The Federal Government’s Monuments to White Supremacy

The violence in Charlottesville this past weekend has already pushed the mayor of Lexington, Kentucky to take steps to remove its Confederate monuments. A councilman in Baltimore wants to see its monument of Lee and Jackson destroyed. Protesters marched last night in Richmond down Monument Avenue. This will continue and more monuments will come down.

What I find somewhat curious, is that no one is talking about Confederate monuments across our nation’s Civil War battlefields operated by the National Park Service. These monuments are overseen by the federal government and maintained with your tax dollars. They have not received the same amount of attention largely because you have to travel long distances to see them. They don’t define our local commemorative landscapes.

These monuments do, however, raise some of the very same questions that are currently being debated in communities across the country. If the Lee monument in Charlottesville is problematic than what can be said about Gettysburg’s Lee monument? Lee dominates Seminary Ridge making it possible for anyone to imagine a glorious Confederate victory whenever they choose. Not too far away the soldiers of North Carolina inch forward with their last ounce of strength in the direction of the farm of a free black family that was forced to flee when Lee’s army of slave catchers entered Pennsylvania in late June 1863.

Both of these monuments were erected at the height of the Jim Crow-era. Like other Confederate monuments across the country they ought to be referred to as monuments to white supremacy. For many they help to define these battlefield landscapes as a vindication of the Confederate cause.

In Virginia the Federal Government maintains the “Stonewall Jackson Shrine,” where the general breathed his last. Just steps away from “Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial” stands a Confederate monument that openly celebrates the cause of the Confederacy and the loyal “Mammy” figure. Confederate soldiers lay permanently at rest around the monument just steps away from Americans who have given their lives to preserve this Union.

These monuments went up at the height of the Jim Crow-era and at a time when the Federal Government in Washington, D.C. was seriously debating the erection of a national monument to the loyal slave.

Communities across the country are asking whether these monuments define who they are. When will we begin to ask whether this is who we are as a nation?

47 comments… add one
  • I think, ironically enough, the White Nationalists may bring about the destruction of the very thing they sought to preserve.

    • Diane Hyra Aug 14, 2017

      Sure hope you are right!

  • Eric A. Jacobson Aug 14, 2017

    Kevin,

    In my opinion, they do not “raise some of the very same questions that are currently being debated in communities across the country.” At least, not the vast majority. Most battlefield parks, even ones that are not managed by the NPS, have markers denoting military units and their locations and movements. Monuments to individuals, like Lee at Gettysburg or Johnston at Shiloh, pale in comparison. And frankly, whether monuments, busts, or markers, there is no more appropriate place for them than on a battlefield.

    Battlefields, cemeteries, and museums are the places for such things. To be honest, battlefields are, in my opinion, just extended museums. They offer a different style of learning than your typical “museum.” I think a house, like Carter House or Carnton in Franklin, are also extended museums.

    In closing, I will say that I understand, to some degree, what you are saying about, for example, Lee at Gettysburg. He does tower over the landscape, or nearly halfway to heaven as a friend of mine once said. But Lee was at Gettysburg. He was not at New Orleans, nor many other places. But he was at Gettysburg, and he is as much a part of the history there as anyone.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 14, 2017

      You are going to have to explain to me how the relevant historical context between Lee in Charlottesville and Lee in Gettysburg differ. I don’t see how you can get around the fact that these monuments to some extent legitimize the cause of the Confederacy. You are right that Lee was at Gettysburg, but that doesn’t mean he deserves to be immortalized. We should be remembering him as a traitor to the United States and fighting for a government that sought to kidnap Pennsylvania blacks when he entered the state.

      • James F. Epperson Aug 14, 2017

        I think the correct way to look at it is this: The Park allowed the (former Confederate) states to put up state monuments, probably as a partial offset to all the Yankee regimental monuments on the battlefield. The monuments that were put up reflect the times and attitudes in which they were conceived and erected. Those details should be part of the signage around each of the state monuments, along with the kind of artistic/historical context you provided in the original post.

        I don’t think any of the monuments on the battlefield parks should be touched.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 14, 2017

          The monuments that were put up reflect the times and attitudes in which they were conceived and erected.

          Yes and that is exactly why I believe that the questions I raised are relevant, arguably even more so when it comes to federal property. Thanks for the comment.

      • jim morgan Aug 14, 2017

        Southerners could only have been traitors if secession were illegal or unconstitutional. As the Constitution is vague on the subject and there was absolutely no settled law about secession in 1860, the men involved could not have been traitors to the United States (in most cases; see below for exceptions).

