On Monuments, America Must Never Surrender to Confederates, Old or New (part one)

part one of four

ECW is pleased to welcome guest author Frank J. Scaturro. Frank is president of the Grant Monument Association and the author of President Grant Reconsidered and The Supreme Court’s Retreat from Reconstruction. He is currently writing a book about New York City’s largely forgotten sites from the founding era. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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This essay draws context from the Civil War and Reconstruction often overlooked in the national controversy over monuments, which, while long running, has become much more pronounced since 2020. Just as importantly, it reflects on what monuments are in the first place—how they merge history and citizenship—and the distinctive place they have in American society.

Self-respect Versus Counter Reconstruction

Two years after his retirement from the presidency and the end of military enforcement of Reconstruction that soon followed, Ulysses S. Grant lamented what he saw in the South. “They have not forgotten the war. . . . I do not see what the North can do that has not been done” to advance reconciliation between the two sections that recently fought the Civil War “unless we surrender the results of the war. I am afraid there is a large party in the North who would do that now.” He believed in going “as far as possible in conciliation, but not far enough to lose self-respect.”[1]

Grant was talking not about monuments, but about the unacceptability of allowing a persistent Southern resistance to deprive African Americans in the former Confederacy of their recently secured voting rights. That had been the final achievement of the trio of Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution—the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth, which respectively conferred emancipation, equal protection of the laws, and a prohibition on racial discrimination in voting rights. But the Counter Reconstruction resistance attained what history recorded as “Redemption.” The guarantees of equality unraveled despite relatively weak attempts by Grant’s Republican successors to salvage what they could until Congress’s failure to pass an 1890 federal elections bill. With the federal government’s abandonment complete, an emboldened South took a new offensive to impose Jim Crow by state law during the 1890s.

That is the period when the now controversial Confederate monuments began to proliferate throughout the South. In Richmond, Monument Avenue eventually looked the way it would have looked if the Confederacy had won, with its founding heroes lining the streets of its capital. The first to be dedicated was Gen. Robert E. Lee’s grand equestrian statue, in 1890. And the trend would continue, with Confederate monuments, the return of the Confederate flag as an active symbol of government, and Confederate holidays that sent the message about the new order throughout the South. Numerous states adopted the birthdays of Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis as public holidays, and one added that of Stonewall Jackson—which is one more state than ever did the same for Grant’s birthday.

During the early twentieth century, the devotees of the Myth of the Lost Cause and the related racialist Dunning School condemned Reconstruction for trying to confer equality on a race they held to be unworthy of it. W.E.B. DuBois observed the phenomenon in 1935: “Not a single great leader of the nation during the Civil War and Reconstruction has escaped attack and libel. . . . We have been cajoling and flattering the South and slurring the North . . . .”[2] The country had lost a measure of its self-respect, and its symbols reflected this—both those that were up and those that were absent. During this period, monuments in the South honoring Reconstruction would have been unthinkable.

That observation goes to a critical lesson being lost in the debate that has been raging over Confederate monuments—a debate that has spilled into monuments generally. As a society, we should always think about what to affirm at least as much as we think about what to condemn. That means we should tread lightly in the removal of monuments from the public square, and we should not focus on which monuments deserve removal without also considering what should be in their place.

Monuments Merge History and Citizenship

To be clear, monuments are not unalloyed exercises in history. History should be a truthful recollection of the past, nothing more and nothing less. When history recounts the lives of individual people, every detail that provides helpful context should be included, but the historian still must differentiate between the fundamentals of a subject’s life and the incidentals. At a basic level, the fundamentals are usually clear. The fundamental importance of George Washington is what he did in his public career to help create the United States of America. It is not how he navigated eighteenth-century Virginia plantation life in general or the institution of slavery in particular, neither of which he significantly shaped or changed (although he did sign into law a reaffirmation of the Northwest Ordinance’s prohibition of slavery in the vast territory that would later become several states). Those details are necessary to provide the full context of his life, but they are incidental to why he deserves so much attention.

Freeze-frame any historical period, and it quickly becomes apparent that the era contains any number of serious problems waiting to be addressed. Even those who accomplished the greatest feats in the time they had were unable to solve them all. What is fundamental is what they did accomplish—how they moved the ball forward—not the list of existing evils they did not solve. Moreover, it is not unusual for leaders to perform great deeds in one area while exacerbating or even creating problems in another. Complete and balanced history shows humanity’s complexity and, when done judiciously, provides perspective as to what is fundamental and what is incidental. This is the stuff of historical debate—debate that is fraught with the perils of making value judgments that might reveal the limitations of the historian more than the subject.

