Sketching Out a Confederate Monuments Book

I’ve been wanting to write a book about the history of Confederate monuments ever since the spring of 2017, when New Orleans completed the transformation of its Civil War commemorative landscape. I eventually dropped the idea having assumed that my window of opportunity had passed. Given some of the more recent debates and rallies at UNC-Chapel Hill and the continued removal of monuments, I no longer think this is the case. In fact, I now think we will be dealing with this issue for the foreseeable future.

One of the things that has held me back is the inability to envision the kind of book that I want to write. One thing I do know is that I don’t want to write an academic book about Confederate monuments and Civil War memory. That’s been done by a number of scholars. More importantly, I don’t think the general reader is interested in such a book.

Protest in Front of the Robert E. Lee Monument in Charlottesville, Virginia

Monuments are inanimate objects. Readers cannot empathize or sympathize with monuments, which limits the kind of story that I want to tell. I am now thinking that the best way to tell this story is through the eyes of a select group of people who can offer insight into the evolution of monument/memorial dedications and Civil War memory generally. In other words, the history of these monuments and related issues will unfold through the stories of these select individuals.

I am under no illusions that I can write as eloquently as Isabel Wilkerson, but think The Warmth of Other Suns as a model. Wilkerson’s book is a history of the Great Migration and its impact on American society, but it is told through the perspective of a select group of people, whose lives overlap and diverge in interesting ways.

Right now I am looking to explore the following time periods:

  • postwar South/Reconstruction (dedication of monuments in cemeteries, 1865-1880)
  • Jim Crow (height of Confederate monument dedications, 1890-1940)
  • Civil Rights era (1950-1970)
  • Charleston (2015) to the present

I have some idea as to the individuals that might be worth exploring to help frame each section, but I was also hoping that you might have some suggestions for me to consider.  Any thoughts about what I have sketched out here will be much appreciated.

About the author: Thank you for taking the time to read this post. What next? Scroll down and join the discussion in the comments section. Looking for more Civil War content? You can follow me on Twitter. Check out my forthcoming book, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is the first book-length analysis of the black Confederate myth ever published. Pre-order your copy today.

59 comments… add one
  • James F. Epperson Apr 8, 2019 @ 6:32

    “Readers cannot empathize or sympathize with monuments …”—based on my experiences, I’m not sure this is true. Many folks are heavily invested in saving each and every monument that they can.

    As for the broader book idea, I think what you could produce on this subject would be very valuable.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2019 @ 6:39

      Hi Jim. Thanks for the enthusiastic response. I certainly agree with your point. People are heavily invested in these monuments, but I am not sure they are actively engaged in empathy or sympathy in reference to these objects.

    • jalane schmidt Apr 8, 2019 @ 13:01

      Agree. The no sympathy/empathy statement leapt out at me. This does not engage the all the many studies of materiality, nor affect study,
      which have been published in recent years.

      • jalane schmidt Apr 8, 2019 @ 13:02

        Agree with James E’s critique above, that is.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2019 @ 13:06

          Hi Jalane. Thanks for adding your voice. I guess I am still not clear on how such other-regarding emotions are possible in reference to inanimate objects. As I understand it, empathy involves placing yourself in another person’s and looking at the situation from his/her perspective. How is that possible with a monument? Thanks.

    • Mike Furlan Apr 8, 2019 @ 14:51

      Since our money looks like “Baseball Cards with Slaveowners on it” I am surprised that we have taken down as many monuments as we have.

      [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QemYNQfix-c&w=560&h=315%5D

      • David Doggett Apr 8, 2019 @ 15:34

        We celebrate Washington and Jefferson for their other contributions, not for their relationship to slavery. On the other hand, Jackson should go. His genocide and mass ethnic cleansing of Indigenous Americans are unredeemable, on top of his advocacy of slavery.

        • HankC Apr 12, 2019 @ 4:35

          Jackson’s opposition to the centralization of the money supply has always made him an ‘interesting’ choice to be on the currency 😉

  • Rob Wick Apr 8, 2019 @ 6:47

    Kevin,

    One of the first thoughts that came to my mind would be through the eyes of one of the sculptors. Did they use their art as a supportive boost to the Confederacy or was it simply a commission? As an example, Vinnie Ream, one of the few female sculptors in the 19th century, is most famous for her statue of Lincoln in the U.S. Capitol, yet in 1877 she submitted a model of Robert E. Lee for a monument in Richmond. I don’t know how much there would be to any of this, but I have to believe that many sculptors would look at their work as a way to support a belief.

