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.’