The Redeemable Confederate

What was likely the final legal challenge to the removal of the P.G.T. Beuaregard monument in New Orleans ended today with a judge denying a temporary injunction. The three remaining monuments will likely come down within the next few weeks.  I suspect that this will happen sooner than later given the potential for violence.

Did it have to come to this? I agree that this is a somewhat silly counterfactual, but let’s imagine for a moment a monument to a former Confederate general not depicted in military uniform and/or on a horse.

What if Beauregard had been depicted in one of his postwar civic roles that highlighted his thoughts on race:

I am persuaded that the natural relation between the white and colored people is that of friendship. I am persuaded that their interests are identical; that their destinies in this state, where the two races are equally divided, are linked together; and that there is no prosperity for Louisiana which must not be the result of their cooperation.

I am equally convinced that the evils anticipated by some men from the practical enforcement of equal rights are mostly imaginary, and that the relation of the races in the exercise of these rights will speedily adjust themselves to the satisfaction of all. [July 1873]

What if R.E. Lee was not atop a pedestal, in uniform, facing north with arms clenched, but depicted in a scene from his brief tenure as president of Washington College that encouraged education in a reunited nation?

Would these monuments be on the chopping block right now? What do you think?

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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20 comments… add one
  • Erick Hare May 9, 2017 @ 16:35

    I think history can be a messy subject and in a lot of ways it is hard for society in general to recognize the redeemable nuances in history such as Beauregard’s stance on racial equality after the war, Lee’s leadership at Washington and Lee College and Longstreet’s muddled career in Louisiana fighting against white supremacists in the Battle of Liberty Place.

    Society, by and large, will only see the obvious defining characteristics and actions of historical figures. This is why George Washington is remembered primarily for what he did as a founding father of our country and as our first president not primarily for the fact that he was a slaveholder. This exactly why Lee, Beauregard, Longstreet, and many others entire legacy in history will be inextricably tied to the peculiar institution and racial inequality in the South. Unfortunately their redeemable qualities will ultimately be overshadowed by their ties to slavery in the long run. As noble as many of their actions were you can’t get them away from the actions they took on behalf of the Confederacy during the Civil War and the nuance of their overall character will ultimately fade into the dusty corners of history books.

  • Andrew Smith May 9, 2017 @ 13:09

    Would we even know who Beauregard was were it not for his role in the Civil War? Would we even care what he thought afterwards?

    • Scott Ledridge May 9, 2017 @ 14:02

      But, we do. So, then we need to decide, if he is to be immortalized, what part of him to immortalize. His role in trying to dissect the US? Or his active role to unify it? I’d say the latter is much more productive.

  • Ken Noe May 9, 2017 @ 6:39

    “What if Beauregard had been depicted in one of his postwar civic roles that highlighted his thoughts on race?”

    Had that been possible, we’d also have a James Longstreet statue there, depicting him leading the police and African-American militia against the White League at Liberty Place in 1874.

    • Kevin Levin May 9, 2017 @ 6:43

      Another interesting and relevant example. Thanks, Ken.

  • David Blight May 9, 2017 @ 5:39

    Hi Kevin. Nice posting. The problem with your interesting question is that even Lee’s short tenure as college pres did not soften him to black rights. But your question does raise the notion that nations and cultures monumentalize war but rarely reconstructions or peace agreements. Lee surrendered but signed no peace treaty. The problem with taking down monuments is if anything more political than ever putting them up. David Blight

    • Kevin Levin May 9, 2017 @ 5:52

      Hi David,

      What a pleasant surprise hearing from you. In eleven years of blogging I think this is your first comment.

      You are absolutely right re: Lee and his postwar position on black rights, but we can take it one step further. There is an excellent essay in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (not sure of the date/issue) that explores this very issue. The author found that Lee did very little to prevent clashes between students at Washington College and Lexington’s black population. William Mahone might be an interesting example to consider, but I wonder whether any framing of his postwar career on the racial front without acknowledging the Crater would constitute a significant distortion of the relevant history. You raise a good point about what, as Americans, we tend to commemorate. In fact, one could make the argument that our obsession with preserving Civil War battlefields reflects the assumption that Americans are at their best when killing one another.

      Looks like we are both speaking next month at the Georgia Historical Society’s NEH workshop. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like our talks will overlap. I very much look forward to our next meeting. Hope all is well with you.

  • Ted McKnight May 8, 2017 @ 21:31

    When the chopping block includes numerous other monuments and dozens of street names in NO all the way to renaming the nations capital, I would say that the push to change history has barely scratched the surface. The posture and facing of a monument does not matter if the goal is total destruction of society as we know it to be replaced by an immoral secular political system.

