Gary Gallagher on Confederate Monuments

Gary Gallagher was recently interviewed on the current debate in Charlottesville, Virginia over the future of Confederate monuments. Gallagher makes a strong case for contextualizing these sites rather than removing the monuments.

I agree entirely with Gallagher that interpretation of these sites can help us to better understand the tough questions related to the history of race in this country and I also agree that any serious look at our nation’s history should, on occasion, make us uncomfortable. At the same time I also believe that there are many ways that we can achieve these goals, one being the removal of certain monuments.

That said, my hope is that Charlottesville’s city council will take advantage of Gallagher’s expertise on the history and memory of these sites.

[Uploaded to YouTube on April 14, 2016]

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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24 comments… add one
  • Jim Gicking Nov 1, 2017 @ 10:18

    I had just listened to a CSPAN history series podcast before looking for more on Prof. Gallagher, there giving what seemed like a concluding lecture to a UVA class on Civil War Memory, explaining how the meaningof the conflict has changed over time, and cautioning against imposing any contemporary view that it was fundamentally fought for or against slavery. I found it disturbing that he argued that far and away the primary motivation and contemporary “memory” of those fighting for the North, was preservation of the union, not an end to slavery, and that the statues erected well after the war, in the south were meant, if I understood him correclty, to celebrate a more states-rights version of southern motivation for fighting the war, for honor, and for a less defined noble, “lost cause.” This is a familiar, and abhorrent, theme to me. I had at least two years of Virginia history while an elementary student (on an Air Force base) and then bussed off the base to attend the newly-built, segregated Jefferson Davis Junior High School, in 1961-63, in Hampton. The south seemed to be still fighting the war, and was certainly celebrating its heros. But at its core was racism, pure and simple. To my father’s horror, I wore a gray Rebel uniform in the marching band, with an optional button-on Confederate battle flag shield. The school newspaper was The Rebel, we were The Rebels, shouted Rebel chants, and the Rebel Yell to and from football games. I also recall a minstrel show in the school auditorium, complete with black face, and portraying a “negro” shuffling across the stage. Needless to say, we won every parade, even one where I for the first time heard, and saw, and extraordinary “colored” school band that was superior in every way to our own. Crammed down our throats were history lessons about not just Virginia as the Land of the Presidents, but that the “War Between the States” (never the Civil War) was an economic war, was not about slavery. It saddened me to hear essentially the same basic message being purveyed by Prof. Gallagher. While he certainly didn’t advocate for the “lost cause,” he downplayed and largely dismissed any civil war-contemporary understanding that slavery, and fighting against slavery was what the young men from the North thought they were engaged in doing. Unless I’ve completely misread and understood the history of the war, including The Battle Cry of Freedom by the venerable James McPherson, and other works covering the decades leading up to, and during the Civil War, that does not properly describe the way the combatants, at least the vast majority of those fighting for the Union, understood what they were doing. While the maneuvering and attempts to negotiate and compromise to avert a civil war, and words spoken by Lincoln and others in power to hold the existing union together, both before, during, and to some extent after may have underplayed the issue, slavery was the issue. The monuments erected decades afterwards in the south, in the Jim Crow era, were erected as reminders of continuing white domination, of who remained in charge. These are not quaint artifacts offering opportunities for teaching moments. The analogy to Nazi statues in Germany is apt. They should go.

    • Sandi Saunders Nov 1, 2017 @ 11:36

      Jim, I love your comment!

    • dale Feb 14, 2019 @ 8:05

      During the Trail of Tears, the American Indian tribes had thousands of black slaves that they took with them. They kept their system of racial slavery after the Trail of Tears was over and brutally crushed slave rebellions. Does that justify the Trail of Tears? No. But our culture has simplied it to a victim/villain story which really isn’t accurate.

      After, the Civil War ended, the top generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan from the Union side of the Civil War used their same armies and their same brutal tactics of “scorched earth” warfare to fight the American Indians. They targeted non-combatants including children. General Sherman boasted of genocide. Were they the good guys? Absolutely not! They are generally painted as heroes because they fought for the Union in the Civil War and played a role in ending the system of slavery.

      In the Civil War, the South practiced slavery and defended slavery which is wrong. But the white Northerners didn’t fight for the rights of black people. They were racist themselves. General Sherman was absolutely a white supremacist. He promised to help the south kill negroes and whites pushing abolition of slavery if the would stay loyal and subservient to the Union. When the South seceded he promised to “Make Georgia Howl” and murdered their families and burned their homes down. This isn’t a simple victim/villain story. Both sides committed atrocities and were villains.

      Lastly, every culture has their heroes an their symbols. Your father chose to move to Virginia and enroll his child in public school, and they have their own history with their own narrative and their own heroes.

