Charlottesville’s Civil War Monument Debate

My former home of Charlottesville, Virginia is in the middle of a community discussion about the future of its Confederate monuments. The city recently established a special “Blue Ribbon” commission to research the subject, hold community hearings, and offer final recommendations. From what I can tell it has been a healthy discussion and likely will serve as a model for how other communities might proceed.

The Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia has devoted some attention to this issue through the Coy Barefoot Program over the past few months. Here are the relevant programs in the order in which they appeared.

Phyllis Leffler, a retired Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the past Executive Director of the Institute for Public History at UVA (April 3, 2016)

University of Virginia Civil War Historian, Gary Gallagher (April 10, 2016)

University of Virginia Archivist, Ervin Jordan (May 1, 2016)

Wes Bellamy, Vice Mayor of the City of Charlottesville (August 21, 2016)

11 thoughts on “Charlottesville’s Civil War Monument Debate

  1. David Doggett

    I have some ideas addressing three of the main issues involved with removing or altering Confederate monuments and flags. FIRST, the idea of censoring or removing “history”: the monuments should either be made to present a balanced view of history or removed. Confederate soldier monuments should be balanced with accompanying monuments to black and white Union soldiers and leaders (both national and local – all Southern states had locals who fought for the Union, and local Unionist and abolitionist political leaders), and to the slaves and their abolitionist leaders. This should be done at taxpayer expense, or the biased propagandistic Confederate monuments should be removed from public property. SECOND: there is no moral equivalency between Confederate flags and the American Flag regarding slavery. While there was slavery present throughout the country at its founding, Northern states soon abolished slavery, and later expended great blood and treasure under the Stars and Stripes to maintain the Union and abolish slavery. Whereas, the Confederacy doubled down on slavery and fought a treasonous rebellion to maintain slavery. THIRD: the falsity that the Confederacy was about states rights more than slavery is easily dismissed. One of the major complaints of white Southern slavers both before the War and in their reasons for secession was that the Federal Government and Northern state and local governments were not enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act. By this act, Southern slavers could go into Northern slave-free states and conscript local men against their will to help round up fugitive slaves. This is about as far to the opposite extreme of states rights and individual rights as one can go. The only states rights Confederates believed in were those that maintained slavery. These arguments knock the legs out from under the three main obfuscating arguments of neo-Confederate revisionists.

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  2. James Simcoe

    There’s irony here as well. The Corp commander of the private soldier statue, not pictured (unless further into the interviews) is of a man in the 19th Virginia. It contained the most companies in any Regiment mobilized in this area; also represented sparsely in the 44th, 54th-57th Virginia. All were in Pickett’s Division, Longstreet’s Corp. Longstreet – ‘he whose name shall not be mentioned’ was the social code of southern Civil War memory regarding this man. The Jubal Early/Pendleton/ Rev. Jones thought control machine saw to that. All overseen by Gen. Gordon of the Southern Historical Society. ANYONE who participated in coalition politics in Reconstruction was excised from memory. You will search in vain for a statues of super Division commander William Mahone in Petersburg, although he was born there. His sin? To co-found the Readjustors. Year by year, there is more info on the actual depth of southern history. Jane Dailey’s ‘Before Jim Crow’, is a nice concise read. All kicked off by ‘The Strange Career of Jim Crow,’ by C. Vann Woodward.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      James,

      I wrote an entire book about Mahone and the Crater in Petersburg.

      You will search in vain for a statues of super Division commander William Mahone in Petersburg, although he was born there.

      There is a monument to Mahone on the Petersburg battlefield.

