Confederate Monuments Aren't History, They're a Cheap Cultural Memory

Sculpture of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. Image via Getty.

On Monday evening, protesters in Durham, North Carolina pulled down a Confederate monument that had stood in front of the old Durham County courthouse since its dedication on May 10, 1924. As one of the protesters climbed a ladder and put a rope around the sculpture, the rest chanted, “We are the revolution.” In an act of solidarity with the anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, a group of North Carolinians pulled down the bronze Confederate soldier that had remained undisturbed on its marble base for over ninety years. When the sculpture came down, its cheap material began to crumble as protesters kicked the generic image and took photographs and selfies in celebration of its overdue removal.


Almost immediately, the Durham protesters actions met with reaction. Some decried the removal of history, confusing monuments with history, while others argued that such a removal would dampen the rational discourse that is supposedly the foundation of the enlightened public sphere. But such critiques conflate history with culturally formed memory, taken in by the feeling purposefully engendered by monuments, objects that one scholar has described as an “archives of public affect, repositories of feelings and emotions that are embodied in their material form and narrative content.” And such arguments romanticize too America’s public spaces—treating them as neutral ground that everyone has equal access to and safety within. This is, of course, not true, but it speaks to the myth of America and pretends that once formed, public spaces must be permanent and unchangeable. It pretends too, that any idea, once constructed in hardy materials like bronze or granite and placed in a public space, are forever valuable and worth preserving.

The removal of the Durham monument, as well as the broader movement to remove Confederate monuments and memorials, are a challenge to those ideas; intervention into public spaces that were formed nearly a century ago. The videos and photographs that went around the web of the Durham protest were a persistent reminder that public sculpture is not history but rather cultural memory, narratives that often serve to usurp hard realities of history with romanticized notions of nation or nationality identity. And public spaces are not fixed, nor have they ever been. Instead, they’re formed through the continual negotiation of power and memory. As such, they can be formed and reformed.

If Confederate monuments have become the flashpoint for debates about America’s representation to itself, it’s because that’s part and parcel of the history of the objects themselves. The boom in Confederate monument building dates largely to the 20th century, decades after the Union prevailed. “The monuments of bronze and stone are messengers from the past, relaying to us the nostalgic perspectives of the white women, Confederate veterans, and descendants who commissioned them,” art historians Cynthia Mills and Pamela Simpson noted in their critical volume, Monuments to the Lost Cause. The two found that the majority of Confederate monuments that still pepper the landscape of the South were commissioned by white women, “in hope of preserving a positive vision of antebellum life.”


The Durham monument is a prime example of the remaking of public space according to the romantic visions of 20th century white women. The Durham monument was funded by a local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). Founded in 1894, the UDC was central to remaking public spaces in the South and to spreading the “sanitized gospel of the Lost Cause,” well into end of the following century. The groups raised money to construct numerous monuments to Confederacy and, even today, those monuments are ubiquitous fixtures on the American landscape. White women then became not makers of history but the keepers of memory and myth.

Indeed, the construction of these monuments across America in the Jim Crow 20th century was so frenzied (there are many outside of the South as well) that it became its own niche business. Simpson and Mills write,

The bulk of Confederate monuments were modest affairs, often purchased for a price between $1,500 to $3,000 directly from a commercial monument-making firm such as McNeel Marble Company in Marietta, Georgia, or the Muldoon Monument Company in Louisville, Kentucky.


If the Durham monument looks familiar to anyone raised in the South, it’s likely because it is. The statute removed in Durham on Monday night was made by McNeel and an almost identical statue, also constructed by McNeel, stands in nearby Lenoir County, North Carolina. McNeel and Muldoon, as well as numerous other monument companies, marketed the standing soldier (or the “parade-rest soldier,” as it was described) to UDC chapters across America, offering them a cheap, idealized, and ready-made manifestation of the very mythos that the UDC was seeking to simultaneously preserve and spread. In fact, the Durham monument bears a striking resemblance to the Confederate monument that was removed from downtown Gainesville, Florida on Monday night. Like its Durham cousin, the Gainesville sculpture was commissioned by the UDC and unveiled in 1904 to celebrate Robert E. Lee’s birthday.


The UDC was incredibly successful at propagating the fallacious narrative of the Lost Cause and, in building monuments that transformed abstract myth into concrete, stone or bronze, they were successful at rewriting public histories from the Confederate perspective. A century later, those monuments have fixed the idea that they are valuable simply because they exist. The UDC’s monuments still stand, they are still revered, and still wrongly treated as objects that preserve history rather than as the racist kitsch that they are.

There’s no doubt that the debate around Confederate monuments will continue. On Tuesday Baltimore’s city council voted to remove four Confederate monuments and the mayor of Lexington, Kentucky has announced that he would consider removing Confederate monuments within the city. And yet, for every Confederate monument that is removed, there are still hundreds. The Atlantic recently pointed out that there are eight Confederate sculptures in National Statuary Hall, placed there in the early twentieth century by Southern state legislatures, memorials to segregation.

The Confederate Monument in Arlington. Image via Wikipedia.

Then, too, there are such monuments that dot the North, including the Lousiana State Monument (1971) in Gettysburg National Park, a ten-foot tall bronze that depicts an allegorical woman blowing a trumpet and carrying a ball of fire as a wounded Confederate lays at her feet grasping a battle flag. Even Arlington National Cemetery has a Confederate monument, a Neo-classical bronze commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and unveiled in 1914, in celebration of the anniversary of Jefferson Davis’s birthday. One scholar described the Arlington statue as “a pro-Southern textbook illustrated in bronze,” and it has long been a tradition for presidents to commemorate those who tried to end the nation they are in charge of with wreaths at the site.


Many have argued that the preservation of Confederate monuments is necessary in order to remember. It’s a glib argument, as though the Civil War could be forgotten simply because Jim Crow-era monuments were removed from public spaces. In reality, most Confederate monuments are not about remembering history, but instead facilitate the act of forgetting, of replacing history with myth and memory. These monuments contain in them a range of romantic memories: the Lost Cause, the honorable Southern, the benevolent slave owner, and particularly myths about Robert E. Lee. None of them are true but, as University of Virginia history professor Gary Gallagher pointed out in a recent episode of Backstory, they were once useful to the project of stitching the Union back together in the post-war decades. Allowing the South to have its myths, particularly those centered around the heroic and benevolent nature of Lee, was worth the preservation of the Union (Gallagher’s book on the myth of the Lost Cause, which includes a description of the dedication of the Lee statue in Charlottesville in 1924, is worth reading).

What’s increasingly clear, particularly after Charlottesville and even Durham, is that these memories are no longer valuable. And the very monuments that have given form to these memories, altered landscapes across this country implying value with their materiality, are no longer representative of either the public nor the spaces they inhabit. But then, they never really were, that was always just another myth. The public sphere and the objects that inhabit it are not natural, they are culturally formed and can be reformed. There are surely better memories to create and preserve.

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