Monumental Discussion: Matt Stanley


Part of being an historian is changing your conclusions in light of new evidence. Just days ago, on the anniversary of the U.S. dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, I explained to a colleague how my views on the necessity of dropping that bomb had changed dramatically as a result of having read new evidence and argumentation over the course of the past 12 years. Well, I’ve now changed my mind on Confederate monuments over the course of the past 12 weeks.

It often seems that the social relevance of Civil War scholars exists in direct proportion to the amount of urgency within the public discourse, and, in the case of last weekend’s clash in Charlottesville, the amount of violence in the streets. With even the concept of what constitutes a “Confederate monument” up for debate, current historians possess a variety of overlapping and sometimes contradictory opinions regarding what to do with Confederate monuments that include: reinterpretation through signage (the specific language of which is certain to engender fierce debate), the addition of “counter-monuments,” letting individual communities decide, general removal from public sites (either including or not including NPS sites), and, in some rarer cases, removing public monuments to all slaveholders, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. These are all, I think, intellectually defensible positions. But there is no consensus, and there’s not likely to be one going forward. 

There is, however, across-the-board agreement among scholars that Confederate monuments are never benign, nor are they the same thing as memorials to the dead. Memorials, in point of fact, are distinct aesthetic forms of commemoration. Often present in cemeteries or at sites of grief, they tend to be architecturally stunted (think of the Vietnam Memorial) and symbolize solemnity, mourning, and nonresistance. Monuments, on the other hand, are vertical and towering and celebratory; they honor and they heroicize. And monuments—like all collective memory—tell us far less about what is being commemorated than it does about the values of the people doing the commemorating. Indeed, I distinctly remember one of my mentors asking me during my Ph.D. qualifying exams: “What does the public memory of the Civil War actually tell us about the Civil War?” “Very little,” I replied. “Sometimes virtually nothing.” He nodded in agreement because he knew that public monuments reveal far less about the values, motivations, and public debates of 1861-65 than they do about the values, motivations, and public debates of 1896 (the year of Plessy v. Ferguson) or 1915 (the year the second Ku Klux Klan was founded) or 1948 (when segregationist Dixiecrats were surging).

With that in mind, the boom eras of Confederate monument building were not during the lifetimes of most of the leaders and many of the common soldiers being etched in stone. Rather, being erected between the 1890s and the 1920s—the Nadir of American race relations—and again during the era of civil rights and white massive resistance to racial integration, they were political symbols, often explicitly so. Confederate monuments were also both part and parcel of specific social currents, and the politics and spatial reclamation that underpinned them worked hand-in-glove with white opposition to African American political rights and cultural empowerment. That the monument dedications and, often, the inscriptions themselves, are rife with Lost Cause themes speaks to this reciprocity between Confederate monuments and white power. Indeed, like all monuments, they were designed not to teach history as historians think about history, but to project social and political influence. In fact, many if not most of them might rightly be called Jim Crow monuments.

Even so, as someone who formerly worked in public history, in which the profession’s first instinct is often to preserve then reinterpret accordingly, my initial impulse when the monument debates reignited across the nation (for African Americans in the South they never really go away) was to combine reinterpretation and the erection of counter-monuments (to rebel slaves, abolitionists, white Unionists, African American Reconstruction leaders, common sharecroppers, civil rights participants and the like) with local autonomy. One can’t learn much from obliteration, I supposed, even though many of the monuments as they currently exist teach anywhere from factually inaccurate to morally abhorrent lessons about the past.

I deemed our National Mall as a place where counter-monuments—including recent additions of Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr.—appeared to be working. I held this assumption despite the fact that its current state still depicts a litany of wars and Great White Men, as well as a master narrative of the American past that is intentionally exclusionary because those who shaped the commemorative space (elite white men) were intentionally exclusionary. In fact, the Mall is an ideal case study in how to discuss representation on the landscape, including the relationship between what stories are presented to the public and social and political power. And while I teach this example of the link between commemorative control and social segregation every semester, my earnest hope is that someday I won’t be able to. I envisioned how counter-monuments might play a small role in that positive change.

I was receptive to local autonomy, too. A “popular sovereignty” approach of letting local communities decide had worked well enough in my adopted city of Albany, Georgia, I reasoned. The city’s Confederate monument honors the Confederate cause (which was, it bears repeating, secession and the explicit protection of slavery). Like so many others, it espouses Lost Cause mythology and speaks to our racialized interpretation of values and common political language by insisting, ironically, that local Confederates “fought for liberty.” It once loomed, as nearly all monuments do, over the city’s bustling downtown—its center of commerce and political life. After all, most monuments are placed accordingly in order to maximize exposure, political impact, and cultural authority. Some might rightly call them propaganda. Black Albanians knew this. Therefore, civic leaders in Albany, which is 70% African American, moved their monument several times, first to the fairgrounds on the edge of the town, then to the local cemetery, and finally to another county entirely, where it was rededicated in January 2000. Neighboring Lee County, where the monument now resides along a somewhat remote stretch of highway, is over 75% white. No one seems to complain, I reckoned, so perhaps this site-by-site, community engagement-centered approach works.

