The media coverage of the removal of “Silent Sam” on the UNC–Chapel Hill campus earlier this week has been intense. The coverage has brought the story of this controversy and the history of this specific Confederate statue to a wide audience, but I find one aspect of it to be troubling.
Here are two examples, first from The Washington Post. In an attempt to answer neo-Confederates, who argue that since most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves individual soldier statues should not be seen as promoting white supremacy, Frank J. Cirillo offers the following:
Everyman Confederate statues were always intended as symbols of white supremacy — a legacy perpetuated, not perverted, by modern hatemongers. They honored men who very much fought to maintain the institution of slavery for the tangible benefits that institution provided even non-slaveholders.
Silent Sam and his ilk were erected as the curtain of Jim Crow descended upon the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were intended as tools of white power, as white Southerners worked to create a rigid, racial caste system.
The second comes from Charles P. Pierce at Esquire:
That’s the history of Silent Sam, the statue pulled down Tuesday night by activists who decided that we have long enough honored treason in defense of slavery, and the horse-whipping of uppity black women, and the murder of African-American men by mobs. Because Silent Sam wasn’t a memorial to the Confederate dead, it was a testimony to the new forms taken on by the evil for which they fought the war. It was a monument to Jim Crow, not to Chancellorsville, the marble manifestation of the lynching culture. I wish they’d taken the damn thing out into a field and blown it to smithereens.
Both of these interpretations take a reductionist approach to “Silent Sam” and other Confederate soldier statues. They reduce their meaning to one narrow interpretation. In this case, that these statues were intended as nothing more than statements of white supremacy and as a message of intimidation against the African American community.
These are not the only examples that I could have pulled from to make this point. I suspect that one of the reasons why authors have so easily backed themselves into this corner is because of Julian Carr’s speech delivered at the dedication of “Silent Sam” in 1913. His reference to “horse-whipping” a black woman shortly after arriving home from the war in 1865 perfectly captures the racial dimension of this particular statue. He was certainly not alone in connecting a statue/monument dedication to racial concerns at the turn of the twentieth. In short, white southerners did not hide their commitment to white supremacy through their identification with Confederate iconography.
But even in reference to “Silent Sam” we can and should acknowledge the other meanings that people at the time attached to this particular statue. Consider this brief mention of the statue in The Tar Heel two years before its dedication.
The author clearly understood the purpose of this monument as an attempt to honor the young men from the university who answered the call of “duty” by fighting for the Confederacy. It was also intended to impress upon the students attending the university in the early twentieth century to honor and emulate those men who answered the call of duty.
Let’s be clear, I am not in any way ignoring or minimizing the importance of race in this discussion. What I am suggesting is that by insisting that these monuments can only mean one thing we are distorting history. “Silent Sam” and many other statues were dedicated at a time when the veterans were beginning to die off in large numbers. Many of these ceremonies were intended to honor their service one last time as well as offer them up as exemplars for young white southerners to emulate.
As historians and as educators we have an obligation to highlight the complexity and messiness of the past. Failure to do so will likely result in the creation and dissemination of a whole new set of historical myths and misconceptions.