Who Still Mourns Confederate Dead?

There is one small passage in UNC Chancellor Carol Folt’s recent statement on the future of “Silent Sam” that I found somewhat puzzling. On the other hand, I guess it shouldn’t be surprising to see a statement that acknowledges the different meanings that Americans attach to this particular Confederate monument and others.

Here it is:

At the same time, we also hear daily from our community, citizens from across North Carolina and the country, who have always seen the statue as a memorial to fallen soldiers, many of them family members. I hope we can agree that there is a difference between those who commemorate their fallen and people who want a restoration of white rule. Reconciliation of our past and our present requires us to reach deep into our hearts and across the state to the people we serve.

The initial push to construct monuments in the former Confederacy took place in cemeteries and were intended to mourn the dead. [This is explored thoroughly in Caroline Janney’s book, Burying the Dead, But Not the Past (UNC Press)] We tend today to dismiss this profound sense of mourning and loss that hung over countless families in the push to reduce everything to the re-establishment and maintenance of white supremacy during the Jim Crow-era.

During this later period white southerners continued to view these monuments and statues as places to remember the fallen and their sacrifice even as these very same ceremonies helped to prop up and justify local governments steeped in white supremacist rule.

Organizations like the United Confederate Veterans, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and United Daughters of the Confederacy were established, in part, to keep the memory of these men alive for a new generation that had not experienced the war years.

But my question today is the extent to which Folt’s statement even applies to how Americans, particularly in the South, identify with these monuments and statues as place to mourn the dead. Few people attend Confederate Memorial Day ceremonies and those who do tend to be older. Membership in the UDC and SCV continues to dwindle to the point where it is difficult to imagine them even existing in a few decades.

My point is that Folt’s statement is more political in this regard as opposed to accurately reflecting how Americans interpret these monuments and why some continue to rally around them. There is no evidence that I have seen that the majority of monument defenders have Confederate ancestors or if they do that it is their memory that is driving their actions.

All of this said, I do believe that for those Americans who have a need to commemorate their Confederate ancestors or Confederate dead generally that they be allowed to do so. There are numerous Confederate cemeteries that can and do accommodate these ceremonies and the location is entirely appropriate. In fact, it is difficult for me to understand why these people would not want to confine themselves to the quiet and privacy of these locations given the intense debate in places like Chapel Hill and elsewhere.

The fantasy that you can mourn Confederate dead in public spaces today without acknowledging the cause for which they fought and apart from roughly the last 150 years of American history is ‘gone with the wind.’

8 comments add yours

  1. Certainly some of the more intemperate commenters here ostentatiously wave around the memory of their ancestors, and the more fact-based ones, such as Andy Hall, can and do say that they had ancestors on the field (and who they were). That said, however, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head: at this distance in time, it is now increasingly difficult to separate soldiers from their cause, and the most definite way to do so is to draw a line between commemoration in public spaces and in cemeteries.
    My reading says that conscription ensured that the majority of Confederate white men ended up in the army, so I assume that Confederate dead comprised a larger share of the white male population of the South than Union dead in the rest of the country. I have always wondered if that, as well as seeking to control the narrative, had something to with the fervency of Confederate mourning in the South. I’m not sure of this, however, and would welcome comment from the better informed.

    • It’s an interesting point, but one that I can’t directly prove. Certainly the Lost Cause narrative ran rough shod over conscription to paint the Confederacy as unified from one end to the other, both on the battlefield and home front (including enslaved people).

    • “At this distance in time, it is now increasingly difficult to separate soldiers from their cause. . . .”

      This is a big part of it.

      Most Civil War soldiers, North and South, left little or nothing in terms of a written record of their service during the conflict, and indeed not much record of their lives at all. Of course their families knew them, and passed along information about them to succeeding generations, but that knowledge and understanding of them inevitably became diffused, selective, and garbled in the telling and retelling. As I have said before, family lore is a bit like a multi-generational game of “telephone” — what has come down to us today in the 21st century may have little resemblance to those stories and accounts as they were originally told.