    Best
    Rob

    • Billy Brooksher Apr 8, 2019 @ 7:30

      My town’s monument is actually a relatively mass-produced soldier from the Spanish-American war. From what I’ve read, a number of Confederate monuments fit this description.

    • Herb Wills Apr 8, 2019 @ 8:18

      Perhaps many sculptors, but certainly not all. If Gutzon Borglum was invested in the Lost Cause, it didn’t prevent him from abandoning Stone Mountain to work on Mount Rushmore.

  • Jim Percoco Apr 8, 2019 @ 7:03

    Make it a road trip kind of book weaving in stories along the way about the statues when they were dedicated and what people said then and now about them. Meet and talk with experts in the field if you can. Bring your students with you as your narrative foils. Be sure to talk about the artistic merits as well. For example Charles Niehaus’ statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest is an excellent statue artistically – question remains what do you do with good art versus some of the crud that is out there?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2019 @ 7:08

      Hi Jim,

      I haven’t given this much thought, but it’s a great idea. Thank you.

    • Mark R. Cheathem Apr 8, 2019 @ 9:20

      Like Horwtiz’s Confederates in the Attic? Not a bad idea. And the title could be Monuments in the Garden! (I’ll see myself out.)

      • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2019 @ 9:29

        I like it. 🙂

    • David G Apr 8, 2019 @ 15:13

      Hi Jim—you and I share similar ideas. I agree. I imagine this book as scholarship meets “Confederates in the Attic” and “Land of Lincoln”

    • Joshism Apr 10, 2019 @ 15:52

      I like this idea. “Confederates In The Attic” is one model, but so is “Searching For George Meade” and, if you go outside the Civil War field, “A Walk In The Woods” by Bill Bryson or “Killing Yourself To Live” by Chuck Klosterman.

      • Kevin Levin Apr 10, 2019 @ 16:04

        I am moving further away from this type of approach. Again, I don’t think I can pull it off and I am looking to write a more straightforward narrative history rather than travel narrative that centers around the author as much as the subject. Thanks for you input.

  • fundrums Apr 8, 2019 @ 7:32

    I think it is key to include the speeches that were used to dedicate these moments. That will show the political and social climate and perhaps even the intent of the monuments.

    Michael Aubrecht

    • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2019 @ 7:50

      Yes. Keep in mind that I am currently working on a Confederate Monuments Reader with a historian at the University of Alabama that includes dedication speeches that span the entire history of monuments.

  • David Allison Apr 8, 2019 @ 8:17

    This is a really intriguing idea for a book, Kevin. One story from Gettysburg during the centennial is illustrative of the intertwined personal stories that you suggest as a framing device—Florida Congressman Sam Gibbons spoke at the anniversary event in 1963 and said, “We cannot hope to win men’s minds in the battle with Communism if America because a land in which freedom, equality and opportunity are reserved only for the white man.” At this same event, George Wallace said, “South Carolina and Alabama stand for constitutional government. Millions throughout the nation look to the South to lead in the fight to restore…the rights of states and individuals.”

    My guess is that there are many more examples like this. There is more about Gettysburg during the Civil Rights Movement in Jill Ogline Titus’ chapter, “Memorializing the Confederate Past at Gettysburg” in my edited volume, “Controversial Monuments and Memorials”

    Go get ’em! Let me know if I can help out in any way.
    Regards,
    David B. Allison

    • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2019 @ 8:37

      Hi David. Thanks for the enthusiastic response. I have your book, which is an extremely valuable resource on this subject.

      • David Allison Apr 8, 2019 @ 9:33

        Thank you, Kevin! Good stuff.

  • Miles Apr 8, 2019 @ 9:36

    Kevin, I wonder if there is a space for white southerners who grew up after the civil rights era and associate the monuments with places that they love, and as such, have come around to their removal slowly (reluctantly). As a white and naive UNC student in the 90s, Silent Sam symbolized the university, and a deeply nostalgic time in my later memory, and did not hold racist or confederate symbolism in my mind, despite its original meaning. Yet, as I grew up in my understanding, I came to see how others were affected by its presence and finally decided Sam needed to go. It’s kind of like realizing the grandpa you loved was racist and not knowing how to deal with this new knowledge and having to come to terms with harsh reality that doesn’t fit with your personal experience because you hold a privledged place.

