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.
This essay draws context from the Civil War and Reconstruction often overlooked in the national controversy over monuments. Part one discussed how monuments merge history and citizenship and hold a distinctive place in American society, a reflection of values we celebrate, but also of pluralism.
Context and the Confederacy
So it was that a statue honoring King George III in a New York City park was taken down during the Revolutionary War. If it had remained until the British evacuation in 1783, it would have been untenable for the new nation to keep it in that location after the patriots had faced the guns of the king’s army and overthrown the monarchy.
Similarly, as with the flying of the Confederate flag on government buildings, government has no place making statements that endorse the Confederate cause. That applies to the display of monuments in public squares in a way that does precisely that. Those who assert that this is because it offends one segment of the population do not quite get it: The Confederate cause was an act of treason, a firing on the American flag in an attempt to overthrow the Constitution for the purpose of preserving slavery. It offends both a belief in the United States of America and the humanitarianism that should cause all Americans to reject slavery. People are free to hold contrary beliefs, but that is the standard to which government should be held.
Context matters, and however much monuments leave open to interpretation, they do possess at their core an objective, fundamental meaning. It is no coincidence that these monuments and the Confederate flag made their widest postwar appearance during the era of Jim Crow and resistance to the civil rights movement of the twentieth century.
Defenders of the flag have argued that context changes—and with it that objective meaning. It is undoubtedly true that in the public imagination, Confederate imagery was sanitized over the past half century, a civil rights–embracing era, to become a generic symbol of the South. The Myth of the Lost Cause made it easy to dissociate it from slavery and even the more recent debates over desegregation. During this period, Confederate symbols remained explicitly incorporated into several Southern state flags—sometimes glaringly, sometimes subtly. The Confederate flag made its way into photo ops featuring and campaign buttons promoting presidents and other public officials of both parties (and for the record, the flag was not created by the GOP). In popular culture, it would be silly to argue that The Dukes of Hazzard, which aired from 1979–1985 and featured popular TV protagonists who drove around in a Confederate flag–topped car named the “General Lee,” had a white supremacist agenda, but we should not have to choose between historical whitewash and an affront to America.
Because of society’s lagging historical sensibilities, it took 150 years after Reconstruction and 50 years after the Second Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, for the process of matching our nation’s monuments to a truly reconstructed nation to begin in earnest. As recently as 2011, only 38% of Americans surveyed identified slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War; a plurality gave states’ rights as the answer. This was years after professional historians had been confronting the Myth of the Lost Cause—which is not to let them off the hook. Many academic historians long ago shifted their emphasis to social and economic history, and among those who focused on the traditional historical themes that are the subjects of most monuments, the process of overcoming fixed attitudes within the profession, not to mention a broader civic ambivalence, slowed any constructive impact they could have.
Against the backdrop of disorienting historical ignorance, the mob mentality that is broadly taking over the monuments debate is defeating what should be a thoughtful reckoning on Confederate monuments. The operative principle against endorsing the Confederate cause is met by removing monuments that in context do that, as the Monument Avenue statues did by their design and placement along a Richmond thoroughfare. Like the flag, the depicted leaders objectively stood as a venerated representation of the Confederacy. Similarly, U.S. military forts should not in their names honor Confederate generals whose distinction was to fire on the U.S. military.
That does not justify ignoring distinctions that are critical in appreciating the several dimensions of war and its aftermath. According to recent estimates, the Civil War claimed 750,000 American lives, including almost a quarter of Southern white males between the ages of 20 and 24. There was a proper place to mark the full scope of the devastation and to advance sectional reconciliation without the nation losing its self-respect. Monuments recording the war dead and depictions of valor and sacrifice on the battlefield, in this war and others across the globe, are in their own category.
Historic sites, for their part, are not to be confused with monuments. They are classrooms for students of history, and regardless of their nexus to the Confederacy, they hold lessons that call for their preservation. Where necessary, correct inaccuracies in how they are presented, but do not wipe them off the landscape. It is also important that monuments celebrating the Confederate cause are not merely destroyed, but relocated to museums where students of history can learn not only what they represent—and, in many cases, informative artistic context—but also the stories of the monuments themselves. However troubling, the lessons to be learned will discourage visitors from taking our country and its freedoms for granted.