Some write or study history. Others do not. Historians may or may not choose to judge their subjects. They are more likely to do so to the extent that their subject connects to the polity of which historians are citizens. Even assuming that historians, who after all are products of their own times, are correct in their value judgments, judging historical figures becomes more difficult the more mixed their public deeds are between the praiseworthy and the condemnable.

Memorialization, while inextricably linked to producing history, is a different exercise. In the context of public monuments, it is an exercise of our citizenship. That we belong to a polity means we are called upon to manifest our respect for the values that define our citizenship. Like the writing of history, memorialization has an obligation to truth, but unlike pure history, monuments avoid detachment and the distraction of incidentals because their purpose is to convey a broader point about the fundamentals. They are a hybrid of history, politics, and ultimately culture. They serve a variety of purposes, among them to identify pillars of our country and of culture more broadly.

Monuments to abstract ideals, often depicted in allegory, serve a purpose, but so do monuments to people. They are reminders that so much of what we value is the product of human agency, which typically entailed tremendous sacrifice.

The American tradition of monument-building therefore is not and should not be neutral. Put the Confederate aberration aside for a moment. Look at a list of monuments across the country today and notice that they collectively reflect a degree of complexity and nuance that can be summarized as our recognition of American pluralism and the competition of ideas. That includes a flexibility toward appreciating art that speaks in diverse idioms and was produced during different times. Champions of tolerance should be the first to understand this. America’s policy toward public sculpture is decidedly not the Taliban’s.

Mayor Bill de Blasio learned this the hard way in 2017 when he convened a commission for the purpose of finding objectionable monuments in New York City to remove. It soon became apparent that the commission was a really bad idea, and it closed out its work with the face-saving gesture of relocating a single statue.

Monuments to those who served at any level of American government have in common that their subjects helped create or took an oath to support the Constitution—and sometimes little else besides having attained stature in their time and place. Their creation was a political statement that the American experiment is worthy of respect, but they also required a degree of nonpartisanship and forbearance, not to mention the generosity of spirit that goes into a eulogy emphasizing the value of a life over its flaws. The most unblemished public life still presents at least footnotes worthy of criticism. In other cases, the fundamentals themselves can tug in different directions, as when Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil rights record is compared to his Vietnam War legacy. At a bare minimum, monuments make a statement that it is better to reserve a small space to focus on a public servant’s good than to keep our landscape purged of his or her memory altogether.

Member-named congressional office buildings and much of the statuary on Capitol Hill are the products of members deciding to put aside differences and memorialize recently departed colleagues from across the aisle. The president you consider our worst is (or, if alive, will be) sculpted in a public space. The same is true of any number of politicians, soldiers, writers, artists, and even representatives of religious denominations you disagree with. It is tempting to read too much into the government’s message in having such monuments until you realize that if all the statues came to life, they would have among them innumerable disagreements.

Many public statues in the United States are of people who had nothing to do with statecraft and in some cases were not even American. Not all sculpture in public spaces is designed to convey a message by the government, but when it does, it must reflect loyalty to the country and the core principles embodied in its law.

[Tomorrow, in part two, Confederate monuments are in a separate category, but for reasons grounded in a context that is widely misunderstood and therefore misapplied. Unfortunately, the loss of historical context has spilled over into a wholesale assault on monuments to America’s pillars.]

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[1] 2 John Russell Young, Around the World with General Grant 360–61 (1879).

[2] W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction 723 (1935).

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17 Responses to On Monuments, America Must Never Surrender to Confederates, Old or New (part one)

  1. Stephen Recker says:

    The folks who want to take monuments down want them all down. They want Grant down as much as Lee. If you support taking Lee down, you are supporting the removal of Grant. That’s the game. Thanks.

    • Lyle Smith says:

      It’s like Kevin Levin says about taking Confederate statues down, it’s okay, we can always read about these people in a book.

      I will say there is something about naming places after people, and that is it’s probably a bad idea since all people living or dead are flawed. Definitely I’m against naming buildings after living politicians. That should be made a felony.

  2. Donald Smith says:

    ECW never has a problem finding a contributor or guest author who’ll write a post about what is wrong with Confederate monuments. Every month or two, I expect someone to come on to the front page and scold me for respecting my Confederate ancestors. I can’t recall any post on the main page that ever defended those monuments in any way. It’s always those of us in the commenter section that have to defend them.

