Echoes of the Lost Cause: Autumn of the Lost Cause

The new Emancipation Memorial in Richmond (photo courtesy of the New York Times)

ECW is pleased to welcome back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog

The last month has been one of dislocation for those of us devoted to studying the Civil War and Reconstruction. 

Nathan Bedford Forrest was literally relocated, or at least his remains were. The Sons of Confederate Veterans reburied the Confederate cavalryman at their headquarters complex in Columbia, Tennessee. Forrest had been buried originally in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis after his 1877 demise. In 1904, he and his wife were dug up and buried in a public park in Memphis. There was a giant equestrian statue placed at his gravesite in 1905. Memphis, which spent only a quarter of the Civil War as part of the Confederacy having been captured by Federal forces in the first year of the conflict, showed its True South bona fides by showering honors on Forrest. Even the park where Forrest’s remains were placed was named Forrest Park.  

At the 1909 United Confederate Veterans Convention  held in Memphis, Forrest was a focus of the assembled veterans. The address to the veterans from the Sons of Confederate Veterans was delivered by Thomas H. Sisson. Sisson was a son of a veteran of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry force. He told the audience that he lauded Forrest as the man behind the Ku Klux Klan. According to Sisson:

Great and trying times always produce great leaders, and one was at hand—Nathan Bedford Forrest. His plan, the only course left open. The organization of a secret government. A terrible government; a government that would govern in spite of black majorities and Federal bayonets. This secret government was organized in every community in the South, and this government is known in history as the Klu Klux Clan [sic]… Here in all ages to come the Southern romancer and poet can find the inspiration for fiction and song. No nobler or grander spirits ever assembled on this earth than gathered in these clans. No human hearts were ever moved with nobler impulses or higher aims and purposes…. Order was restored, property safe; because the negro feared the Klu Klux Clan more than he feared the devil. Even the Federal bayonets could not give him confidence in the black government which had been established for him, and the negro voluntarily surrendered to the Klu Klux Clan, and the very moment he did, the “Invisible Army” vanished in a night. Its purpose had been fulfilled. Bedford Forrest should always be held in reverence by every son and daughter of the South as long as memory holds dear the noble deeds and service of men for the good of others on this earth. What mind is base enough to think of what might have happened but for Bedford Forrest and his “Invisible” but victorious army.

You can read the longer unedited version of the speech here

The aspects of Forrest’s life that led to his public veneration a hundred years ago, his slave trading roots, his Confederate prominence, and his Klan leadership, were exactly what made the continued presence of his monument in a Memphis where 64% of the people are Black impossible.  

After African Americans in Memphis got the vote, a right Forrest had opposed during the 1860s, agitation built to strip the city’s honors. In 2015, the city council voted unanimously to remove both monument and remains from the city park. This effort was fought tooth and nail by outside groups that did not believe in local control of local parks, at least not when the lives of dead Confederates were at stake. Some Forrest defenders insisted that the dead should not be disturbed for political purposes, blind to the fact that the general had been moved to Forrest park three decades after his death precisely for political purposes. 

The bisecting of Robert E. Lee’s statue and its removal from its Richmond pedestal drew even more media attention than Forrest’s peripatetic remains. For years the people of Richmond have been trying to move the statue but found themselves blocked in deciding what parts of Virginia history were memorialized in their city by a state legislature of representatives with no connection to Richmond who insisted that Lee and his confederates rule over the city’s monumental landscape.

While some are decrying the removal of the statue as an assault on great art, we need only to watch video of pre-2020 attempts to remove the statue to see that it was not artists, art students, or art historians who encircled the statue in its defense, it was Confederates sympathizers from often racist and extremist organizations carrying Confederate flags who mobilized largely from out of town. There is a reason many Richmonders assembled happily to watch the statue come down. It had become a rallying point for those opposed to the changes in race relations we have seen over the last sixty years. 

An example of addition by subtraction is underway in Alabama. When Reconstruction was overthrown in that state, new constitutions were adopted in 1875 and 1901 that threw out hated reforms like the establishment of a public education system and color-blind voting. Now a state commission is looking to remove openly racist clauses in the current constitution. These include phrases like “separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race.” In a speech by the Chairman of the fateful 1901 Alabama Constitutional Convention explaining the rationale for the new constitution, Chairman John Knox famously announced that “The new Constitution eliminates the ignorant Negro vote and places the control of our government where God Almighty intended it should be — with the Anglo-Saxon race.” Some will no doubt argue that in removing the racist clauses the commission is “erasing history.” So be it. 

In Franklin, Tennessee, an interpretive panel was put up outside Rippavilla Plantation near Franklin, Tenn. The panel recounts the story of local enslaved people who enlisted in the United States Colored Troops in 1863 and 1864 during the Civil War. This may not seem as controversial as cutting poor Lee in half, but when you consider how long the South had no monuments or markers dedicated to its brave sons who joined the USCT, you can see why the placing of this historic plaque by the Battle of Franklin Trust and the American Battlefields Trust marks as big a change in the interpretation of history. Kudos to the Franklin Trust for years of engagement with the local African American community to assist in telling its own story. 

