Turning Confederate Monuments Into Ruins

The current issue of Civil War Times magazine includes some brief thoughts from a group of scholars, plus the current commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, about what they believe should be done with Confederate monuments. It is also available online.

The group includes mainly academic and public historians, which is fine, but as far as I am concerned, we give too much authority to this narrow group. There is very little in this survey that you haven’t already heard ad nauseam. At this point we sound like a broken record and I am even willing to include myself in this group.

The one exception is the contribution from my good friend, Megan Kate Nelson:

What unites all of the participants in the debate about Confederate memorials? The belief that “retain” or “remove” are only two options. But what about a third option?

I would like to propose that Confederate memorials should neither be retained nor removed: They should be destroyed, and their broken pieces left in situ.

On a scheduled day, a city government or university administration would invite citizens to approach a Confederate memorial, take up a cudgel, and swing away. The ruination of the memorial would be a group effort, a way for an entire community to convert a symbol of racism and white supremacy into a symbol of resistance against oppression.

Historians could put up a plaque next to the fragments, explaining the memorial’s history, from its dedication day to the moment of its obliteration. A series of photographs or a YouTube video could record the process of destruction. These textual explanations may be unnecessary, however. Ruins tend to convey their messages eloquently in and of themselves. In this case, the ruins of Confederate memorials in cities across the nation would suggest that while white supremacists have often made claims to power in American history, those who oppose them can, and will, fight back.

Now I don’t necessarily agree with everything stated here, but it is a perspective that we haven’t heard before. What do you think?

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20 comments… add one
  • MARYANN GERMAINE Jul 22, 2017 @ 6:18

    Today’s Washington Post magazine had a thoughtful story on how one Alabama town grappled with this, when a car accidentally toppled their monument.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 22, 2017 @ 6:20

      Well worth reading.

  • RB Jul 20, 2017 @ 13:45

    Why do I get an impression of what she is encouraging would only allow some to bring guns, or picks and hammers to stop them?

    You beget that sort of thing when doing that.

  • Ted McKnight Jul 19, 2017 @ 9:32

    In order to gauge the reaction to Ms. Nelson’s proposal, perhaps we should do a pilot test on memorial that would not cause concern in the US. I think something like the Roman Colosseum would give us an understanding of the sentiments involved. With that action accomplished, a committee of unbiased, highly qualified, blue blooded, holier than thou historians could provide proper interpretation of how we should feel about further destruction of monuments that belong to the unwashed masses.

    • Ted McKnight Jul 19, 2017 @ 9:40

      On second thought, a smaller object would be easier to demolish with sledgehammers. How about the Rosetta Stone?

      • MSB Jul 19, 2017 @ 10:26

        Did it foment rebellion to establish a slave empire?
        I think not.

        • Ted McKnight Jul 21, 2017 @ 8:19

          No, but the Egyptians and the Greeks had slaves just as America did for many years. However, the Declaration of Independence did foment a rebellion. Wouldn’t it have been thoughtful of King George to say, “farewell, lets just be friends”? Or maybe even King Abe could have done the same? Now there is a non-violent response that we might all consider.

          • Kristoffer Jul 21, 2017 @ 15:21

            I don’t think so, because the decision of war didn’t lie in the hands of someone whose last name began with “l” and ended with “n”. It lay in the hands of someone whose last name began with “d” and ended with “s”.

            • Ted McKnight Jul 22, 2017 @ 9:20

              So, the party that lawfully seceded and only asked to be left alone is the aggressor? On the other hand, the President that called for volunteers to invade a sovereign nation in order to “restore the Union and the national authority” had no hand in the death of 750,000 Americans. I truly agree with the first three words of your last reply.

            • Kristoffer Jul 22, 2017 @ 15:29

              The decision for war was taken long before that. It was taken by someone whose last name began with “d” and ended with “s”.

  • woodrowfan Jul 19, 2017 @ 9:14

    the opponent to taking these memorials down often argue that they are “history” and so should remain. “Whites Only” signs are also “history.” Come to think of it, these statues are in their own way “Whites Only” signs…

  • bob carey Jul 19, 2017 @ 8:37

    When I read Ms. Nelsons’ suggestion, my first thought was the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. I know this is not a good parallel but you have to ask the question, what was more significant the building of the wall or its’ coming down. The same could be said of Confederate monuments.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 19, 2017 @ 8:41

      That is one of the reasons why I value Megan’s response. It forces us to stretch the context in which we consider these questions. Thank you.