    I’m not going to repeat the long list of why there’s some good in Confederate statues and memorials nowadays…because I like Rod Stewart music. In his song “Young Hearts,” there’s this line “There ain’t no point in talking, if there’s nobody listening.” We’ve explained why we, good people who abhor slavery and love our country—in my case, went to war for that country—see value in those statutes, and it’s never enough. No one on the other side ever seems to listen.

    Good ol’ Frank here is entitled to his opinion, and I’m entitled to mine. Frank, if you don’t like that some of us respect Confederate statues and our Confederate ancestors…well buddy, you’re just going to have to learn to cope.

    ECW might want to consider having a contributor come on and explain why Confederate statues and heritage have some value and deserve some respect in today’s world. Surely, out of all the contributors who regularly write for ECW, there is one of you that feels that way.

    • grego says:

      You are right Donald – but anyone who feels that way will keep it to themselves if they ever want to publish or participate in the future. Just like all the leftist pleas for “unity”. To them “unity” means “shut up and let me do what I want”.

      • Meg Groeling says:

        Give me some time to finish up with most of the irons in my personal fire, guys. I will try to come up with an article to defend Confederate monuments. My ancestors lived in the border states of Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, so loyalties were split. I wasn’t raised so much with Lost Cause nonsense, but with a deep and abiding respect for those who came before. Thanks for throwing down the gauntlet.

    • I certainly appreciate Donald’s comments esp. “I can’t recall any post on the main page that ever defended those monuments in any way. It’s always those of us in the commenter section that have to defend them. ECW might want to consider having a contributor come on and explain why Confederate statues and heritage have some value and deserve some respect in today’s world.” How about it, Chris? I’ve got a numerous ECW books on my shelf and have attended multiple seminars. I’ve been a patron of your content for a long time. Is it too much to ask for a balanced view of this period? This ongoing effort to cloak the North in irreproachable patriotic robes and vilify the South is antithetical to presenting Civil War history in a objective (fact based) manner. It’s more & more difficult to find an objective media presentation of Civil War history. It’s like trying to find a current news outlet w/o obvious or subliminal bias. Confederate statues represented venerated Southern leaders (esp. to those that lived through the period). These statues are a tangible connection to those who lived through that history. But yet the present purge continues! And even the Founding Fathers are at risk. I saw an article yesterday in ‘The Week’ implying Thomas Jefferson was a bloodthirsty terrorist(!). There’s a lot of current talk about embracing the country’s diversity – so why doesn’t that include 19th century Americans (particularly Southerners) who led/contributed to the country before and after the Civil War? Why are people so insistent now…that those who lived 150 years ago – should have lived by today’s standards. And since they didn’t live up to the ‘current’ standards – we have the moral authority to condemn and erase from them from national memory?!

  3. nygiant1952 says:

    Nice article.

  4. Katy Berman says:

    “History should be a truthful recollection of the past,” but that, of course, is an impossibility. The best we can do is cultivate an awareness of our own biases, study primary sources as much as possible, and be open-minded to the views of others. The “others” include those that have gone before us. I regard Confederate monuments as primary sources. They are as indicative of the men so honored as of the culture that honored them, a culture that is currently being condemned. I think that condemnation is out of balance, as perhaps the Dunning school once was. I recall the first time I stood before the Lee Monument in Richmond. I could not appreciate the statue itself; it was too high up! But there, on the base was inscribed the single word, “Lee.” There were no birth or death dates, no listing of victories, just the power of his name to those who erected the monument. By way of contrast, in Manhattan, there is a fascinating and garish allegorical statue of Sherman on his march through Georgia, preceded by a heralding angel. Both the grizzled Sherman and the angel are gilded, and one can’t help thinking that the General would have been appalled. But again, the statue gives us information about the culture that erected it, and, in this case, their artistic values.

    Then again, the Confederate monuments are also about loss, and I would hope we might feel more commiseration for that loss. Each courthouse soldier at parade rest represents a number of young men who did not return from the war. Even their demeanor implies stillness, and for me, acceptance.

    On one trip to Richmond, I bought a pamphlet, “Monument and Boulevard: Richmond’s Grand Avenues” by James E. DuPriest Jr. and Douglas O. Tice, Jr. On page six is a photograph captioned, “Proud Richmonders pose atop newly completed Lee Monument.” The faces are both black and white which certainly arouses my interest. What were race relations like at the time of the monument’s unveiling in 1890? That is one question, among many, that keeps me reading and researching.

    • vaturneraolcom says:

      I don’t think you have to look far to understand why those who were owned struggled for survival well beyond the Civil War, and so were forced into a mental subjugation– one that continued for over a century, one that continues today.