Richmond, Virginia unveiled a new monument last week commemorating the liberation of the city’s slaves at the end of the Civil War. The installation also honors ten Virginians who fought for freedom, including William Carney of the 54th Massachusetts and Mary Bowser, who spied for the Union inside the Confederate White House. 

The move away from Lost Cause revisionism and towards real history was boosted at the national level this week when a major new exhibit on Reconstruction opened at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. While some in the Civil War history community decry declining interest in America’s past, the Museum of African American History is one of the most popular museums in the United States, drawing two million visitors in 2019. That is roughly double the visitation at Gettysburg. The Exhibit, “Make Good the Promises: Reconstruction and Its Legacies,” will draw a new generation to the study of this period.

As the altars to the Confederacy placed on Southern cityscapes during the first hundred years after the Civil War lose their power to enthrall, and sometimes lose their place altogether, the researching of genuine history continues at an unparalleled pace, historically accurate wayside markers are replacing stone monuments to myth, and history is taking the place of hagiography. Archives are turning out new digital records, accessible to all for free, every single day. Online discussions of the Civil War and Reconstruction on Zoom, Facebook, YouTube and blogs, unimaginable in my college days, are joined in by thousands of Americans every day. We can take whole courses on these subjects taught by luminaries like Eric Foner and David Blight from Columbia and Yale for free through MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). 

History is not going away, but some of the whitewash is being rinsed out. 

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10 Responses to Echoes of the Lost Cause: Autumn of the Lost Cause

  1. Mike Fitzpatrick says:

    Good article that really looks into why we need to re-think Confederate statuary in the eyes of others…….and thank you for posting the great resource of the MOOC’s……that’s invaluable information!!

  2. billhenck says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought that the Lee statue was the only statue on Monument Avenue controlled by the Commonwealth of Virginia. The other statues were controlled by the city of Richmond. Leaving aside the interest of the state government in monuments in the state capital, it seems like the city of Richmond could have removed the other statues well before the frenzy of last year. There were valid reasons for removing the statues on Monument Avenue, but the manner in which it was done will poison the well for a long time. The people who defaced and then removed the statues will discover the universal truth that it is far easier to tear down than to build up.

    • In 1998 the Virginia Legislature passed a law barring the removal of Confederate statues and memorials by local governments. The law was recently amended to allow for removal. The statues could not have been removed previously.

  3. Joe says:

    Condescending to wealthy black activists and white radicals. Orwellian to the core.Patrick Ypung is cheerleading for the dark side.

  4. Donald Smith says:

    The statue-pullers and Lost Cause Police know that the whole removal of the Lee statue left them looking pretty silly, even shallow.

    Regardless of what you thought about the propriety of Lee’s statue being in Richmond, many people viewed it as a work of art. So, when they saw pictures of the statue being removed intact, in good condition—and then sawn in half while a crowd whooped and hollered, many people were sickened. It was as if the city and state leadership sawed the statue in public, to satisfy some gnawing psychological need in the crowd.

    Official explanations that the statue just absolutely had to be cut in two because it was too tall were met with skepticism. (I’m sure lots of people overseas didn’t believe that America, the country that put a man on the moon 50 years ago and created a COVID vaccine in less than a year lacked the technological ability to move a large statue in one piece.) Many of us wondered if (a) the city of Richmond wanted to destroy the statue but lacked the guts to admit it or (b) was simply too incompetent to move a large piece of art. People who wonder why so many of us don’t automatically give the government officials the benefit of the doubt should take a look at the state of modern-day Richmond. (We do, however, instantly credit the idea that Ralph Northam and the Richmond city government would lie to us.)

    Mr. Young’s defense here of the statue’s removal—the Lee statue “ruled over the city’s monumental landscape”—was echoed by many of the statue-choppers, especially once they saw how revulsed so many people were by the spectacle. To hear Mr. Young tell it, the Lee statue sounded as if it was 500 feet tall and stood astride Interstate 95. Every Richmonder seemingly had to drive through Traveler’s legs to get anywhere or do anything in the city. No one could live a decent life in Richmond with THE LEE STATUE watching them night and day!

    We all know that’s just plain silly. If you wanted to see Monument Avenue in Richmond, you had to go looking for it. You could—and still can—live a fully and happy life in Richmond without ever seeing Monument Avenue once. The statues did not physically dominate the city—but they did live rent-free in the minds of many Richmonders and Lost Cause police officers.

    As for the General Assembly disrespecting Richmonders by keeping the Lee statue there—-ahem, Richmond is the capital of the state of Virginia. Lee is, rightfully, a hero in Virginia, properly revered as one of its great sons. If Richmond wants to quit being the state capital, and think only of itself, then it should say so. I’m confident many, many Virginians will be glad to move the state government—-and all the revenue it puts into the local economy—-somewhere else.

    The comedian Flip Wilson used to say “the devil made me do it.” For years, Richmonders and Lost Cause Police have said “the statues made me do it.” Many Richmonders have used the statues as scapegoats for their own, many failings. Robert E. Lee was a caring, noble gentleman. If his spirit was here today, he’d probably turn to all of us and say that, if cutting his statue in half would lead Richmonders to cut their crime rate, improve their schools and start respecting their police again, then we should all cheer for the statue-cutters.