        With his resignation from the army, Lee, for example, ceased to be bound by his military oath. And if secession was, in fact, legal – something which was believed by many people including President Buchanan and General-in-Chief Winfield Scott – then Lee ceased being a US citizen when Virginia seceded. One cannot be a traitor to a nation of which one is not a citizen. And enemy, yes, but not a traitor.

        Both Buchanan and Scott believed that secession was a bad idea and unnecessary at the time even if legal. And I agree with them. It was boneheaded and self-destructive. But there simply was no settled law on the subject at the time. I challenge anyone to find a single federal statute or court case that specifies secession to be illegal or unconstitutional.

        Pro-secessionists argued that, as the Constitution does not specifically forbid it, it must be legal. Anti-secessionists argued that the Constitution specified how to join the Union and so would have specified how to leave it had that been the intent of the Founders. Both views may reasonably be argued but both are mere opinions, not laws.

        The assumption must therefore be that secession, if not technically legal, was at least not technically illegal, and if not technically constitutional, was at least not technically unconstitutional. In that case, Lee and most of the others could not have been traitors. The only individuals who might have realistically been called traitors were those who were from states which did not secede but who fought for the Confederacy anyway and a few like James Longstreet who accepted a Confederate commission before resigning his US commission.

        Again, the Constitution is vague on the subject, there was no specific la

        • Kevin Levin Aug 14, 2017

          We are not going to re-argue the legality of secession on this post. Thanks for the comment.

      • anthony hodges Aug 16, 2017

        you my friend are an idiot learn your history before you open your mouth. he was no Traitor he was and is one of the greatest generals to ever serve. why Lincoln himself wanted him to lead the US.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2017

          I guess you told me. Thanks for the comment, Anthony.

        • woodrowfan Aug 16, 2017

          one of the greatest generals to ever serve

          so was Benedict Arnold…

  • James Harrigan Aug 14, 2017

    Kevin asks ….how the relevant historical context between Lee in Charlottesville and Lee in Gettysburg differ[s]. I’ll bite.

    I’ve been active in the movement for the removal of the Lee and Jackson monuments in my town of Charlottesville, and some time ago on this blog I suggested that they be moved to a “Museum of Racism”, along with the statues on Monument Boulevard in Richmond. The reason is that the presence of these statues in downtown Charlottesville and Richmond is a daily and inescapable reminder of why they were erected: to uphold white supremacy.

    But in my view the context on a battlefield is different. Battlefields are effectively museums already, and maintaining the Lost Cause era memorials in a museum context is worthwhile to me, as a historical reminder of the white supremacist Lost Cause movement. Nobody has to walk by the Lee monument at Gettysburg on their way to work, school, or the courthouse each day.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 14, 2017

      Thanks for the comment. Good points. Just for the record, I have never walked on a battlefield as it was a museum.

  • Sandi Saunders Aug 14, 2017

    Excellent question. I can only surmise that the context of the battlefield was a brilliant choice for placement and a better juxtaposition than in public parks or in the public square. They are in places people mostly choose to visit? I am going to have to think on it but at first blush they do not glorify so much as inform the situation. Maybe I need to examine that thought.

  • Joe Owen Aug 14, 2017

    Good luck with that idea Sir. There is NO way that the government will take down a Confederate Monument at any NPS battlefield. To suggest that they should is ill-advised and unnecessary, I think you are getting carried away. Take away monuments at a National Battlefield or Military Park, really? Maybe you should take two relaxants and talk to a doctor.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 14, 2017

      Maybe you should take two relaxants and talk to a doctor.

      Will do. Thanks for the comment.

  • Diane Hyra Aug 14, 2017

    I have always found the Stonewall Jackson “Shrine” appalling. Another thing I have questioned is the naming of so many forts after traitors — Fort Lee, Fort Pickett, Fort Bragg, etc, etc. These men pledged an oath to the United States government, broke it, openly fought against the country that had educated them and they get military forts named after them??? And they aren’t all in the South! Were I an army officer, I would be outraged by these honors for traitors.

    • Ryan Aug 15, 2017

      And yet, the military is often the most progressive mechanism in our society to enact changes that, in the civilian world, take extraordinary legal proceedings to enforce. The military desegregated before it was fashionable in civilian society. The military repealed don’t ask don’t tell and allows transgendered service men and women to serve openly – a detail that is inconsistent with how many individual states treat these populations. If the military has bases named for Confederates, it makes up for it with policies that, frankly, are more open minded than many state governments.