  • David Kent Apr 16, 2016 @ 10:03

    Signs with appropriate history lessons at statues would only be good if the things they said absolutely infuriated the neo-confederate racists. If signs of this nature were put up, it may do some good. How long they’d stay up, or were defaced beyond recognition, is another question. We can’t forget that many of these statues, etc, were not put up by people who were actually concerned in the war itself. The civil rights movement put up many of these “monuments”. If any of them were removed, I’d start with any put up post 1960. They represent hate and segregation……..not the war.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 16, 2016 @ 11:00

      Signs with appropriate history lessons at statues would only be good if the things they said absolutely infuriated the neo-confederate racists.

      Text for a wayside marker should reflect careful research and provide helpful context for those who are interested in better understanding a particular site.

      • David Kent Apr 17, 2016 @ 8:34

        You’re exactly right. The signs should do exactly what you said. But the people you seem to be at battle with over the “black confederate” issue are the same people were talking about. They don’t want the truth, as the facts of history show it. If they did, there wouldn’t be a black confederate issue in the first place. Instead of being thrilled to have you, a history professor, on their Facebook page, they block you. That tells you right there who you’re dealing with. If you respond to me, I’m thrilled. But I want to study and learn. All these people are interested in is expounding their revisionist history, none of which is based on facts. I’m glad that you take the time to dispute them, as I’m sure you could find better things to do with your time.

  • Pat Young Apr 16, 2016 @ 3:28

    Professor Gallagher is taking what is essentially a political position about statues in his own community. I would assume that he has had conversations with impacted stakeholders beyond the academy about these views. Such a dialogue is a pretty normal part of the process. I know that if there is an issue where the African American community is a major stakeholder, I will call up Lucius Ware at the NAACP and several black pastors to set up meetings with people in those communities to engage in a discussion. I would not be under an obligation to change my views based on what I heard, although I usually do, but I would want to hear what they had to say, express my own opinions, and develop a methodology for further engagement.

    I would think Professor Gallagher has done that already and I would have liked to have heard what the reaction was. Did his discussants dismiss his point of view, did they agree, were they split in their reactions? How did he respond to their disagreements or concerns.

  • Pat Young Apr 16, 2016 @ 2:57

    Professor Gallagher is not simply giving an opinion on something that happened in the past, he is weighing in on a contemporary political decision with social repercussions, I would assume that he has had extensive discussions with people in the impacted community as part of his deliberative process.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 16, 2016 @ 3:02

      As you know I have weighed in on these discussions as well, but my views have certainly not been shaped by “extensive discussions” with the African-American community. I have done my best to listen to people I come into contact with, both online and in person, and through a good deal of reading. Should I resist speaking out on this subject?

      Thanks for the comments, Pat.

  • Pat Young Apr 15, 2016 @ 18:33

    Strangely they don’t have statues up of blacks or Latinos who oppressed white people in Charlottesville. I wonder how whites would feel if a downtown public space was dominated by someone who had subjugated them and held them as inferiors based on their skin color.

    Over the last 150 years we have seen over a thousand memorials to Confederates go up, and almost none to blacks of the Civil War Era. The notion that the solution is more monumentation to blacks is based on the assumption that such statues will never really go up.

    I like Professor Gallagher’s books, but the idea that Confederate statues should stay up so that a few hours a year college professors can conduct walking tours to properly interpret the Lost Cause/Jim Crow meanings of the statues to privileged college students seems insensitive at best. Gallagher says that the massive statues should stay up, even though he admits that they have little to do with the Confederacy and everything to do with later day white supremacy.

    I wish he had talked about how the local African American community reacted when he met with them in their community groups and churches to discuss his position.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 16, 2016 @ 2:24

      I like Professor Gallagher’s books, but the idea that Confederate statues should stay up so that a few hours a year college professors can conduct walking tours to properly interpret the Lost Cause/Jim Crow meanings of the statues to privileged college students seems insensitive at best.

      I think this is a bit too flippant. I for one find great value in these tours and I do believe they provide an important service to the community.

      I wish he had talked about how the local African American community reacted when he met with them in their community groups and churches to discuss his position.

      Why does Gallagher need to meet with the African American community to discuss his views? I don’t follow.

      • Pat Young Apr 16, 2016 @ 2:49

        “Why does Gallagher need to meet with the African American community to discuss his views? I don’t follow.”

        I would assume that he reached the conclusions he reached after conversations with the communities that have been most impacted by the erection of what he refers to as symbols of the Jim Crow era. I would like to know how people in those communities reacted in those dialogues.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 16, 2016 @ 2:52

          I still don’t follow. I would have said something very similar and I have never engaged in the kind of conversations with the black community that you describe.

          • Pat Young Apr 16, 2016 @ 2:53

            That seems odd. Why not?