We must also recognize another contextual reality lost in the current debate: Depictions of former Confederates cannot be lumped together indiscriminately as veneration of the Confederate cause. Many Confederates had served legitimately in federal, state, or local government before the war. Afterwards, many of them took oaths of allegiance to the Union and then went on to serve in government. This point was lost on Speaker Nancy Pelosi when she ordered the removal from the Capitol of portraits of four former speakers of the House who were obviously depicted with her other predecessors for that service—in one case decades after the Civil War. (The other three also took the oath of allegiance, and two went on to further government service.)
In July 2020, the House of Representatives passed a bill that, had it become law, would have removed from the Capitol statues of anyone who voluntarily served the Confederacy, a category that would include Edward D. White, who served as a teenager before a career as a U.S. senator and ultimately as chief justice. The error in these cases operates on two levels: ignoring context and overlooking, whether out of ignorance or out of willfulness, the facts of postwar history. Those facts are complex, but it is critical that they be understood.
The offense of which Confederacy-venerating monuments are guilty is not limited, strictly speaking, to the Confederacy. It extends to monuments to the postwar resistance to the Reconstruction Amendments.
One example is the Battle of Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans, an obelisk that commemorated the paramilitary White League’s attempt to take over the biracial Republican state government in 1874. An inscription on the monument expressed regret that the “usurpers” won that contest but declared that the state’s next election “recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.” It was rightly removed from public space . . . but not until 2017.
A similar monument to the Hamburg Massacre, in which paramilitary Red Shirts advanced their 1876 campaign to regain control of the state government and undermine voting rights by attacking a black national guard unit, still stands in North Augusta, South Carolina. The monument commemorates not the estimated seven African Americans murdered, but the one white who was killed. It calls him a “young hero” for his sacrifice on behalf of “the maintaining of those civic and social institutions which the men and women of his race had struggled through the centuries to establish in South Carolina” and for exemplifying “the supremacy of” the “highest ideal of Anglo-Saxon civilization.” That and similar disgraceful affronts to America’s laws and highest ideals must go.
Counter Reconstruction was surely an attempt to salvage part of what the Confederacy had lost, but the analysis cannot end there. There were former Confederates who fully accepted Union victory, embraced the Reconstruction Amendments, and risked their lives and reputations defending them. One of them, James Longstreet, had been one of the Confederacy’s most prominent commanders. His Reconstruction-era service included command of the biracial force of city police and black militia that fought the White League at the so-called Battle of Liberty Place, where he was wounded and captured. Longstreet was punished with no statue, even on battlefields, until the late twentieth century, by which time his postwar service had earned him recognition as a model rather than a pariah.
Another exceptional story was that of Amos Akerman, a former Confederate officer who went on to become attorney general during Reconstruction, in which capacity he led the infant Justice Department’s successful prosecution of the Ku Klux Klan. He has no monument, and if judged by the standard of absolutists who consider a historical figure’s Confederate past disqualifying, he does not deserve one. The Klan would agree.
American monuments do not canonize, but it is illuminating to contrast the absolutist attitude with the institution that most famously counts canonization among its explicit functions. The Catholic Church has innumerable saints with grave sins in their past. A preeminent example is Saint Paul, who before his conversion viciously persecuted the very church that would later canonize him. Yet he went on to define much of Christianity before losing his own life for it. Of course, appreciation of the capacity for redemption and for a person’s good deeds to eclipse the bad is prevalent in culture beyond the religious context. Those who refuse to understand this forfeit any pretense of tolerance or open-mindedness.
The Attack on America’s Pillars
Instead of any sort of constructive, thoughtful effort to discern what should take the place of Confederate monuments, America has faced a lawless, wholesale assault on nearly every imaginable category of monument. Trying to keep track of monuments defaced or toppled is a dizzying process. In 2020, the vandals embarked on a spree of destruction so wanton as to include those who had a part in all of the most formative achievements in building America, from its exploration and founding to any number of cultural benchmarks.
The list includes some of the most conspicuous names from earlier chapters of American history: Christopher Columbus, Ponce de León, Junípero Serra, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, to name just a few. It also includes the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution as well as monuments to Francis Scott Key, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, soldiers who fought in World War I and World War II, fallen men and women of law enforcement, firefighters who died on 9/11, generic statues paying tribute to The Pioneer and The Pioneer Mother, and Wisconsin’s allegorical representation of progress whose name is the state’s motto, Forward. Foreign subjects that have inspired Americans are also on the list, from Miguel de Cervantes to Mahatma Gandhi. So are monuments to overseas victims of the Armenian genocide and Communism.
