Press of Florida). Although not the focus of our book, we do discuss a growing reaction against Confederate symbols, including the Battle Flag, due to their appropriation by a variety of radical and hate groups. The recent push-back against these symbols has resulted in actions such as that taken by the Duval County, Florida, School Board to change the name of Nathan B. Forrest High School last year. Forrest is a controversial Confederate general, accused of atrocities against Union African American soldiers, and was a founder to the KKK. In Pensacola in 2000, Confederate Battle Flags flown in “City of Five Flags” displays were replaced with the Confederate first National Flag because of the association of the Battle Flag with messages of hate. Our interest in the current discussion about Confederate Symbols is not so much the flag, but Civil War monuments that were the subject of our book.
In our conclusions, we express our concerns that,
“…a growing sentiment … rejects the narrative of the Lost Cause and sees symbols of the Confederacy – including Confederate monuments – as representing the attempt to uphold a social contract originally based on slavery. This is certainly the result of years of appropriation of Confederate symbols by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and more recently by groups that are radicalizing these symbols in other ways. Given the original intent of many Confederate monuments to vindicate the South for actions that many segments of our modern society would say cannot be vindicated, it is likely that discontent with the presence of these symbols of the Confederacy will continue to increase and that the legitimacy of Confederate monuments as part of the modern public landscape will continue to be questioned. While we believe this will be the case, we also believe it would be unfortunate to see monuments relocated, especially those that remain in their original settings. We believe it would be even worse to dismantle monuments for storage or disposal. These are part of the historic landscapes of our communities, and while they may become controversial, that controversy can, if approached properly, be turned into the proverbial teaching moment.” [page 304, italics added]
In recent days, there have been Confederate flags lowered at many places across Florida, including some that have flown on flagpoles erected near or in association with Confederate monuments. The mayor of Pensacola, for example, has now ordered all Confederate flags flown over city property be removed. There have also been petitions started for the removal of Confederate monuments located on public property, such as the monument in Orlando’s Lake Eola park (see photos).
We believe these monuments should be preserved in the public places where they were erected, and in a few cases where they have been moved. We believe it is essential, however, that these Confederate monuments be reinterpreted or contextualized so that the public can learn what they are, who erected them and why, and how their original purpose fits or does not fit into our modern world some 150 years after the end of the Civil War. To be clear, these monuments do not all have the same history or carry the same message, so any reinterpretation would vary from monument to monument. Some are simple memorials to the fallen dead, like the oldest Confederate monument in Florida, erected in 1871 and now on the grounds of the Walton County courthouse in DeFuniak Springs (see photo). Others carry a strongly worded message of Confederate vindication, such as the 1908 Confederate monument now located in Veterans Park in Ocala (see photo). All could benefit, and become productive “members of society,” with added interpretation. An interpretive wayside placed by each of these monuments would turn them into a lesson on the aftermath of the Civil War that, as much as the war itself, continues to affect who we are today as a nation.
A recent article in the Atlantic by California State University, Fresno historians Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts (June 25, 2015) makes a similar case in considering whether Confederate flags and Confederate monuments deserve different treatment. They find that “Historical monuments are interpretations of one era but also artifacts of another. Confederate and proslavery memorials embody, even perpetuate, deeply flawed narratives of the Old South and the Civil War. Yet they also reveal essential truths about the time during which they were erected.” After exploring the difficulty these monuments pose for our 21st century sensibilities, they conclude as follows, “If [Confederate monuments] make the public uneasy, this is because this past is uncomfortable. Taking down Confederate flags, but allowing properly contextualized Confederate monuments to stand, strikes the right balance between promoting a complete picture of the past and respecting the needs of the present.”
Mary Niall Mitchell, Ethel & Herman L. Midlo Chair in New Orleans Studies at the University of New Orleans (UNO), and Amber Nicholson, doctoral candidate in Urban Studies at UNO, make a similar case for Confederate Monuments in the Crescent City (Published in The Advocate, Baton Rouge, LA, June 27, 2015). They propose that, “Rather than remove these monuments from sight, as some have proposed, we ought to do what is much more difficult: reimagine these symbols of the Confederacy in a public way to reflect the totality of the Civil War and its place in the city’s history….The [monument] should not be enclosed in a museum, but instead fully explained and countered with more inclusive representations of the Civil War’s meaning and its legacies. What we cannot continue to do is allow them to stand unanswered, with their claims to the memory of the Civil War uncontested.” Echoed by Kytle and Roberts and by the conclusion to our 2014 book on Florida monuments, they propose the creation and placement of ”…well-researched markers that put these monuments in proper historical context.”
This approach is not unlike that taken years ago by the National Park Service to contextualize the monument to Heyward Shepherd, also known as the “Faithful Slave Memorial,” that was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1931. Shepherd was apparently killed during John Brown’s aborted 1859 attempt to start a slave revolt, and the Shepherd monument spurred controversy from the day it was erected. Because of its controversial message, the Park Service initially covered the monument but agreed to again allow its display only after placement of a thoroughly researched companion wayside providing proper historical context.
Confederate monuments were originally placed in public places where they would be encountered on a daily basis and their message conveyed to current and future generations. These amazing pieces of well-crafted outdoor sculpture still attract attention, are an important part of our heritage landscape, and should, in my opinion, remain. Their message requires a make-over, which can be done with additional, thoughtfully crafted companion signage. Properly contextualized, Confederate monuments can continue to serve us as messenger about a war, and its aftermath, that haunts this nation to this day.
William B. Lees, PhD, RPA
Florida Public Archaeology Network