  5. Douglas Pauly says:

    I think this is a good article, but it certainly isn’t the ‘end all, be all’ on the subject. And there are several more articles to come, so let’s see how it all works out. But I do disagree with some things conveyed in this one. This line from near the end for instance. “Not all sculpture in public spaces is designed to convey a message by the government, but when it does, it must reflect loyalty to the country and the core principles embodied in its law.” I’ll repeat here what I have said on these boards before. When I was younger, I ‘assumed’ that anyone who ‘merited’ a monument or marker or statue just had to be great in some aspect. As time went on, and as I learned to research the subjects on such items as I came across them (that in itself can serve a worthy educational purpose for society), I learned that while some of those so honored were anything but ‘noble’, or even competent in some of their pursuits, I did find out that they tended to be IMPORTANT to events as they transpired in different areas.

    Monuments will come and go over time. But the article implies, to me anyways, that the monuments sprouted up in the early 20th Century or so due to indifference and incompetence in the government. As is always the case, there is much more to it than that. The ‘North’ certainly allowed the ‘South’ to honor their own heroes. Confederate symbols were allowed to flourish as an acceptance of the culture(s) of the time. Most history is complicated, political history even more so. Let’s not forget that it is political agendas of TODAY that are driving much of this ‘debate’, and for often spurious reasons and reasoning. But that said, this line from the article, in my opinion, best summarizes why Confederate culture was allowed to be symbolized: “Member-named congressional office buildings and much of the statuary on Capitol Hill are the products of members deciding to put aside differences and memorialize recently departed colleagues from across the aisle.” This applied quite a bit to the post Civil War era and how the South was treated by the victors. That certainly does not excuse the treatment blacks in particular suffered under their state and/or local governments, but that treatment had, in my opinion, nothing to do with symbols from the past. And I will be happy to have that discussion with anyone at anytime.

  6. Glen Robertson says:

    Gee, another ECW article against Confederate monuments. Imagine that. I was born in Chicago where my Mom’s family is from. I’ve lived most of my life in Virginia where my Dad and his family are from. I’m Sweden here. I just respect the hell out of the men who answered the call of their neighbors to go fight and die for them. Whether they wore blue or gray. I used to think that’s how most Civil War enthusiasts thought. Unfortunately ECW seems hellbent on demonizing the memory of those southern men who answered that call. As an avid supporter of this organization I find that really disappointing. Particularly given how few of you ever answered that call yourselves. At this point I’ve given up on any semblance of balance on this.

    • CMM says:

      i assume you are veteran.. if not interesting. should we have statues of germans and the japanese fighting bravely? maybe you should have been switzerland instead.

  7. nygiant1952 says:

    Respect towards those who fought, should be shown at their final resting …….a cemetery.

  8. Able says:

    For such a short lived country the Confederacy sure still scares the heck out of the yanks.

    • nygiant1952 says:

      Not really a country as No foreign government ever recognized the Confederacy as an independent country.

      No fear, but what concerns Americans is the cult of the “Lost Cause”. I compare it to the “Big Lie” of Germany after WW 1, when the Germans said they were never beaten on the battlefield, but were stabbed in the back from the home front.

      Regarding the Civil War, the Rebels were soundly and decisively defeated!

  9. Benjmain Cooling says:

    We have enough politically correct and politically incorrect bloviating out there that I would urge one to cease and desist. That said, everything is educational even if rather obvious that bobus americanus and politically purging is alive and well. So, read it all in the interest of maturity and learning something. I am a firm believer in doing that with all friends and enemies who, after all often switch positions at some time or other. Don’t bother answering, thank you.

  10. Violet Turner says:

    As we were having these intellectual debates–me included–I met a man at a highway rest stop who was from Richmond. He was black. I am white. The first time I visited the Confederate White House the exhibit just inside the entrance was a glass cased display in which hung the uniform of a young Confederate soldier taken “too soon.” A sign pointed to a blood brown ringed hole where the “Yankee” bullet had stolen his life. I sought out the section dealing with slavery and found it was “under construction.” The only ‘artifact,” was a single photograph of a plump, nicely dressed black woman in a drawing room, doing the mending. Slightly paraphrased from memory: “Many slaves enjoyed a comfortable life in the manor house.” The last time I returned a more significant accounting of slavery was added, albeit within the confines of the home of the President of the Confederate States of America. So, the man at the highway rest stop to me, “‘We know exactly what the purpose of those statues is. They are meant to keep us in our place, nothing less.” And I will defer to how those statues make him, defer to what they mean for him, than my view or any white person who has not walked one day in his shoes.

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