I hence tinkered with the idea of this popular sovereignty combined with the preservation and reinterpretation of some of the most egregious monuments, markers, and memorials (think of the Battle of Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans that celebrates white redemption during Reconstruction). I wondered if it wasn’t a mistake to remove even the most repugnant examples of white supremacist memory, as, strangely, those might prove the most useful and powerful models through which to connect the dots between Confederate heritage, Jim Crow, white supremacy, and the persistence of white social power. Perhaps this was an impractical or ill-considered thought. But, overall, I was urging my public historians’ compulsion toward restraint alongside my educators’ obligation toward didacticism, all through the lens of a middle-class white man—someone who’s never faced oppression.

Yet learning models and what is theoretically ideal or intellectually defensible must take a back seat to peoples’ lived experiences and existential concerns. As such, I’m now convinced that my incremental, technocratic, and authority-derived approach was naïve, and perhaps supremely so.

From where the political will for widespread reinterpretation might arise, I wasn’t sure. From where the funds for numerous counter-monuments might come, I could not say. The extent to which Confederate monuments would become flashpoints of deep and longstanding racial inequities, sinister reactionary politics, and even outright violence, I could not predict. My approach, I slowly realized, was the public history equivalent of something between an academic exercise and a labyrinthine, impossibly wonkish non-fix. Contemplating my position as an “expert” and a white person, as well as being in dialogue on the issue with racial minorities, particularly my students—the vast majority of whom are African Americans—also shaped my evolution. As historian Anne Marshall explained this week with regard to monument removal in Kentucky (which was not even a part of the Confederacy, mind you) and the failure of reinterpretation in Louisville: “Contextualization in public spaces doesn’t work because monuments speak not only to who had power in the past, but who has it in the present.” Indeed. The stories we tell always both reflect and perpetuate social power, even when we re-tell them. And sometimes social resolutions must be simple and urgent because peoples’ immediate needs demand nothing less.

There occasionally comes a point when the fetishization of the past encroaches on the well-being of people in the present, and even all the well-meaning learning resources and reinterpretation paradigms one can muster are wholly insufficient to justify the collective harm. To be sure, although Confederate monuments are not monolithic—despite the typical Jim Crow origin, they were erected in different places in different eras, and dedications and inscriptions do vary with regard to political intent—the overall impressions they elicit—the dominant public narrative they forward—is that of honoring the Confederacy, a government that was created explicitly to protect the institution of slavery, and of championing the Lost Cause, a cultural blueprint for whitewashing slavery, undermining Reconstruction, redeeming white southern honor, and justifying segregation and racial inequality. The academic particulars mean very little to people of color who encounter these monumental white supremacists in public places all across the South on a daily basis. With nuance a luxury of buffs and scholars, and with mass reinterpretation and counter-monumentation an impossible ideal, Confederate symbols—public symbols on taxpayer-supported public spaces—have for too long been sources of division and, for African Americans especially, sites of social and political alienation, of personal and communal trauma, and of ongoing oppression. Their removal is merely a part of—and must be a step toward—a larger social movement and political project toward racial justice.

No one seeks to “erase” Confederate history; there are plenty of books, classrooms, museums, cemeteries, and private institutions where Confederates and their symbols will continue to be explored, discussed, and remembered. But because it’s ultimately impossible to deny the considerable extent to which these monuments were created to symbolize the white supremacist and patriarchal prerogatives of elite white men during the Jim Crow era, their current existence represents too great of an antithesis of the choices, values, and aspirations of most Americans to rationalize keeping them intact in public domains. The recent attachment of white nationalist, men’s rights, neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, and alt-right political factions to these symbols only makes this link between Confederate heritage and white power, both then and now, all the more evident. Like Confederate flags, the public monuments must go. A multiracial democracy—and the immediate needs of those whom the monuments were specifically erected to accost, intimidate, and subjugate—demand it.

18 Responses to Monumental Discussion: Matt Stanley

  1. Great post. Interesting points presented. Many of them are on target. I have to throw some “buts” in here though. You have presented the statue and monuments and memorials within the context of “the times”, as in the ‘the times’ they were erected, ‘the times’ they represent. etc. It’s necessary to point out that the outrage over them and the present assault on them has everything to do with ‘the times’ of today as far as political intent and pay off. After all, many if not most of them have been here for over a generation. Why NOW the sudden haste to completely remove them? While it is fair to discuss them, the means of removing them in the dead of night and/or via out-and-out mob violence ABSENT such discussions is as equality reprehensible as what the statues represent. At least it is to me.

    This is presented as an entirely racial issue. While no one can deny that race will always play a role in such things, I do not believe the erecting of the statues was based on that alone, or as a primary reason. In some cases it might not have factored in at all. I believe they had everything to do with continuing ‘the rebellion’. They are a great big middle finger pointed towards Washington, DC. Those who erected them were heck bent on retaining their heroes, and they did so.

