Confederate soldier monument, Charlottesville, VA

The mainstream media in the U.S. usually only covers Confederation issue when a city or county government proposes removing or relocating a monument because their presence makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable and unwelcomed. Scott Benowitz takes an in-depth view of this controversial issue.

Beginning in June of 2015, the New Orleans city government began discussing removing some of the statues which commemorate Confederate military officers from various locations in the city.  This was controversial, quite a few people in New Orleans advocated for keeping the statues and an equally large number of people were vocal about advocating for dismantling them.   Finally, after much debate, in May of this year, statutes of Robert E. Lee, Pierre Toutant-Beauregard and Jefferson Davis, as well as an obelisk which commemorated a violent attempted coup of the Louisiana state government in 1874, were removed.    The topics that were raised during the discussions which led to the decision to remove these monuments were very similar to those in 2015 when the state governments –which were still displaying Confederate flags at the state capitol buildings opted to remove the flags,–and many major chain stores opted to stop selling Confederate flags as well as other related items.

The same questions that people have been asking for the latter half of the 1860’s about whether monuments and flags which commemorate Confederate soldiers, military officers and politicians are symbols of racism and oppression or if these monuments are commemorating historic events are still being actively debated today.

There are still more than 100 statues and monuments that commemorate Confederate military officers, soldiers, and politicians who appear in parks throughout the U.S. today.  These statues and monuments are mostly located in parks in the southern states, although there are some statues and monuments which commemorate soldiers and officers from the Confederacy in parks in some of the Midwestern and the western states too.

Not Quite As Simple As Black And White

For some, monuments of Confederate soldiers and politicians which appear in parks throughout many states are a reminder of slavery and a legacy of racism, segregation, and oppression. Some people view those monuments as being symbols of racism specifically against African Americans, while others view them in a broader context as being symbols of racism against all people who have felt oppressed.  Other people view them as pieces of history. For some people, monuments in parks are a means of honoring their ancestors who fought for the Confederacy during the 1860s.  Even among people are opposed to the principles and the ideologies that the Confederacy represented, some still want to pay respects to their families’ direct ancestors from the 1860s. There are also some people who feel that these memorials and monuments send the wrong messages to today’s secessionist movements such as the Alaska independence movement or the parties who advocate for Puerto Rico’s independence. Some people feel that the presence of these monuments sends the message that if you cannot accomplish the goals of your parties through peaceful means, then don’t be afraid to resort to violence to accomplish your goals.

There are numerous interpretations and views about these monuments because the history of the Reconstruction is as complex as the history of the Civil War and its legacy.

Some former politicians and military officers from the Confederacy later renounced slavery during the Reconstruction era, and they ended up advocating for a future in which people would come closer to embracing equality and tolerance. The issue is further complicated by the fact that while some monuments, statues, and memorials depict images of officers and soldiers wearing Confederate uniforms. Some Confederate officers and soldiers later joined the Union army during Reconstruction. Proposals regarding monuments are varied: some people advocate for dismantling all monuments which commemorate Confederate soldiers and officers which appear in parks and recycling them for scrap materials.  Others want to leave them in parks- many of these monuments are more than 100 years old, so why remove them?   People in a number of cities are advocating for leaving these monuments because they illustrate a piece of history, but they are also advocating for installing more monuments that depict various civil rights activists in the same parks in which memorials depicting Confederate soldiers are displayed. Some people advocate for leaving the monuments which commemorate Confederate soldiers because they feel that they look dignified and that the presence of those statues makes parks look attractive, while others feel that these monuments look embarrassing in the 21st century.

I side with the groups who are advocating for removing these monuments which commemorate Confederate soldiers from parks and relocating them to history museums, which I feel is the most sensible option in the 21st century.

A Few Words About Historical Context

In 1775, King George III Of Great Britain decided that there was no place for slavery in the American colonies.  He offered freedom to all slaves who escaped and opted to fight for the British, and he’d stated that once the British crush the emerging American rebellion, he would end slavery in the American colonies. Realistically, he probably had no ethical objections to slavery, he was probably looking to recruit more soldiers to fight for the British, but he did propose ending slavery in the American colonies in 1775.  There were hundreds, if not thousands of slaves who escaped, fought for the British, and in the 1780s, found themselves being recaptured and re-enslaved. George III, the tyrant who made life miserable throughout the colonies during the 1760s and the first half of the 1770s had attempted to free the slaves in 1775.  

Many of the architects of our democracy were slave owners, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Where’s the movement which advocates for installing statues of George III in our public parks because his views on abolishing slavery in 1775 were far more progressive than half of our founding fathers’ views were?  Where are the people who advocate for removing monuments which show George Washington and Thomas Jefferson from the country because they were slave owners? Obviously, those movements don’t exist because it makes impressively little sense to propose removing all sculptures which depict George Washington and Thomas Jefferson or paintings of them in publicly owned buildings from throughout the country, and it makes equally little sense to propose erecting statues of George III.  

I opt to mention the examples of George III, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson because this illustrates that the history of human rights and civil rights in the U.S. are complex issues.   When we discuss monuments that commemorate Confederate soldiers in parks and portraits and busts which appear in city halls and county and state government office buildings throughout the country, we need to look at them within the full historical context. I side with the groups who are advocating for removing these monuments which commemorate Confederate soldiers from parks and relocating them to history museums, which I feel is the most sensible option in the 21st century.    

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...