Confederate Monuments Should Remain on Civil War Battlefields

Last week I was interviewed about the possibility of future legislation that would authorize the removal of Confederate monuments from Civil War battlefields within the National Park Service system. I am against their removal from the landscape.

I say this with the understanding that these monuments pose some of the same challenges that those located in public parks, intersections, and court house squares represent to the community. The difference is that battlefields offer an opportunity to educate the public—an opportunity that simply does not exist anywhere else.

It is no surprise that this debate has been centered around Gettysburg. If I am not mistaken it contains the most Confederate monuments of any Civil War battlefield. Their location along Seminary Ridge or Confederate Avenue has helped to reinforce the Lost Cause narrative and especially the battle’s “High Water-Mark” narrative. Most people can point to the Lee monument while standing at the “Bloody Angle” but may have no idea where the equestrian monument of General George Gordon Meade is located.

North Carolina Monument at Gettysburg National Military Park

Civil War monuments located at National Park Service sites offer a unique opportunity to educate the public about competing interpretations of Civil War memory. Right now the NPS at Gettysburg does a good job of interpreting the history of battlefield commemorations in its museum exhibit, but there is next to nothing on the battlefield itself. This is especially problematic given the number of visitors who skip the visitor center entirely or choose not to spend time in the museum.

Efforts to interpret these monuments through wayside markers, tours, and other programs need to include both Union and Confederate monuments with the goal being to place them in conversation with one another. The monuments are a reminder that the history of the Gettysburg landscape and other Civil War sites extends well beyond 1865. They are as much a part of the story as the wartime events themselves.

I don’t know if a new “Holding the High Ground” initiative is necessary, but this work is not going to be easy nor should it be. The monuments raise some of the toughest questions about how Americans have chosen to remember and commemorate the Civil War era—decisions that continue to divide us today.

Any serious attempt at interpreting Confederate monuments will have to face head on the events of the past few years, beginning with the shooting of nine African American churchgoers in Charleston in 2015. It is no accident that these monuments have become targets in the wake of Charleston, Charlottesville, and Minneapolis. Confederate monuments can no longer exist in a vacuum cut off from the broader culture.

Battlefields are not time capsules.

My hope is that renewed attention on these monuments will help to defuse them over time. And it will take time. Maintaining the status quo is not a solution. We have an obligation to face our history. With sufficient support and funding the National Park Service is perfectly positioned to take the lead on this important work.

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14 comments… add one
  • paineite Feb 21, 2021 @ 7:16

    Don’t agree and deeply disappointed to read your views on this. These monuments to traitors have encouraged a subculture of violence, repression, and secession that still curse the nation and its citizens — especially citizens of color — to this day. The idea that some park ranger or docent is going make it better by putting it in context strikes me as Pollyanna at best. The time is long overdue to get rid of monuments to treason and its defenders.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 21, 2021 @ 7:54

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      The idea that some park ranger or docent is going make it better by putting it in context strikes me as Pollyanna at best.

      I didn’t suggest that this would be the result or that it should be a goal. Far from it. I think people should be made a bit uncomfortable by the sight of these monuments for the reasons you mentioned.

  • Kerry Feb 21, 2021 @ 7:12

    Sorry, I commented on Twitter, but I think there are some challenges (opportunities) in interpreting monuments on the battlefield, but going to a battlefield is such a moving and thoughtful experience already that it seems like the best place for this. Museums also, but I think it’s harder there.

  • Nick Sacco Feb 21, 2021 @ 6:58

    To your point, I think there’s something to be said about the power of place. A Civil War battlefield enables people to have meaningful conversations about the Confederacy in ways that are probably not as effective at other public places where that history might be commemorated or glorified with little context.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 21, 2021 @ 7:04

      Exactly. Well said.

  • Topher Kersting Feb 21, 2021 @ 5:07

    Agreed completely. It’s been one of my local arguments for relocating one monument: the Gen. Alexander Stewart monument on the Hamilton County Courthouse (Chattanooga) grounds to Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Battlefield Park, because Stewart was the first superintendent of that park.

    The NPS is constantly improving their interpretation of the often difficult histories behind the sites they protect, and I expect their work to continue.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 21, 2021 @ 5:18

      I actually don’t think this is a good idea. The NPS has a responsibility to interpret existing monuments, but battlefields should not, in my view, be seen as a dumping ground for unwanted monuments.

      • Topher Kersting Feb 21, 2021 @ 6:21

        I get that, too. The problem here, though, is that removal of the monument keeps getting voted down, so Black citizens keep receiving the message (“You won’t get equal justice here.”) that the Lost Cause intended. The relocation of this specific monument makes sense from the perspective that Gen. Stewart actually has a connection to Chickamauga Battlefield (more than to Chattanooga itself), so it could be a useful compromise, since 6 of 9 of the county commissioners seem unwilling to budge on moving it.

        Personally, my hope would be that they “relocate” it to the Battlefield, where it would linger in storage for the next hundred years while they decide what to do with it.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 21, 2021 @ 6:30

          Thanks for the follow up. The question of where these monuments should be relocated to is a huge problem, but I also wonder whether the consideration of the NPS will only complicate things. The red tape involved will be extensive. Have park officials at Chickamauga even expressed an interest in the monument?

          • Topher Kersting Feb 21, 2021 @ 6:55

            I have not seen park officials express an interest publicly–I would be surprised if they got involved openly in something this politically charged–and my best contact there relocated to another park, so I no longer have a decent inside contact, unfortunately. A bigger complication is that relocation would require moving the monument across the state line into Georgia, unless it was moved to a location in one of the external units, such as Missionary Ridge (where Stewart’s men fought on the left flank, but after he was wounded at Chickamauga, so it doesn’t make much sense there either).

            • Kevin Levin Feb 21, 2021 @ 7:02

              I think you hit the nail on the head. There is likely going to be little interest in such a move from the NPS given the likelihood of legislation calling for the removal of already existing battlefield monuments.

  • Gary Pershing Bangle Feb 21, 2021 @ 4:58

    History is yesterday learn from it. You cannot change it. You may not like it but it was yesterday.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 21, 2021 @ 5:00

      The debate about Civil War monuments is not about the history of the Civil War, but about how it is remembered and commemorated. This is an important distinction when it comes to this issue.

  • 65th NY Guy Feb 21, 2021 @ 4:15

    Well said.

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