    But another very important element is in play here. You state that Confederate history can’t be ‘erased’ because of all of the other means of conveying it. History is ‘revised’ all the time. In Japan, their history books in their educational facilities and institutions do NOT present any mentions of Japanese government and military culpability for the atrocities committed in their name during WWII. Many readings of history texts concerning the westward expansion of America reflect a one-way, monolithic expression that the ‘white man showed up and targeted for extinction all those peaceful, nature embracing Native Americans’, when serious study of that period shows that things were much more complicated and not so easily explained. I mention all that because I don’t think it is CONFEDERATE history that is trying to be revised or erased, but that of the Democrat Party’s role in all vestiges of slavery and the civil War. Again, it’s about the politics of TODAY, and these statues are certainly a convenient target to say the least. I do not a have problem with their removal, I have a BIG problem with the PROCESS being employed, and the REAL reasons they are being taken down. I see no evidence of honesty being any part of it so far!

    I say again to you, “great post”.

    1. You are right on the mark with your observation that the monuments symbolize “a great big middle finger pointed towards Washington D. C.” or in the terminology of “their day” supremacy of state’s rights. Slavery was one of the issues in the state’s rights debates. The hypocracy of the monument removal advocates is that they want to sanitize the symbolism & focus only on slavery, even though most of them are also supporters of sanctuary states & cities defying Federal authority & law enforcement. The monuments they are defacing & stealthfully removing are today probably more symbolic of their resistance to Federal authority than racial discrimination.

    1. A monument where a Confederate general is proudly displayed upon a pedestal is not equivalent to say Gettysburg Cemmetary/Battlefield where over 40,000 died. Symbols that overtly glamorize the Confederacy, has no place in America.

      1. A monument where a Confederate general is proudly displayed upon a pedestal is not equivalent to say Gettysburg Cemetary/Battlefield where over 40,000 died. Symbols that overtly glamorize the Confederacy, have no place in America.

      2. But your ignoring the reality. There was legislation proposed last week to remove any Confederate symbols from Federal property. Yep…that includes NPS battlefields. Slippery slope we are on..

  2. Sheboygan, Wisconsin has a great statue of a Union Soldier high up in the sky over looking their park in the middle of their business section of town. My ancestors arrived their in the mid 1850’s.
    It is such a beautiful sight. And I was so proud to know it partially represented my ancestor, who fought along side both Sherman and Grant during the American Civil War. It still makes me feel proud whenever I think of that beautiful statue.

  3. Sorry but I disagree with your rambling pontification. You did not show your “New evidence ” and certainly the destruction of Robert E Lee’s monument can not be blended with Jim Crow. Lee was not that kind of person and shouldn’t be lumped in with the aftermath of the War in which so called reconstruction planted seeds of hate…thanks again to Washington politicians and northern big business. The north may have given the slaves their freedom, but nothing more. The north was a fertile ground of segregation, discrimination, and hate not only for the southern people but for the free blacks looking for jobs, homes and a chance to realize opportunity.

  4. How is the cultural and political milieu of the times that raised the monuments less important, historically speaking, than what’s happening today? As historians, isn’t it essential for you to preserve as much as possible about the thoughts and actions of people in their times, whether you agree with those people or not? Removing the monument will neither erase the feelings of those who erected it nor solve the underlying problem of continued racism. History is at stake here, and education is the key to understanding the extremely complicated history surrounding not only the Civil War but also the cultural reactions to, uses of, and posturing about the war in succeeding generations.To say that people don’t understand the history behind the monuments and therefore should be excused for grossly simplifying what the monuments stand for is unacceptable and smacks of the current trend toward “alternative facts.” And to allow the so-called alt-right to appropriate the statues for their own ends is nothing less than kowtowing to domestic terrorism. Move the statues if you must; put them where they can be safely studied and preserved. And then work to promote honest discussion of the real problems at the root of this sudden controversy over Confederate monuments–racism, ignorance, and the acceptance of violence as a means to a political end.

    1. Here here! Well stated! “Presentism” can be a dangerous endeavor to implement. The Greeks and the Romans all indulged in behavior that is considered abhorrent, and in many ways illegal, today. Should we be targeting THEIR histories as well? Where and when does it stop?

  5. There are no complicated views of the Civil War. The only people who see complications in the reasons for the Civil War are people who want to romanticize that period. It was about preserving and expanding slavery. If you want to say it was about states rights the only state right that was up for debate was the right to own slaves.
    Dr. Stanley gives a masterful and detail analysis about Monuments juxtaposed to memorials. Couple that with the timing of the erection of these Monuments and you have to conclude that they weren’t placed their for historical preservation. As far as books re-writing history, that’s actually the purpose for these monuments. They portend to tell a story of the heroism and honor of men who were not. By definition and function they were treasonous and traitors AND LOSERS. Since when did America erect monuments to such people?

    Bravo Dr. Stanley.

  6. Having missed this post when it first appeared, I was grateful for the opportunity to read it now. As always, thanks to Chris Mackowski for publishing the piece and to Matthew Stanley for the thoughtful attention he has brought to this charged topic. Those interested in the depth of Stanley’s scholarship will want to consult the current issue of The Register, the quarterly journal of the Kentucky Historical Society. The book forum contains a dynamic consideration of his important book, _The Loyal West: Civil War and Reunion in Middle America_ (2017).

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