      • Kristoffer Aug 15, 2017

        “And yet, the military is often the most progressive mechanism in our society to enact changes that, in the civilian world, take extraordinary legal proceedings to enforce.”
        Not true. The actions you cite happened because of action by Presidents in their role as commander in chief of the Armed Forces, not because the Armed Forces are inherently progressive due to their membership.

  • neukomment Aug 14, 2017

    Just a thought: How does any given monument help me or anyone else visiting the battlefield understand what actually happened on that particular battlefield? Or does said monument distort the real story? I know there is a whole lot more to it, but perhaps asking those questions would be a start.

  • Maryann Germaine Aug 14, 2017

    And then there are these 8 statues of Confederate leaders right in the US Capitol, Statuary Hall: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/confederate-statues-congress/536760/

  • bob carey Aug 14, 2017

    Kevin,
    I think that the parks do a good job explaining the military aspects of the battles (tactics, weapons etc.) for the average tourist. Perhaps it is time for signage explaining the reasons there are monuments to the Confederacy in the National Parks. This could lead to a frank discussion of reconstruction and politics of the post war era and how we got to where we are.
    At this time I would not be in favor of removing any monuments from the parks, but I would like to see them explained.
    After the events of this past weekend I believe that there will be and increase in vandalism in regards to Confederate monuments and the NPS should be on the lookout.

  • Karen Aug 15, 2017

    I draw the line at removing confederate monuments from battle fields. What next? Why not tear down Lee’s home above Arlington National Cemetery ? Or better yet, destroy his headquarters at Gettysburg. No more Civil War reenactments allowed!! Raze the Washington Monument, Montecello or Jefferson Memorial, slaveholders all. While we are at it, let’s erase all mention of the confederacy from our history books. The White House was built by slaves. Let’s tear it down too. Most of these protestors don’t even know the first thing about American history or the Civil War. Ironic and pathetic.

    • MSB Aug 17, 2017

      Your strawperson is on fire.
      Why not? Maybe because you are the only person here who is proposing that.

  • Brad Aug 15, 2017

    Did you see that a crowd in Durham engaged in “self help” and took down a monument. This may be the beginning of a trend. Reminds me of people pulling down Soviet statues following the breakup of the USSR. I’m not equating the two, just saying it reminds me of that.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 15, 2017

      You are going to see more of this and those cities where the monuments remain are likely going to have to spend a good deal of money on cleaning materials and other maintenance.

      • John Betts Aug 15, 2017

        That would be unfortunate. I cannot support such mob actions and am concerned it will only result in even more violence. Having said that though, in some ways legislators in a few states aren’t helping matters. By making it so difficult to remove or even alter these statues and monuments in local communities, they are leaving folks little alternatives. I believe in South Carolina it takes a 2/3’s vote in their legislature to approve any change or removal to them. This is a nearly impossible threshold to meet, which they no doubt intended.

    • John Betts Aug 15, 2017

      One of the things I don’t like about this is who was involved in this act. If you look closely at the signs many are carrying, they say “World Workers Party” on them. That’s a communist group, supporters of an ideology every bit as noxious and oppressive as Nazism. There’s very little difference IMO between Hitler, Stalin and Mao. All 3 are responsible for some of the worst acts of genocide in human history.

  • John Betts Aug 15, 2017

    Kevin, have you seen this article from The Atlantic? I was surprised because I honestly thought this had been dealt with years ago when I first heard about it in the news. I guess not. I just wrote to the governor of my state about this. Confederates honored in Statuary Hall? That’s disgraceful!

    https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/confederate-statues-congress/536760/

    • Kevin Levin Aug 15, 2017

      Yes, I read it and was already aware of their presence.

    • Mark Snell Aug 16, 2017

      What’s even more ironic is that West Virginia’s first contribution to Statuary Hall was a memorial to Joseph Kenna, a Democratic senator from West Virginia who unexpectedly died while in office in 1893. Although Kenna was born in Kanawha County (in the future state of West Virginia), he moved with his mother to Missouri before the Civil War and then fought on the side of the Confederacy. He returned to West Virginia after the conflict and when ex-Confederates were allowed to re-enter politics in that state after 1872, he began is ascendancy in the Democratic party. His statue was dedicated in 1901, nine years before Francis Pierpont, known as the “Father of West Virginia,” had a statue in the Hall dedicated in his memory.