That list of vandalized non-Confederate monuments omits another reality: The assault extends to those who advanced the ideal of racial justice, the original theme of public protests. Just a few examples: Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists; Abraham Lincoln; Ulysses S. Grant; David G. Farragut, the Union’s senior admiral; other Union officers including Gen. James McPherson and Col. Hans Christian Heg, both of whom died for the cause; Colorado citizens who fought for the Union; and the African-American 54th Massachusetts Regiment, so many of whom also made the ultimate sacrifice. The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial to three lynching victims was also attacked.
Those who wanted to attack freedom and equality could have picked no better targets than these. Yet so much of the damage occurred under the noses of authorities whose reaction was not denunciation or swift action against the perpetrators of these crimes. Too many were unwilling to stray from their script about the need to “listen to them,” making the grave mistake of conflating the free speech rights of peaceful, law-abiding protesters with the destruction of property. Speaker Pelosi summed up this indifference by bluntly stating, “I don’t care that much about statues.” When asked about the propriety of statue removal by “a mob in the middle of the night, throwing it into the harbor,” she replied, “People do what they do.”
This attitude is nothing short of shocking. It reflects utter disregard for the law and signals that vandals can expect to render destruction with impunity. The nation’s best-known monuments and numerous less well-known cultural treasures are national parks, protected by the same federal law that protects natural resources like Yellowstone. So this indifference repudiates an entire dimension of the government’s legal duty to preserve. The same is true, of course, of innumerable monuments protected by state or local laws. Even during better times, those of us who concern ourselves with preservation are often frustrated by government officials’ inattention to basic maintenance. But to shrug at outright destruction portends an even darker future.
The delinquency of authorities who should know better goes even farther. Across the country, public officials are participating in the assault on monuments by their own decisions. At least half a dozen Christopher Columbus statues were toppled or decapitated by protesters, but over four times that number were ordered removed by official decision—including in the Ohio city that bears his name. So far two cities have targeted Junípero Serra for removal. Other subjects of monuments ordered removed by government include Delaware’s Caesar Rodney and New York’s Philip Schuyler, leaders of the founding generation, and the frontiersman Kit Carson. The city council in Jackson, Mississippi, voted to remove their namesake statue of Andrew Jackson, and Boston, historically the cradle of abolitionism, decreed the same fate for the emancipation statue of Lincoln posed with an emancipated slave.
The latter is a copy of Washington, D.C.’s Emancipation Memorial, which legislation introduced last year attempted to remove. A D.C. committee commissioned by Mayor Muriel Bowser proposes to rename monuments, public buildings (including schools), and parks in the nation’s capital that bear the names of eight presidents and numerous other distinguished Americans, including Benjamin Franklin, Francis Scott Key, and Alexander Graham Bell. And that is in addition to a list of eight federal monuments the committee recommends the federal government “remove, relocate, or contextualize,” including the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial.
New York City Council members have targeted a statue of Jefferson, and the city government approved the removal of Theodore Roosevelt from the Museum of Natural History. On Long Island, calls to remove a roadside statue and a library portrait of William Floyd, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, are pending. Universities have already decided to remove statues of Jefferson, the evangelist George Whitefield, and the explorer William Clark. There is a movement at the University of Wisconsin calling for the removal of a statue of Lincoln on campus. A northern Virginia school board decided to rename schools bearing the names of Jefferson and George Mason, ignoring a majority of members of the community they surveyed who came out against such a measure. The San Francisco Unified School District will drop 44 names from its schools, including Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, five other presidents, and Union generals William T. Sherman and Philip H. Sheridan.
The news media landscape is hardly better. The New York Times forced the resignation of its editorial page editor and demoted his deputy for running an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton advocating the use of troops (the same tactics used effectively in Detroit in 1967 and Los Angeles in 1992) to quell a crescendo of violence. The same paper had no qualms about then running columns calling for the removal of monuments to Washington and Jefferson and an article following a call for the removal of Mount Rushmore that one-sidedly reported objections to all four featured presidents. Similar commentary against memorializing founders because they were slaveholders can be found in media outlets as prestigious as the Washington Post and CNN.
[Tomorrow in part three, identifying the nihilistic ideology and false history behind the broad attack on monuments, and how the 1619 Project works against recognition of the milestones of equality that connect the founding to the Civil War and Reconstruction and, in turn, to the civil rights movement.]
 William Garrett Piston, Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant 123 (1987).