Protect and Interpret Confederate Monuments on Civil War Battlefields

In the late 1990s Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. toured our Civil War battlefields. He was disappointed both by what he saw and especially by what he read and heard at various interpretive stops. Rather than call for the removal of Confederate monuments, he demanded a more inclusive interpretation that ultimately pushed the National Park Service further in the direction of interpreting Civil War sites within the broader context of the history of slavery.

The North Carolina Monument on the Gettysburg battlefield

The congressman understood that our Civil War battlefields are opportunities to learn about our complex and often divisive past. With Confederate monuments coming down across the country over the past few years it is easy to conclude that all of them need to be removed, including those located on Civil War battlefields.

This would be a mistake.

There are important differences between the way Confederate monuments function in public spaces such as downtown intersections, public parks, court house squares and a battlefield.

Removing Confederate monuments would deprive battlefield interpreters and educators the opportunity to focus visitors on the long history of these important historic sites, whose stories did not end with the battle itself.

Sites of history soon became sites of commemoration and memory. Understanding this process of memory making through the dedication of monuments and memorials can help shed light on broader events in American history and why the war and its legacy remains divisive to this day.

Confederate monuments at Gettysburg shed light on themes of reunion, the Lost Cause and later the Cold War as well as “massive resistance” and the Civil Rights Movement.

At the same time there is a great deal of overlap between the questions we can and should pose about Confederate monuments in public spaces and those located on battlefields. There are numerous challenges associated with interpreting battlefield monuments and we certainly shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we can defuse the pain that they may cause for some in the name of education.

That, however, is not a justification for their removal.

I agree with historian Gary Gallagher, who recently wrote this for Civil War Times magazine:

Before moving on, I will acknowledge that some critics have questioned the educational value of monuments. Education cannot reach everyone, they insist, and in the meantime monuments can offend some people—so we should take them down to make everyone feel safe. These arguments are misguided. Education is not just a convenient rationalization in support of retaining some elements of the memorial landscape; it is the only hope for a serious, productive engagement with our past—warts and all. And no education of any value depends on selective erasure of troubling dimensions of America’s story.

Visitors should expect to be challenged and made to feel just a little uncomfortable when visiting a site of such violence and learning about a moment in history that  transformed the United States in ways that we are still struggling to come to terms with.

In a 2011 article for The Atlantic Ta-Nehisi Coates explored why so few African Americans identify with the history of the Civil War era. His observations were based, in large part, on his own visits to Civil War battlefields. In the final paragraph he offered this observation that I think can be applied to all of us in this moment in time:

The Lost Cause was spread, not merely by academics and Hollywood executives, but by the descendants of Confederate soldiers. Now the country’s battlefields are marked with the enduring evidence of their tireless efforts. But we have stories too, ones that do not hinge on erasing other people, or coloring over disrepute. For the Civil War to become Our War, it will not be enough to, yet again, organize opposition to the latest raising of the Confederate flag. The Civil War confers on us the most terrible burden of all—the burden of moving from protest to production, the burden of summoning our own departed hands, so that they, too, may leave a mark.

Let’s get to work.

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 latest 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. Order your copy today.

17 comments… add one
  • Jim Percoco Aug 12, 2020 @ 12:48

    Since the NPS at Gettysburg offers so many programs on the battlefield, maybe they should offer a monument tour that explores some of the history associated with some of the monuments, both North and South. I’ve always thought it kind of interesting that of all the Union Memorials to Corps Commanders that were at Gettysburg have a monument, but Sickles does not, because he tried to embezzle money for one of the New York Memorials. This kind of program would offer more of a look at Gettysburg as a place with a contemporary context.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 13, 2020 @ 2:27

      Hi Jim,

      Good to hear from you. I think you mean that there is no equestrian monument honoring Dan Sickles.

      Monument tours would be great, but I also think the NPS is going to have to rethink how it interprets its Confederate monuments in light of recent politics and this ongoing wave of removals that stretches back to 2015.

  • Jim Raschke Aug 11, 2020 @ 15:39

    This has gotten Way Out Of Control. Erasing American History is not going to help but, make America worse. All of this is like living in Hitler’s days. It’s going to cost our Country billions of dollars. Erasing history means school’s history books. Even American History classes in college. We just can not throw away our history. People need to think with the brain that God gave them. Our Battlefields are Suppose to be “Hollow Grounds”. Even our Cementaries. We need to show Respect to our Fallen Hero’s.