  • Forester Apr 15, 2016 @ 13:43

    I’ve suggested contextualization on Facebook and people just ignore the idea. Norfolk and Portsmouth are divided into some radical extremes. Personally, though, I think a new sign marker explaining the context of the monuments would help a lot.

    Or maybe change the signage to reflect BOTH sides; turn it into a Civil War monument instead of a specifically Confederate one.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 15, 2016 @ 14:38

      Why assume that a wayside marker will “help” people who wish to see monuments moved. Signage certainly has a function, but it may not be what those that are most engaged in this issue need.

      • Sandi Saunders Apr 15, 2016 @ 14:47

        There is some place for any “contextualizing” and more information but that cannot and will not displace the point of the monument any more than the facts of why they were put up in the first place has. Monuments, memorials and statuary are honors. Nothing you can say in any marker, signage, display or informational effort will change that fact. I doubt very seriously that the neo-confederate flaggers will ever allow any such context to be added. I think that is a wishful thinking compromise that some think will work and it won’t. This is an issue where facts are not really relevant and overcoming that is a high hurdle. The disinformation and intimidation is strong in flaggers.

      • Forester Apr 15, 2016 @ 18:11

        “Why assume that a wayside marker will “help” people who wish to see monuments moved.”

        Good question. My thinking is that a sign can serve as a disclaimer. A lot of people feel that the city is endorsing the monuments’ assumed message by leaving the statues in place. A sign helps take the edge off, letting people know that the monuments are historical relics and that Portsmouth and Norfolk are not actually hostile to black people.

        Have you ever been to Portsmouth? The statue sits in the middle of a street between the Visual Arts Center of Tidewater Community College and the historic 1846 courthouse. It sits in the gap between two incompatible worlds. Perhaps I am being naive, to think a sign would change anything (but at least it would help).

        • Kevin Levin Apr 16, 2016 @ 1:50

          The Georgia Historical Society’s Historical Markers program is a great example of how signage can function to reclaim a long forgotten event and landscape or revise our understanding of one already known. On the other hand, I have never heard from anyone passionate about the removal or the maintaining of a Confederate monument that a wayside marker is needed as some kind of solution.

          Yes, I have been to Portsmouth.

  • David Kent Apr 15, 2016 @ 4:58

    This is, and will always be, a tough subject. Our history, good and bad, should always be taught and studied. However, I don’t believe I’d like to drive by a statue on my daily commute to work that commemorates a person who legally enslaved, murdered, tortured, and raped my great, great, great, grandma. I don’t think anyone would.

  • Sandi Saunders Apr 14, 2016 @ 15:52

    First, thank you for sharing this, I would likely not have seen it otherwise.

    I bow to no one in my deep appreciation and admiration for Gary Gallagher, I have watched many of his lectures and talks, read his books and just enjoy his style of relaying information but I was taken aback at his rather blithe dismissal of those who want the statues gone. I do not think he even made an effort to acknowledge the emotion that might be tied to the wish for the message of these statues to be removed from everyday paths, even with a suitable version of “contextualism”. There is no equivalence between those clinging to the “Lost Cause” great-great-great grandpappy’s heroism and the story of black Americans. I would have applauded him for at least getting that in there somewhere and I feel sad that he did not.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 15, 2016 @ 3:08

      That’s just not Gallagher’s style. He acknowledged that individuals have strong feelings about these monuments, but is committed to their preservation for the purposes of education. While teaching in Charlottesville I did roughly the same tour with my students that Gallagher outlined. I agree with him that these sites are incredibly important, but I also understand that my understanding of the value of these sites is just one perspective among many.

    • Bryan Cheeseboro Apr 15, 2016 @ 10:21

      Like you, I also have an immense appreciation for Gary Gallagher. He has become my favorite Civil War historian today. As far as “equivalence” between Confederate memory and African-American history, you’re right; there is none. One is based on the rise of a people overcoming prejudices and discrimination at every turn. the other is based on a rebellion that never wanted Blacks to be anything but subservient, degraded slaves.

      Perhaps he didn’t elaborate but I think he gets the point that the glorification of the Confederacy does not sit well with many people, not just most African-Americans (notice I said “most” because it certainly works for Karen Cooper, H.K. Edgerton and other African-Americans who idolize the Confedercay). But I think he made his point when he said history will make us uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s more about our capacity to deal with the ugliness of the past rather than trying to hide it away.

      Is it really possible to remove all memorials, monuments and place names of those whose historic memory is objectionable to us? Because there’s a lot more than just the Confederacy. I’m not saying nothing should be done; but rather than take down, I agree with Gallagher that more should be added. I certainly get what the war was about but I think there may be no greater teacher to how big the Lost Cause got than all of the monuments and the embracing of the battle flag. Just my two cents.

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