      And of course, many persons today don’t even have that tangled, fragmentary bit of information to hold onto about their ancestors. (Some of my own Confederate ancestors were that way.) So what they are left with are the few bare facts that show up in census records, military service records from the National Archives, and more general information about the military units and actions they served in. There ends up being a vacuum when talking about these ancestors, particularly when it comes to describing them personally. In the absence of real information about what they were like, what they believed, what their good and bad attributes were, it’s natural to fall back on the simplistic, patriotic tropes of the Lost Cause to fill in the gaps. So they end up “honoring” those men with a string of clichés and assumptions that, likely as not, have no relevance to those old veterans’ authentic stories whatsoever. The lack of real information about these men means that everyone ends up, by default, being depicted as brave and patriotic citizen-soldiers, nobly and enthusiastically rallying to the cause to the defend hearth and home from the perfidious Yankees. It’s a cartoon.

      The Confederate Heritage™ folks sometimes cite a figure in the tens of millions — 50 million, 80 million — of the number of Americans who are descended from a Confederate veteran. They’re not wrong about that, statistically, but the reality is that with the passage of time, as those men recede farther and farther in the past, real connections to them inevitably fade into the darkness. Not many people alive today ever knew a Confederate veteran (or a US Civil War veteran either) in any meaningful way, and most will never meet anyone who did. That’s just a fact of time and the human lifespan.

      Perhaps we have lost something in that, but I prefer to think that we have also gained something, which is the ability to have perspective on our shared past (whether it happens to be our collective history as Americans, or the personal history of our own families), and to be able to look at the historical record with clear, unclouded eyes, un-swayed by the emotions or perceived obligations that people closer to those events necessarily had.

  2. I wonder how many more proximate fallen they go to visit and remember. Spanish American, The 1st World war? It just seems selective to me, but then Its not my blood relations dead or remembering the dead. Just a citizen observing the larger fields. When I heard a radio program head wondering why there were vets and poppies at the front of the grocery stores I realized we were post historic. I wouold hate to see that procede faster. Can we separate the personal from the divisive? I don’t know. But graves will be a minor skirmish in that, may they rest in peace through it.

  3. I think the last sentence of this post absolutely hits the nail on the head. It is the very thing we are trying to do here in Franklin, and as we have already seen, it is not easy.

  4. Following on Walter’s point above, how many people today visit the graves of ancestors who died in the 1860s? For an adult in their 50s or 60s today, a Civil War serving ancestor is one of 16 ggg’s or 32 gggg’s. Today’s “son” would be lucky to share 6% of his DNA with any particular Confederate ancestor. As Walter writes, the choice to celebrate one or two among many ancestors is indeed selective. On the other hand, maybe the many more millions of “sons” of union veterans should take more pride in ancestors who actually destroyed the Confederacy and slavery?

  5. I once read that by the third generation most people are completely forgotten by their descendants. If this terrifies you, then be safe in the understanding that you will be dead when it happens. So stop worrying about it.

  6. This is one of the best pieces I have read so far on the issue because you point out that both sides have rights that need to be respected. Your last statement even succinctly a major cause for this conflict: There has been a population and attitude shift in the last 135 years,

    153 years ago, these statues were put up in public spaces to commemorate the figures of the past, presenting the figures as heroes to look up to (physically and intellectually) and emulate. That’s why they were put public school and government property. While there were objections to the statues at the time. they were not numerous enough or strong enough to make a difference.

    135 years later, those voices are now strong enough, and numerous enough to get the ears of legislators, and to inspire public debate.

    I hope that the issue continues to evolve through the recognition that BOTH sides have legitimate views and rights. We will be at that point when we move from talk of just removing the statues to talk of removing the statues and relocating them in front of history museums, national and/or state battlefields or historical sites, or in cemetaries.

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