      • Bob Lee Aug 20, 2017

        No, I think Kenna perfectly represents West Virginia. If West Virginia removes any statue it should be Francis Pierpont who, along with other Union authorities, arrested between 2-3,000 West Virginia civilians and sent them to Camp Chase and other Federal prisons, and who basically kidnapped hundreds of thousands of West Virginians into a new state they did not support. In one “Union” county 1 of every 20 voters ended up in Camp Chase. 18,000 votes out of 79,000 potential voters is not a great endorsement for breaking up Virginia. “The Union men of West Va were not originally for the Union because of the new state.” That is what he wrote Lincoln on Dec. 30, 1862. In other words, Pierpont’s statehood movement hurt Union efforts in WV. So I would support removing Pierpont.

        (By the way, people assume because of my FB name that I am some sort of neo-Confederate, which I’m not. That just happens to be my name. Bobby Lee, actually.)

        • Mark Snell Aug 21, 2017

          I was not advocating for the removal of any statue. I merely was commenting on the irony of Kenna’s statue. (The primary reason that he has a memorial at all is that he died while in office.) At this point, West Virginia has far bigger fish to fry than pondering the removal/replacement of statuary, either in the nation’s capital or on its own capital grounds.

  • Scott A. MacKenzie Aug 15, 2017

    I have to wonder if (or when) some will target Union memorials because they believed the figure was not sufficiently anti-slavery or held racist views. If that were the case, there’s a long target list – many of whom are sacred.

  • John Stoudt Aug 15, 2017

    The questions which you raise may lead to answers with which you may — or may not — agree. That is part and parcel of engaging in a discussion. Once the discussion is finished, then a decision will be reached. If you were in charge of the state and NPS properties, then what would you do with the Confederate statues and monuments on those lands?

  • Ryan Aug 15, 2017

    What are the tangible benefits of potentially looking at these monuments and treating them the exact same way as a monument in a town square or in front of a municipal courthouse? Many parks are experiencing decreased visitation. Many of the battlefields were previously administered by the War Department, and the military (both historically and to this day) embraced servicemen from North and South to foster unit cohesion. UNLIKE monuments in battlefields, the monuments in public spaces have direct, meaningful impact on citizens who pass through these spaces every day going about their daily lives. They are part of a contemporary landscape. Battlefields are decidedly preserved and presented in an historical landscape. ‘m all for improving how the provenance of ALL monuments are interpreted to the public, but a park should decide whether it saves more from removing monuments, or by engaging with many audiences to increase visitation. That might entail engaging more with social historians and USING the monuments to great effect to offer broader teaching lessons about postwar society.

  • Steven Mynes Aug 15, 2017

    While I am against the removal of monuments from battlefields, I’m not sure the argument they should remain in National Parks is any more valid than that for monuments on other civic properties. And honestly, post-Charlottesville, I’m not sure anyone is listening to the argument for their preservation any longer.

  • woodrowfan Aug 16, 2017

    I keep hearing “what’s next? Tearing down statues of Washington? He owned slaves!” We honor Washington (and Jefferson, etc) DESPITE the fact that they were slave-owners for their other services to our country. What else did Lee do for the US that deserves all the recognition he’s been given? Service in the Mexican-American War? Rejecting a continued Civil War via guerrilla war in 1865?* University president? All are worth remembering, but none to the extent he deserves monuments all over the country. We remember Robert E. lee because he was one of the most important leaders of a rebellion against a legitimately-elected government in defense of a government created expressively to preserve slavery. That’s not, IMHO, worthy of being memorialized by monuments all over the county.

    * which is in itself arguable due to his turning a blind eye to the KKK.

  • Mark Snell Aug 16, 2017

    Woodrowfan: Just to add to your list: Lee was instrumental in overseeing the construction of coastal fortifications for the defense of the United States during the antebellum era and also served as the ninth superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy from 1852-55. At West Point, where he graduated second in the Class of 1829, he is remembered with a barracks and an officers’ housing area that bears his name. In addition, two portraits of Lee are on display: one In the cadet mess hall depicting him in his US Army uniform when he was superintendent, and a painting of him in his Confederate uniform is in the cadet library, Jefferson Hall. Though not “monuments, ” per se, the barracks and housing area are considered to be “living memorials.” (For a discussion of these types of memorials, see G. Kurt Piehler, Remembering War the American Way, Chap. 3.)

  • Chris Evans Aug 16, 2017

    I have been thinking on it and eventually I suppose they will be dealt with. I think that they should stay. I think battlefields that just had union monuments would almost look silly. And why not try to take down the union monuments too. There minds were not pure enough either for some. I think it takes us down a rabbit hole. We judge and judge. The south was wrong, lost the war yes. What if in the end America is wrong?