  • Eric Swanger May 8, 2017 @ 18:58

    It’s a good question. The Beauregard one might probably stand (or be last on the list). And with the Lee monument, it wouldn’t make a difference, he’s too famous. And Davis is just Davis, really.

    Another good question to ponder is would the openly white supremacists be out in force if the Beauregard monument were to his post-war character? Would the literal Nazis (the guy in the SS shirt, for example) be out in force to protect someone they would probably see as a race traitor?

    But then, that monument would never have been erected in the first place. There’s a reason why the white supremacists are openly rallying for these monuments – and it’s the same reason they were erected in the first place.

    • B Wetherington May 14, 2017 @ 16:36

      Would the re-enactors in Southern Discomfort who are so interested in history be interested in participating in a re-enactment of MLK, Jr. in the Birmingham Jail, or the bombing of the church that killed the little girls, the murder of Emmitt Till, the March on Selma or other historic events from 50 to 60 years ago.

  • B Wetherington May 8, 2017 @ 18:45

    Yep, many of the generals and other leaders of the Confederacy worked for the greater good for all after the war. I would to see a monument of Beauregard sitting in civilian clothes looking off into the distant future with those quotes on the pedestal on which he sits. A much better vision for the tranformations that started after the ACW and are still being worked through

    • Kevin Levin May 9, 2017 @ 2:54

      OK, but couldn’t someone respond by suggesting that this is a distortion of the man’s overall life? But for the fact that the Confederacy lost, slavery would still exist.

      • Kristoffer May 9, 2017 @ 4:40

        I don’t think they could respond with that. Beauregard was willing to accept the outcome of the American Civil War as settling the issues of slavery and secession, as Andy Hall has cited here:
        Based on that, I’d say that the new monument proposed by Wetherington would represent Beauregard’s open-mindedness.

        • B Wetherington May 14, 2017 @ 16:30

          In some way we have to say that if you learn from, admit and try to correct the mistakes you have made then you have a right to be considered redeemed, reformed or rehabilitated. Did losing cause that change? It was probably a big factor if not the only one. But at the same time I can say I understand though do not approved of slavery, racism, and such things but know that most people just know, believe and do what everyone around them does. Beauregard changes his story. Most of his contemporaries if not most of his descendants did not or have not.

  • Andy Hall May 8, 2017 @ 17:09

    As I understand, the judge has agreed to hold a hearing on this new document. But it seems unlikely that this will go very far, given that the ownership of these monuments was litigated through multiple hearings and courts over months and months. The first thing the plaintiffs are going to have to explain is why they did not present this document at any point in that process.

    They’d better have a better answer than, “oh, we just found this last week.” Judges really hate to be played like that.

  • Patricia Kitto May 8, 2017 @ 16:01

    I think that if the monuments were celebrating the better angels of their natures that their monuments wouldn’t be so controversial. But they aren’t. They are celebrating their contribution in the Civil War. Weren’t they erected as a part of the Lost Cause movement? People are not one dimensional – but what dimension is celebrated, or in this case “set in stone”, matters.

    • Kevin Levin May 8, 2017 @ 16:05

      Hi Patricia,

      They are indeed a product of the Lost Cause and I am not in any way trying to obscure the racial dimension of their placement and meaning. I am simply wondering if there is an alternative that might not have been as controversial.

  • Forester May 8, 2017 @ 14:49

    Are they really being “removed?” Unless they’re destroyed first, someone is inevitably going to put them up someplace. The SCV will probably invest in restoring them on private property and life will go on as usual. Why does a monument have to be in the middle of public property, anyway?

    Seems like much ado about nothing, to me.

  • Scott Ledridge May 8, 2017 @ 14:43

    I made that same argument about Beauregard today. I would say it would be a much more powerful message.

    Lee could even be depicted in his US military role. But, then it really wouldn’t make sense for it to be erected in Louisiana.

    Davis… I can’t make an argument.

  • James Simcoe May 8, 2017 @ 14:31

    I’m genuinely surprised to hear this from Beauregard! But then, he was prone to thinking big during the war. As to present day Confederate mania…we seem to be seeing the last throws of ‘small vs. big government’ as the key to all political discourse; and the bad end to the Civil War when it all began to go downhill! Its too easy, too profitable and lots of fun to stage big picnics about a past Golden Age where everything was beautiful, true and grand…compared of course, to the troubling present. Its very sexy to be a persecuted minority when one is not! People who are being persecuted, don’t find it thrilling.
    Great points concerning what has been memorialized and what has escaped notice.

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