  • Mark Turpin Aug 10, 2020 @ 5:44

    Pretty soon they will try have us believing that only blacks fought for the Union

    • Kevin Levin Aug 10, 2020 @ 6:12

      Well, they certainly did not serve in the Confederate army.

  • Erick Hare Aug 9, 2020 @ 7:53

    This is exactly on point. I am concerned with the over-reach of these times which are attempting to erase US history altogether. Tearing down statues of Ulysses S Grant, Frederick Douglass, defacing the Lincoln Memorial. Not acknowledging the American Revolution and the ideals espoused within it by the 1619 Project which actually led to the Abolition of slavery and equal rights under the law. Repealing civil rights law in CA in the name of affirmative action.

    We stand on the shoulders of giants, all flawed, who helped society progress to a place where there truly are equal rights under the law, but the over-reach of the riots and unrest is a reversion from the progress made by the Civil Rights movement. My former professor Bruce Levine always framed his lectures, classes and books with the claim of the Civil War being the Second American Revolution because it was the second revolution in US history. Slavery is illegal in the US today and American citizens have equal rights under the law because of the progress made and the ideals fought over in the Civil War as well as the American Revolution.

    However, slavery is still pervasive in the world today and there are more slaves globally today than there were in 17th through 19th Century America. Not to get too political, but securing the southern border is part of trying to limit the ability of human trafficking across the southern border by drug cartels. It’s not something that is discussed on a national level, but slavery and human trafficking still exists illegally in the US today and we still need to fight it to the best of our ability.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 9, 2020 @ 7:59

      Monuments have very little to do with teaching history. Removing a monument or memorial does not erase the past. In fact, monuments often intend to erase history by narrowly selecting what individuals and organizations choose to celebrate a given time.

      I also believe you are mischaracterizing the 1619 Project.

  • Matt McKeon Aug 9, 2020 @ 2:09

    Scottish and Norwegian flag? Specifically?

  • zenshinroshi Aug 8, 2020 @ 10:29

    Let just close down the whole Civil war industry professors,statues books.Remove all mention of the 17 presidents who owned slaves. Get rid of Lincoln n after all he was a white Supremacist. Ban the Norwegian Flag and the Scottish flag. How about a Statue of Robespierre.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 8, 2020 @ 10:35

      Take it easy.

  • John Bell Aug 7, 2020 @ 9:28

    Wonder why we don’t hear calls for interpreting yankee monuments on battlefields?

    • Kevin Levin Aug 7, 2020 @ 10:02

      Interesting point. What about these monuments would you like to see interpreted in the form of a wayside marker, etc.?

      • John Bell Aug 7, 2020 @ 17:42

        I don’t know. Maybe you could come up with something. Something to put them in “context” so people can understand them. I don’t need context, I know what they are about.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 8, 2020 @ 1:01

          Well, I wasn’t the one who suggested it.

  • Eric A Jacobson Aug 7, 2020 @ 8:46

    Kevin,

    Great post and I agree about Gallagher and Coates. Here in Franklin, which of course saw its own terrible battle, we have worked for the past three years on what we call the Fuller Story. The culmination of that will be the dedication and unveiling of a USCT state next year (hopefully on Juneteenth) to commemorate the hundreds of black men from Williamson County who served in the US Army. In addition, I and others have argued that the Confederate monument here should not be removed, but we absolutely must acknowledge the pillars on which the Confederacy was built. We must fully acknowledge what is carved right into the monument’s base. It is long overdue.

    Like those who fought and died in Vietnam, we can remember and commemorate the service of the men who fought and died in the war while acknowledging that American foreign policy in Indochina was utterly flawed.

    I hope we can soon cross this bridge and move on to a better place of understanding and acceptance.

  • Timothy Talbott Aug 7, 2020 @ 4:40

    The recently formed Battle of New Market Heights Memorial and Education Association (BNMHMEA) is working, in the words of Mr. Coates, “to leave a mark.” The mission of the organization is to bring awareness to this significant battle and the United States Colored Troops who fought there, and to place a commemorative monument at the site of the battle. To learn more about the organization and for stories about the men who fought there, check out the BNMHMEA website at https://battleofnewmarketheights.org

    • Kevin Levin Aug 7, 2020 @ 4:42

      Thanks for the information.

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