    I think there are a lot of white southern people who are experiencing this disjunction, and I think their story mirrors the evolution of southern society, which is torn between acknowledging an awful history of hate and violence and wanting to preserve an uncomplicated affection for a certain status quo.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2019 @ 9:38

      Hi Miles,

      Thanks for sharing this perspective. Definitely something to think about.

  • Billy Brooksher Apr 8, 2019 @ 9:43

    I’d be interested to see how the power of government has been wielded to protect the monuments. My town’s statue sits in the middle of the town square. Essentially, the city owns the town square, but the county owns the small square on which the statue sits — probably around 50 square feet — which it leased to the United Daughters of the Confederacy for 99 years, then extended until 2033. https://www.gainesvilletimes.com/news/old-joes-history-complicated-current-debate/

    It is basically a privately owned monument occupying a prominent public space. Under Georgia law, it cannot be moved, defaced, or even obscured. I’m somewhat surprised (pleasantly) that no one has sued to force the city to trim the trees lower to make the statue more visible. https://www.ajc.com/blog/politics/the-georgia-law-that-protects-stone-mountain-other-confederate-monuments/IIyMj6919d5JFo40QMS4RJ/

  • EJ Apr 8, 2019 @ 9:57

    Hi Kevin

    Have you considered approaching this project with a “place” theme rather than “time” theme? Maybe instead of breaking it up by time period you can possibly look at specific places (Charleston/S.C., Charlottesville/Virginia, Chapel Hill/N.C., New Orleans/Louisiana, Atlanta/Georgia, etc) and see how Civil War memory developed in these places over time in relation to their monuments going up? Going by time period is probably easier and can encompass more than just the places you would choose to focus on, but I think the “place” theme could be very interesting.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2019 @ 10:08

      Hi EJ,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I have indeed thought a good deal about the importance of place in helping to ground the narrative.

  • Andy Hall Apr 8, 2019 @ 10:19

    When historians look back on the struggle over Confederate monuments, the events of May 2017 in New Orleans will be seen as an important turning point, perhaps the single most important event.

    First, because the Confederate Heritage™ folks really pulled out all the stops, bringing protesters in from all over, blasting out on blogs and social media, live-streaming events as they were happening, and it ultimately didn’t change anything. They drew a line in the sand, and it mattered not at all. Particularly since New Orleans, there’s been a subtle but critical change in the rhetoric — what had been “we will stop you” has shifted to “we’ll be back.” That’s a really important distinction.

    And second, because it was at New Orleans that the out-and-proud white nationalists/separatists/supremacists of the League of the South, Nazis and assorted klansmen showed up to express very, very public public support for iconography of the old Confederacy. Those are some nasty-ass friends to have, and their presence there really does fundamentally undercut the heritage-not-hate spin they want to project.

    New Orleans really did change the whole landscape of the debate.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2019 @ 10:44

      It also demonstrated what an organized grass roots movement could accomplish with a mayor that ultimately proved to be receptive to removal.

  • David Doggett Apr 8, 2019 @ 13:26

    Mississippi is ground zero. Last month the Ole Miss student senate voted unanimously to move the Confederate monument from the front of The Grove, at the entrance to the campus, to a Civil War cemetary. The faculty voted in agreement. The state government is blocking it. All the universities and many of the larger towns refuse to fly the state flag, which is the last one in the country to include the Confederate Battle Flag. Former Senator Stennis’ grandaughter has designed a new flag, and is leading the movement for a new flag.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2019 @ 13:36

      It certainly is, at least for the moment.

    • springingtiger Apr 9, 2019 @ 10:15

      Speaking from my Scots Irish experience, I suspect the demolition of the
      Confederate monuments is counter productive. The more the English tried to destroy and belittle our culture the more we were determined to keep it and the more we resented them. The more the North tries to demonise Southern heroes like Lee, Forrest, Moseby, the stronger the affection felt for them. Particularly as contemporary accounts demonstrate that they were worthy of respect.

      That Northern generals like Sherman sanctioned washing war on civilians only makes Southern heroes shine more brightly in the eyes of Southerners. Trust me, years of denigration of Scots heroes by English educators has provoked such s reaction that Scots choose to be blind to their faults.