    I like studying both sides. I write fiction from both perspectives. But my goodness could we not look at this in a sane and lucid manner. Mark Twain said That history made him as mad as the present day. Could we just deal with it and say I understand terrible things happened but this war was fought by two sides. Both who rightly or wrongly should be remembered. American history is a complex thing it is not remedied by vanishing everything we do not like.

    American Indian have no reason to celebrate Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and Custer but I believe these men of course should be remembered and Grant’s tomb not be torn down.

    I think John Adams and John Quincy Adams should have monuments yet they were flawed men too. This country was built by flawed men and women. The original sin of slavery ran deep and still courses through the veins. Taking everything we object out of sightlines will not fix our problems.

    I still find it humorous that Lincoln and Grant had more respect, understanding,forgiveness than people do now about it all and they were there.

    It reminds me of Douglas MacArthur and what his mother would tell him before he went to bed. She was a southerner her husband a hero who earned the Medal of Honor at Missionary Ridge in the army of the Cumberland and she would say “You must grow up to be a great man like your father and Robert E. Lee.” The point was not that Lee was a traitor it was that both had fought up to the hilt and done their duty.

    Chris

    • Sandi Saunders Aug 16, 2017

      But…were “they all there” for the reinvention of the “Lost Cause” and monument craze? The proliferation alone shows a more sinister than respectful purpose IMO.

  • Stephen Hoy Aug 17, 2017

    This monumental revolution is long overdue. If we want “a more perfect union,” we must strive for continuous improvement. I hope that, after removal of these monuments revering the anathema of racial supremacy, new artworks are commissioned that reflect contemporary values of equal justice under the law. Out with the old, in with the new.

    • Sandi Saunders Aug 17, 2017

      Excellent point and there are so many events, people and ideals in our history that we could actually improve our nation by publicly celebrating. Our ideals as the theme is a brilliant idea IMO.

  • Keith Bohannon Aug 17, 2017

    I will limit my comments to the Chickamauga National Military Park where I have given tours for years, but I think my observations would apply to other national parks that interpret Civil War battlefields.
    1st- The majority of Confederate monuments at Chickamauga mark battle lines and troop positions. Several mark where important generals fell. They were placed there by the veterans at the time of the park’s creation. They are an ABSOLUTELY INDISPENSABLE CULTURAL RESOURCE in the park. Anyone who has given tours there constantly uses the monuments to orient visitors and explain battle action. I can think of few changes that would be more wrong-headed and disastrous to the park than the removal of monuments.

    2d- The first interpretive panels a visitor sees when he/she walks into the Chickamauga Visitor Center talk about the creation of the park and the erection of monuments. The panels also talk in detail about Jim Crow and disfranchisement taking place at the same time as the erection of the monuments.

    3d- I have known the permanent interpretive staff at Chickamauga for many years. They are all professional, objective, and highly knowledgeable historians. They talk a great deal about race, slavery and postbellum race relations in their interpretive talks and are well aware that the monuments in their park were erected during a time when race relations were fraught with violence and tension.

    Keith Bohannon

    • Kevin Levin Aug 17, 2017

      Hi Keith,

      Great to hear from you and thanks for the comment. First, let me make it clear that I am not necessarily advocating for the removal of all monuments at our national battlefields. Once again, I am simply suggesting that some of the questions that are currently being debated apply to these sites. And let me be very clear that I am in no way impugning the work of the NPS. I value the work of the NPS and have written extensively on this blog in support of their efforts. Thanks.

  • Nancy Welsh Aug 19, 2017

    What about the Confederate monuments inside the US Capitol? How can we, as a nation, allow them in a federal government building?

  • DTC Aug 21, 2017

    Without getting too wordy or argumentative, here are my opinions in brief:

    1. The monuments in public squares, local parks, at public universities, at county courthouses, and in Congress should go. They are an insult to the African Americans they were built to itimidate. They are offensive, pure and simple.

    2. Most of those at Civil War battleground should stay. They are displayed within a context that defines the tragedy of the Civil War. To me, they belong to the same genre as the far simpler Jacobite monuments at Culloden. They speak to the arguments, emotions, and events of the time. They are extensions of the museums one finds at virtually all of those battlefields. That doesn’t mean that every monument should stay. If they are inaccurate, unduly provocative or indecorous, take them down. But on the whole, they define context.

    3. As for secession, one arugment comes to mind suggesting that the South never really thought of secession as a legal right: They raised armies and went to war as a first response. They seem to have given no significat effort to argue their case in courts of law. If they had believed in secession as a Constitutional right, it seems unlikely to me that starting a war against the Union would not have been a last resort, not an opening gambit.

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