BookChat with Thomas Brown, author of Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America

I was pleased to spend some time recently with a new book by historian Thomas J. Brown, professor of history at the University of South Carolina. Brown is the author of Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America, published in late 2019 by the University of North Carolina Press (click here for more info). He was kind enough to take a few minutes to chat with me about the book.

What motivated you to write this book in the first place?

I enjoy bringing a historical awareness to my experience of my physical surroundings. My last book, Civil War Canon: Sites of Confederate Memory in South Carolina (2015), examined nationally significant places of remembrance in the state where I live. Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America looks at an especially influential cultural form on the American landscape, the war memorial. Both projects try to convey what I see as I move through the world.

Thomas Brown (photo credit: Joel Elliott)

Monuments, of course, have been a hot topic in the news lately. Did that environment impact your ability to work on the book at all?

I had been working on the book for many years before Confederate monuments became newsworthy. After I thought I had gained control of my topic, I found it challenging to keep up with the pace of public events in the last few years. I also found it difficult to declare the book finished even though I recognized that important events might happen later.

The book argues that monuments “were pivotal to a national embrace of military values.” How do you define “military values” in the book? Who was behind the effort to get Americans to embrace them?

The book discusses a wide variety of military values at different points, but one unifying theme is that Civil War monuments elevated the prestige of the military in American life, including the application of military models to civilian contexts. The book does not describe a concerted campaign to promote military values, as the making of monuments was a highly decentralized process that involved many people in separate communities with local goals. Veterans and their allies were broadly influential, and powerful elements of northern and southern society took an interest in modeling forcible regulation of the labor and racial order. The army sometimes played a role, especially in monuments in Washington, D. C.

You weave what I think is a fascinating tapestry in the book. For instance, you point out that “monuments” include “statues, memorial halls, and other sculptural and architectural tributes,” and that the conversation about them included “fund-raising campaigns, artistic designs,” oratory,” and “ceremonial practices.” That’s a complex context. Can you speak to that a bit for me?

Public sites of commemoration are revealing because they involve interactions among many participants who might or might not agree on the goals of a memorial. The fund-raisers, artists, and orators may bring separate perspectives to a project. That process can continue after the dedication, and some works have changed in significance over time. In the planning stage, decisions about the basic type of a commemoration are important. Many communities and institutions debated the choice between an initiative with uses apart from commemoration, such as a memorial hall, and a form like a statue or obelisk with no uses except for remembrance. Memorial halls can differ, much as statues or obelisks can differ, but I want to make sure that I am comparing like things as I chart the trajectory of various genres.

Were there differences between north and south as people worked on these memorialization efforts?

There certainly were differences that I address throughout the book, though I mostly don’t organize it into separate sections on Union and Confederate monuments. For example, women were more central to the sponsorship of monuments in the South, though they were also significant contributors to patronage in the North. Often the areas of overlap are more striking, such as the theme of victory found in many Lost Cause monuments.

It was fun, for me, to see the incredibly wide array of statues and monuments you featured in the book. (The many photos were very helpful, BTW.) I’m sure you must have found a couple that became favorites. What were they?

The Shaw Memorial remains my favorite, long after I worked with Marty Blatt and Donald Yacovone to edit Hope and Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment (2001), but it was a special treat in this book to turn a spotlight on more obscure works.  Many of them are wonderful, important stories even if they are not great works of art.

Heading into WWI, America still embraced a highly isolationist attitude. Can you speak about monuments and the “militarization of America” in that context?

Militarization is not merely a function of foreign policy. Often it was a metaphor for industrial hierarchy or white supremacism, but it did connect to specific ideas about the armed services. When the United States intervened in World War I, the country organized its military effort in ways that Civil War monuments had facilitated, including reliance on conscription, integration of volunteers with the regular army, and planning by a general staff. And when the United States commemorated World War I, the example of Civil War monuments fostered a belligerent style of remembrance even though rejection of the Treaty of Versailles was a more isolationist alternative than participation in the League of Nations.

How was the social context heading into WWII different, and how did monuments figure into that context?

The public monument was a cultural form in crisis by the eve of World War II, and Soviet enthusiasm for bombastic memorials deepened the American distaste for such commemorations during much of the Cold War. The civic landscape features relatively few memorials to World War II in proportion to the war’s impact on the national imagination, and many of the notable works date from the last thirty years.

How do you think your book can help readers better understand today’s monument controversies?

The book shows that Civil War monuments mostly resulted from community initiatives and  suggests that the future of the memorials should similarly be entrusted to local decision-making. The book also emphasizes that memorialization, including the repudiation of particular monuments, depends on continuing acts of affirmation. From a national perspective, the number of Confederate monuments removed in the next few years will probably be less important than the literary and artistic remembrances of the recent iconoclastic impulse, such as Kehinde Wiley’s new equestrian statue in Richmond.

What was your favorite source you worked with while writing the book?

The designs of the monuments are the most exciting source to analyze, though the artistic conception is only one window into a memorial. My second favorite source would perhaps be maps. I enjoyed engaging community debates over the exact location of memorials, which gave me an appreciation for the social geography of many cities.

Who, among the book’s cast of characters, did you come to appreciate better?

Frederick Law Olmsted was something of a villain in my first book, Dorothea Dix, New England Reformer (1998), but his work with Henry Hobson Richardson on the great unbuilt Civil War memorial for Buffalo and his thinking about public monuments in New York City parks impressed me with the lessons that Olmsted took from the war.

What’s a favorite sentence or passage you wrote?

The first sentence: “American memory began in iconoclasm.” Wherever the book ended up, it started in the right place with the toppling of the New York City equestrian statue of George III in July 1776.

What modern location do you like to visit that is associated with events in the book?

This book is all about specific locations. I’m always delighted to have a chance to visit a Civil War memorial and see how it fits into its immediate setting.

What’s a question people haven’t asked you about this project that you wish they would?

How many memorials does the book address in detail? About eighty-five works get at least a full paragraph of analysis, which ranges up to fifteen pages in the case of the Lincoln Memorial. The book discusses hundreds of monuments more briefly.

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2 Responses to BookChat with Thomas Brown, author of Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America

  1. scott s. says:

    I wonder how military or war museums fit into the “monumental” context? When I go through the WWII Museum in New Orleans it seems as least as monumental as the (now de-populated) Lee Circle a stones-throw away.

  2. Donald Smith says:

    “The book shows that Civil War monuments mostly resulted from community initiatives.” Of course. But the motives of the community who created the monument in the first place shouldn’t be the defining factor that determines whether the monument stays (or is pulled down).nowadays or not.

    Many opponents of Confederate monuments say, in criticism of those monuments, that many of them were erected in the early 1920s as a sign of support for Jim Crow, instead of remembrance for Confederate dead. That may be true. But many of us nowadays see those statues as monuments to our ancestors, who fought for causes they believed in. Those statues may have been erected as Jim Crow support symbols in the early 1920s. But that was almost 100 years ago. For many of us, they have much different meanings now.

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