      Portraying the war as purely about slavery and ignoring the fact that this was the second time South Carolina had seceded over an unconstitutional tariff, the first time came close to starting a civil war too, merely serves to stir up resentment. It doesn’t help that many of the books and periodicals attacking the South are published by Northerners, in Scotland most people assume the English media is not only biased, but deliberately dishonest. The South will always assume that the arguments arrayed against them are merely propaganda. Until the two countries, North and South learn to treat each other with respect and integrity the Civil War will continue. You have had a little over a century of disagreement, we have had centuries and we haven’t finished yet.

      • Kevin Levin Apr 9, 2019 @ 11:33

        Portraying the war as purely about slavery and ignoring the fact that this was the second time South Carolina had seceded over an unconstitutional tariff, the first time came close to starting a civil war too, merely serves to stir up resentment.

        Get your facts straight. South Carolina only seceded once. You are are referring to the nullification of a federal tariff.

        • springingtiger Apr 9, 2019 @ 12:57

          Okay they hadn’t seceded, but they had raised the militia to fight the federal government. The tariff was unconstitutional and SC had every right to nullify it. It was unconstitutional for Washington to use troops to collect the tariff. Had the federal government not backed down there would have been war. However this does not alter the fact that attacking Southern identity has always and will always prove counter productive.

          • Kevin Levin Apr 9, 2019 @ 13:01

            Thanks for taking the time to comment.

            • springingtiger Apr 9, 2019 @ 13:06

              You are welcome.

      • Msb Apr 11, 2019 @ 1:43

        This long statement starts with an error. This post is about removing or relocating monuments, not destroying them. Monuments moved to museums or cemeteries are not destroyed. Destruction has recently occurred when the local community’s wishes to remove a monument are disregarded by authority. A person with Scots-Irish ancestry should understand that a frustrated community may move from protest to direct action.

  • Brenda Withington Apr 8, 2019 @ 14:40

    I collected some oral histories (audio, video, and stills) around the removal and protest events in Gainesville and St. Augustine, if you’re interested in checking them out. The St. Augustine protests are still ongoing and I’ve been working with a local Reverend on the matter.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2019 @ 14:56

      Thanks for the kind offer, Brenda. I will definitely keep this in mind.

  • Dave G Apr 8, 2019 @ 15:07

    Hi Kevin:
    This is a solid topic. I’m sure you’ve read these books, but I think they could serve as possible models: “Confederates in the Attic” by Tony Horwitz and “Land of Lincoln” by Andrew Ferguson. I’m imagining a book that combines scholarship with travel/interviews with people in areas that contain many of these monuments.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2019 @ 15:15

      Yes, I am familiar with both books. Thank you. The more I think about it, the more I don’t want to write another Confederates in the Attic. I don’t think I could pull such a book off and I really want to write a history book

  • Tiferet Ani Apr 8, 2019 @ 15:28

    Focus on resistance to these monuments in every period you outlined. Interview Bree Newsome for the current period. I’m so tired of hearing white people gripe about how this issue is a contemporary one born out of too much political correctness. These monuments and the way they mark territory have been protested from the beginning.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2019 @ 15:57

      Hi Tiferet,

      Thanks for the comment. One of the central goals of this project is to show that opposition to these monuments goes back, in many cases, to the beginning.

  • CH Jones Apr 8, 2019 @ 17:11

    See Archer Anderson’s “Robert Edward Lee: An Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Monument to General Robert Edward Lee at Richmond, Virginia, May 29, 1890”. Originally published by William Ellis Jones, Printer, Richmond, VA, 1890. If you need a transcription, I can provide one.
    This is the “Big Daddy” of monument dedications, as it was Lee, and it established Monument Blvd. in Richmond. Anderson’s dedication is telling, in that he basically comes right out and says, (paraphrasing loosely), ‘We lost the war but we won the peace. We own the streets, and we venerate our hero’s, and the north doesn’t care, and the negro is back in his place…’
    Archer Anderson was the son of Joseph Reid Anderson, owner of Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond during the ACW. William Ellis Jones (publisher of the dedication speech) was a Confederate artillerist during the war who became a founding member of the Robert E. Lee Camp, which evolved (rapidly) into the SCV.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2019 @ 17:39

      Thank you. I am familiar with this particular dedication address.