      • Margaret D. Blough Jul 19, 2017 @ 10:23

        Also, remember how Americans cheered when Iraqis pulled down and destroyed statues and other monuments, etc. that Saddam Hussein had erected to himself and to his “victories”? (actually, I remember reports that US troops in some cases incited Iraqis to do and helped them). How many statues of British monarchs from James VI and I to George III in the 13 colonies that became the US survived the Revolution?

        I don’t know the answer. I think that many of the people who wanted the statues and monuments down feel sick and tired of having their feelings and their heritage ignored. And the idea that the timing and extent of Confederate monuments can be detached from the efforts to reimpose and protect white supremacy really is totally removed from reality. Any effort to keep the monuments in place or even prominently in museums that does not involve an effort to look the past squarely in the eye like the South African truth commission strove to do is likely to be an exercise in futility.

  • Heather Michon Jul 19, 2017 @ 8:19

    Give a man a cudgel and it very rarely ends well for anyone. It might feel great in the moment, but there’s no way this scenario wouldn’t result in a cycle violence and retribution far outside the bounds of a city park or public square. Nor can I think of any city that would relish having chunks and debris sitting around as a giant liability risk. So I give her a lot of credit for the symbolism, but I remain in the Remove camp. Removed from their public space, they serve little interpretative value, and most are not works of art or otherwise of value to museums. Take them down and treat them like old flags: give them a respectful destruction out of the public eye and move on.

  • fundrums Jul 19, 2017 @ 7:05

    IMO This is a ridiculous idea. It’s nothing short of inciting civil unrest. If the tables were turned she would be outraged. Each of these monuments belongs in a museum where they can be preserved and properly interpreted. Beyond their intent they are also works of art.

    – Michael Aubrecht

  • Sandi Saunders Jul 19, 2017 @ 6:48

    I did not agree with that radical statement and could only see the anger and problems such a “solution” offers. But my bigger problem in reading those entries is this: I am not sure how ‘regular people’ are to decide the issue when even those called ‘experts’ do not seem to have a consensus worthy of being called such. That historians can believe statues are our history, that they have educated anyone, that the veneration tied to a legacy of white supremacy is worth preserving, gives me chills for how little some seem to view actual, harmful, painful, shameful history wrapped up in these monuments. This selection made this Southerner want to weep. If this is the best historians can offer, it is sad. The best of not stellar efforts IMO, was Michael J. McAfee, Curator of History West Point Museum. If they cannot be removed, the least we owe to our posterity is to contextualize and reframe them with honesty and integrity lacking when they went up. Dear God, is that REALLY too much to ask?

  • James Simcoe Jul 19, 2017 @ 6:29

    Ms. Nelson, May I, as a white liberal, say, ‘D..n girl!’ It’s true, while there was much bravery, ruins were the final result of the slaveholder’s revolt. Segue here, how should Richmond, Va. memorialize the fact that R.E. Lee torched his own capitol after pulling his army out? There was no conceivable gain of any kind whatsoever. All the South’s ports were occupied except for Pensacola. It was not like the northern war machine lacked for ammo or black-market tobacco and cotton. Why not save these valuable commodities and leave a ‘gentleman-to-gentleman’ note for Grant, urging he use his influence to have the U.S. government purchase purchase these goods and apply the moneys to the aide of the citizens of Richmond-Petersburg and Virginia itself. I’m just saying….

    • Bob Huddleston Jul 21, 2017 @ 14:19

      A great explanation of the problem. It was, after all, RE Lee himself who destroyed Richmond more effectively and,as Mr. Simcoe points out, for less reason than Uncle Billy’s alleged swath of destruction across Georgia and South Carolina.

  • MSB Jul 19, 2017 @ 4:07

    I’m pretty sure that my dislike of Confederate monuments would not translate into an effective swing of a sledgehammer. Also, clubs unlikely to be effective, and the opportunities for physical conflict between the destroy and the preserve supporters would be too great. Finally, I would not like having a ruin in the center of a public place frequented by the community. It would be ugly, depressing and potentially dangerous. I favor remove and replace, for example, filling the spot at the University of Texas recently vacated by Davis (?) with the life-size statue of Barbara Jordan, which is currently round the back of the main building.

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