The Importance of Avoiding Reductionism When Explaining Confederate Statues

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.

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18 comments… add one
  • Michael Phillips Aug 23, 2018 @ 18:18

    But they still mislead in suggesting that the Southern “common man” stood for the Confederacy, ignoring the considerable resistance to the CSA in places like East Texas, the “Free State of Jones,” etc. Such statues are a misdirection suggesting that secession was not driven from the top down.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2018 @ 1:38

      I don’t see how you can begin to understand how the Confederacy managed to come close to securing its independence on more than one occasion or how it lasted as long as it did without appreciating the role of non-elite southerners.

  • Jeff Abbey Aug 23, 2018 @ 8:48

    The words “white southerners” are just as useful in defining who an individual really is, what he or she believes, and what their life represents as are the words “white northerners” or “African Americans”.

    Throughout our history it has always been important that our nation truly supports the visionary words in our founding documents, in the songs we sing in celebration of the ideals of our nation, and in our pledge of allegiance.

    “We hold these truths be be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    “- and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.”

    ” over the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

    “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

    To fully realize the potential in these words- our justice system, our nation’s law enforcement, and our freedoms of opportunity need to be as blind to color, creed, and/or socioeconomic history as is possible.

    We can’t accomplish the above vision if we are seen as somehow celebrating the opposite message with monuments placed on public property. We will always as humans fall short of the ideal, yet the ideals stated long ago are lasting in their truth and appeal.

    For our country- our exceptionalism, our prosperity, our stability, and our security is rooted in these words. Anytime we weaken or ignore the above our own lives, liberties, and freedoms to pursue happiness are at risk while the many enemies of these ideals scattered throughout the globe cheer.

  • Algernon Ward Jr. Aug 23, 2018 @ 7:07

    It cannot go unsaid that the destruction of “Silent Sam” by a mob is wrong. While I fully support the removal of monuments to those who participated in treason against the United States, mob vandalism is never the right answer. Removal of any of these flags/monuments should be done in a dignified and orderly way in every case. Unleashing the passions of the mob, especially among young people, sets a precedent that all concerned will surely come to regret. Young people need to be taught that ones goals can be accomplished without resorting to violence as a means to an end. For those who profess to champion causes of conscience, you must be consistent in condemning acts of violence in every case, or risk being seen as hypocrites.

    • Msb Aug 23, 2018 @ 7:23

      What would be the dignified and legal way to remove monuments from communities that find them offensive, when the state has passed laws forbidding communities to make such a decision? I believe both NC and Virginia have passed such laws. What would you counsel UNC students to do when they have no legal recourse? Maya Little may be expelled for a peaceful and nonviolent daylight protest.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Aug 23, 2018 @ 5:57

    “’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.”

    This is what I’ve been feeling and saying throughout this debate. People say “These monuments went up a Jim Crow America, when life was very bad for Black people.” Of course it was but there are more dimensions to it than that.

    • William Sturkey Aug 23, 2018 @ 14:32

      As an educator, I have an obligation to point out that the average life expectancy of a Southern white male born in the 1840s completely refutes your argument about large waves of Confederates dying off in the 1910s.

      That is a common misconception retrofitted (without much thought) for a modern rebranding of Confederate monuments.

      • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2018 @ 15:00

        Hi William,

        Perhaps you can say more about this since I am not quite sure what point you are making or what specifically you are responding to here. Thanks.

        • William Sturkey Aug 23, 2018 @ 16:25

          Sure. I was responding to the point above about Confederate “veterans were beginning to die off in large numbers” sparking monument construction.

          That would have meant a lot of 70+ year-old Confederate veterans still alive in the 1910s. Southerners of any race born in the 1840s simply didn’t live that long.

          I’m highly skeptical of the claim, but certainly open to some evidence that supports this claim that seems to come out of thin air.

          • Eric Burke Aug 24, 2018 @ 4:16

            I have no dog in this fight, but just for our collective edification, the 1910 Federal Census Schedule lists (if my math is correct) 25,310 white males over the age of 65 living in North Carolina. That number would comprise about 3% of the white male population of the state in 1910 (not an insignificant portion, but not enough to make them “common” by any means). 65+ is a fairly good age bracket to go after, given that the 1862 Secesh draft officially focused on men ages 18-35 (of course, plenty much younger and much older also served, mostly as volunteers early in the war). Most soldiers on both sides had been born in the late 30’s, which is why so many of them had names like Martin Van Buren
            (M. V. B.) Smith or William Henry Harrison (W. H. H.) Williams or even still Andrew Jackson (A. J.) Jennings. Our working understanding of the average age of Rebs hovers somewhere near 26, but given all the assorted problems with Civil War data, that number could be significantly off in either direction. Of course, that number does not measure how many parents (probably relatively few), siblings, spouses, children, or grandchildren were still around in 1910 who might have known or loved an ex-Confederate soldier at some time (while simultaneously imbibing all the worst unchallenged assumptions and insidious beliefs in the intrinsic value of white supremacy). It might also be worth considering that most of those still alive in 1910 would have been the youngest of recruits/draftees during the war, making them likely the least wholly aware of the particular political circumstances surrounding their service, as well as the most impressionable during and in the immediate aftermath as the slightly older generation of Lost Causers spun their webs. As someone who enlisted to fight in a war I understood little about at 18, I can relate somewhat to this. Granted, I’m not ready to let them (including, unfortunately, several of my own ancestors) off the hook for their contributions to a war fought exclusively to perpetuate human bondage and white supremacy for all perpetuity, as well as rank treason against the nation I love and have personally sacrificed for, but I do think it’s worthwhile to acknowledge that these men, for all of their moral crimes, were still people. And people are usually very complicated.

            • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2018 @ 4:19

              Thanks for this comment, Eric.

  • Katie Grimes Aug 23, 2018 @ 2:11

    Honest question: I don’t understand how this information makes these monuments any less (or anything more) than monuments to white supremacy. The soldiers they were honoring were fighting for the Confederate cause, which of course was white supremacy in general and Africanized slavery in particular.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2018 @ 3:04

      Hi Katie,

      Thanks for the question. It doesn’t make them any more or less “monuments to white supremacy.” I am simply pointing out that statements that claim these statues/monuments were only intended as one thing represents bad history. Hope that helps.

  • David Doggett Aug 22, 2018 @ 18:01

    Where are the public monuments to those who endured slavery? Where are the public monuments to the black and white Southerners who followed “the call of duty and fought and died for the Union. Standing alone, those Confederate monuments are biased propaganda, not history.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2018 @ 1:20

      Standing alone, those Confederate monuments are biased propaganda, not history.

      Nothing I said here suggests otherwise. I am not sure what point you are trying to make re: the content of the post.

      • HankC Aug 23, 2018 @ 13:16

        I see David’s comment as extending the post’s ideas rather than questioning or contradicting it.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Aug 22, 2018 @ 16:17

    I applaud you for this post. I, too, found Cirillo’s article extremely myopic.

  • Howard B Aug 22, 2018 @ 16:15

    Thank you, Kevin.

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