  • CH Jones Apr 8, 2019 @ 17:20

    One more comment… sorry… This book is SO BADLY NEEDED. This weekend on a pretty exclusive battlefield tour with a number of prominent historians, the issue of monuments came up and when I just briefly dusted on the idea that some of them (like Silent Sam) may be inappropriately placed by Jim Crow era folks trying to make a statement, a fellow who is an aspiring historian, doing post-grad work, hanging out with all the right people, literally shouted me down, putting his fingers in his ears, refusing to listen, repeating “Nope! Nope! Nope!” like a toddler having a meltdown. He would not even give me the dignity of politely listening then disagreeing. He just shouted at me. I laughed at him and decided I wasn’t the person to educate him. But this is what you are up against.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2019 @ 17:41

      Sorry to hear that. I want to be clear that the goal of my work on monuments has never been intended as a justification to remove monuments, but to help people better understand the history and arrive at their own decisions. Thanks for the comment.

  • Shelley Apr 8, 2019 @ 21:58

    Not sure what outcome are you expecting? Can you share that?

    • Kevin Levin Apr 9, 2019 @ 1:57

      Good question. Certainly, I hope to produce a book that helps readers place the current debate about Confederate monuments in a broader historical context. The questions that we are debating are nothing new. I hope the book also helps readers connect how we as Americans have remembered the war to broader cultural, political, and social events at a given time. Hope that helps a little.

  • Ellen Litwicki Apr 9, 2019 @ 2:59

    Great idea for a book. I would suggest John Mitchell, Jr. of the Richmond Planet. I don’t know how much is available on him (whether there are personal papers, e.g.) but he used his paper to critique the Lee and other monuments. I found the Planet to be very useful in my research on Confederate MD.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 9, 2019 @ 3:03

      Hi Ellen,

      Great minds think alike. 🙂

      I am considering Mitchell for the reasons you mentioned. You probably also know that there is a wonderful biography of him by All Field Alexander titled, Race Man.

  • HankC Apr 9, 2019 @ 8:09

    I think the monuments are not merely odes to white supremacy but also the supremacy within white supremacy.

    Typically, the elites pushed the monument idea as a crumb to the generation of yeoman farmers, merchants and tradesmen whom they led to destruction.

    By the time of the monument era, 1880-1920, most of the major leaders had gone to their reward. Those left were the younger, local, social and political leaders: the same who drove their towns and counties to secession and then raised the companies and regiments to defend slavery.

    These men ( and their ladies auxiliaries) resumed their social position after the war and the lost cause white-washed and absolved them of the destruction they had wrought.

    whether the mob was well-behaved, as at monument dedications, or not, as at lynchings, it was always led by fine, upstanding locals, such as lawyers, teachers, doctors and mayors.

    I’d like to find a monument dedication where a speaker was a farmer who had been a corporal rather than a lawyer who had been a colonel.

  • Ryan Apr 9, 2019 @ 11:43

    Hello! I would be interested in reading such a book. Do you think a separate section on battlefield national monuments/national parks would make sense? They doubtless fit into the same contextual periods you describe, however, I think a lot of people confuse the monuments at parks with their broader social history and context. It would be interesting to note the ways in which such monuments conform to the broader social trends in each era, and how they may also have differed (if at all?).

    • Kevin Levin Apr 9, 2019 @ 11:53

      Thanks for the positive feedback, Ryan. It’s very possible that monuments at national parks will figure into this story. We shall see.

  • Shane Anderson Apr 11, 2019 @ 10:27

    Based on all the debate over Silent Sam’s dedication ceremony, my request would be this: don’t cherry-pick statements from the speakers. During the debate over that monument, every article I found used a paragraph or two from Julian Carr to create the impression that Silent Sam was all about race, and yet when I went digging and found five of the six full speeches given that day, Carr was the only one to reference race. Race was emphatically not the dominant theme of the speakers. I came away even more convinced that we’re not being given the full truth about the purpose of these memorials, and how people of the day felt about them. A comprehensive history that addressed all contemporary points of view would be welcome.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 11, 2019 @ 10:40

      I think you make a good point about how white southerners understood the dedication of Confederate monuments during this period. A wide range of meanings were attached to these monuments and memorials. At the same time the very placement of these monuments reinforced legalized segregation. African Americans had no ability to participate in the public discussions about how their communities would remember and commemorate the war. So yes, these monuments are all about race.

      • Reggie Bartlett Apr 17, 2019 @ 9:59

        No, Shane is on the money here. This is a propaganda push to create a narrative to destroy these memorials that much easier. We’re not being told the whole story, and the so-called gatekeeper of this site is the one pushing the misinformation.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 17, 2019 @ 11:33

          LMAO. Yes, it’s all a plot to destroy every last Confederate memorial and monument. You have a vivid imagination. 🙂

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