    If removing this statue was what Richmonders really, truly needed—well then, we should be gracious and give it to them. But they shouldn’t expect anyone to respect them.

  5. Frank "Skip" Shaffer says:

    September 27, 2021

    Huzzah for General Nathan Bedford Forrest
    and the great state of South Carolina!

    Just over a week ago, Lt. General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife, Mary Ann Montgomery Forrest, were laid to rest for the final time on the grounds of Elm Springs, our National Headquarters. It has been a long time coming and there are so many people to thank for their efforts in pulling this event off including PCiC Paul Gramling, Committee Chairman; Lt. Commander-in-Chief Jason Boshers, Executive Director Adam Southern; the entire staff at Elm Springs; and the numerous volunteers and those who contributed financially to the success of this event. We did it!

    The event was emotional for many, and glorious for others. It was inspiring and yet humbling because we as an organization have been entrusted with an awesome responsibility by the Forrest family. 2,500 people registered to be observers to the event, and they were not disappointed. On Friday, Sept 17, visitation started. I was proud of how so many took to heart my words of Remembrance, Respect, and Reverence as they passed the remains of the General and his wife giving fond words and prayer. Every hour on the hour, General Scott Garrett of the 1st Brigade of Cleburne’s Division changed the guards with military precision like clockwork.

    On Saturday morning, it seemed that the angels in heaven were weeping as the rain came in and poured before the funeral started; but God would not allow rain to prevent such an occasion to be delayed. Just as I said in my words during the funeral, “I have seen it rain before a Confederate funeral or after one, but not during one.” Sure enough, when the funeral stepped off, the rain stopped, the sun shined, and everyone was able to come out and say their final goodbyes to an American Warrior.

    Once it was over, the rain came back just as if the Angels were once again weeping. This is my fourth Confederate soldier’s actual funeral I was involved in, and it never fails that I get choked up because of how much these men mean to us and how appreciative we are for them standing up to tyranny.

    Now it’s time to sit back and reflect upon the occasion but always keep moving forward because we also have a victory to celebrate. This past week, South Carolina was able to defend their monument protection bill. This is indeed a great victory. Of course, we do not hear about in the press, but this goes right along with Georgia’s Monument Bill victory last year. We are making headway, but we cannot let up. Support the efforts of your leadership on the Division and National levels as we lock hands and carryout the fight. Many I know are frustrated, impatient, and sickened by the times, but we must lean into the storm and keep moving forward. Three cheers for South Carolina!

    Let us follow Georgia and South Carolina’s examples and continue our fight in the legislatures and with public opinion. We are making headway because we are determined to uphold the Charge for future generations so they will come to know the True history of their ancestors . Let us be unified as one and become the tip of a spear against our enemies.

    God Bless General Forrest and his wife, Mary Ann. God bless our efforts in defending our birthright and God grant us the strength to be the tip of the spear as we push forward in defending this organization and carrying out the Charge that has been given to us by our noble ancestors for future generations.

    Deo Vindice,

    Larry McCluney, Jr.
    Commander-in-Chief
    Sons of Confederate Veterans

    • When you hear that Confederate statues and monuments are not to glorify the individual, but only to mark history, keep in mind the words used by Larry McCluney in relation to Nathan Bedford Forrest and his new shrine:

      “Huzzah for General Nathan Bedford Forrest”
      “The event was emotional for many, and glorious for others.”
      “It was inspiring and yet humbling”
      “I was proud of how so many took to heart my words of Remembrance, Respect, and Reverence as they passed the remains of the General and his wife giving fond words and prayer.”
      “it never fails that I get choked up because of how much these men mean to us and how appreciative we are for them standing up to tyranny.”

      There is an entire paragraph claiming some sort of divine intervention at the reburial:

      “On Saturday morning, it seemed that the angels in heaven were weeping as the rain came in and poured before the funeral started; but God would not allow rain to prevent such an occasion to be delayed. Just as I said in my words during the funeral, “I have seen it rain before a Confederate funeral or after one, but not during one.” Sure enough, when the funeral stepped off, the rain stopped, the sun shined, and everyone was able to come out and say their final goodbyes to an American Warrior… Once it was over, the rain came back just as if the Angels were once again weeping.”

      McCluney ends with an invocation of God to bless the Forrests, it also refers to the UDC as “the tip of the spear” mixing the military with the religious.

      “God Bless General Forrest and his wife, Mary Ann. God bless our efforts in defending our birthright and God grant us the strength to be the tip of the spear as we push forward in defending this organization and carrying out the Charge that has been given to us by our noble ancestors for future generations.”

      Nothing in this statement is about history or the study of history or biography. This is hagiography of a quasi-religious and cultish nature.

      In this statement, McCluney echoes the speeches made by representatives of his organization a century ago. Then, as now, they were not intended as tools for investigating and understanding history. Thanks to “Skip” for posting this important confirmation of the lack of any intended historic value of the statues.

      Religious objects are typically housed in churches and temples, not displayed on public squares.

  6. Pingback: Week In Review: September 26-October 3, 2021 | Emerging Civil War

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