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      1. James Simcoe

        Thanks for the correction. It is still noteworthy that Petersburg, a virtual hot-bed of innovative politics after the war, has Lee Parks and Highways aplenty, but no ‘public space’ regonition to Mahone as an important Virginian. Neither is John Mercer Langston, allowed to be ‘real’, though he made the city this home base, becoming Virginia’s first Black Senator to Congress. It is truly, the city of the Readjustors and should be celebrated as such.
        I read that a history of Loudon County simply skipped the years, 1879 – 1883, and a state history written before WW II skipped a decade effectively to erase memory of this time of great ferment. In stead, two Generals, one who did not survive the war are universally held to embody ‘the South.’
        I did read your fascinating, ‘The Battle of the Crater…’ which led me to Ms. Dailey’s book. For those interested, Brent Tarter has written on The Readjustors, ‘A Saga of the New South.’ Episcopal minister, Benjamin Campbell, has written a book, ‘Richmond’s Unhealed Past.’ And a bit off the topic of public space and memorials, ‘The Third Reconstruction,’ by Rev. Barber demonstrates that the South’s Progressive past is alive and well.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          I don’t know if it is surprising given the extent to which the Lost Cause smoothed over important political distinctions throughout the postwar period. In fact, the response to Mahone’s postwar politics follows closely along the lines of what happened to James Longstreet. There is some evidence to suggest that the Mahone monument was first intended for downtown Petersburg, but his politics likely led to it being dedicated on the battlefield.

          Thanks for reminding me of Brent Tarter’s new book, which looks good.

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  3. bob carey

    The solution to these dilemmas lies in education.
    New signage and new monuments would be a start, but I suspect that opposition to any new interpretations would be both vocal and vulgar.
    As the South diversifies the opportunities to present the full history of the era will become more frequent so maybe someday these problems will no longer be that important. One can only hope.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      New signage and new monuments would be a start, but I suspect that opposition to any new interpretations would be both vocal and vulgar.

      That is the rub. Many people who are calling for the removal of monuments do not need a history lesson. They understand the history reflected in these public sites. Those on the other side likely view interpretation as unnecessary or a reflection of so-called “revisionist historians.”

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  4. Shoshana Bee

    I have reflected on this topic on two other forum/blogs, but I feel that one can never explore this topic enough. The fact that we are even talking about the monuments is a huge step forward (to me). It indicates that we as a population have become sensitive to the feelings of a once sidelined portion of our citizens. I welcome the dialogue. My personal experience is with the Little Bighorn Monument. When it was all about Custer, my mother would not let us stop there when we passed through the area. She harbored an ethnic memory that did not appreciate the veneration of Custer. I grew up and never got to see the place with the family, but after the monument was re-interpreted as Little Bighorn Monument, and in 2003, when they added the Indian Memorial, my mother actually went and visited. She approved of the changes in her own cantankerous way. If done properly, reinterpretation becomes a pathway to unify diverse peoples, and it opens the door to further understanding of the past.

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  5. Patrick Jennings

    My hometown, Alexandria VA, just finished a similar discourse and came to some very reasoned conclusions mostly based on the remarkably complex nature of the history surrounding the war, post-war history, memory and even contemporary budgets. In the end they decided to keep the local confederate statue and keep most of the street names in place (mostly for financial reasons, both city, business, and residential). They are looking to getting rid of the name “Jefferson Davis” from US Route 1 and the state has green-lighted this.

    In the end it came down to much of what Gary Gallagher said at the September 8th meeting – he felt that more context should be added to the statues to explain their history and the period in which they were erected. He added that he would like to see another Civil War monument to honor those who have been overlooked and to provide greater diversity to the local landscape. “My solution, (Gallagher noted) I would put up other monuments and rename the park,” he said. “I would invite people to use this space to think about the difference between history and memory.”

    I think Shoshana is on to something. The NPS did not take Custer out of the Little Bighorn…they simply put in perspective.

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  6. James Simcoe

    A positive move on the city of Richmond’s part. A ‘Maggie Walker Memorial Plaza’ is being created. She was the first woman bank president in America, “a black leader, educator and businesswoman in segregated Richmond. her first bank, St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, opened in 1903, lies in disrepair near Gilpin Court, and her grave is overgrown at Evergreen Cemetery.” (Richmond Times-Dispatch)

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