Confederate Symbols in Public Spaces


The topic of Confederate memorials and monuments in public spaces has been an issue discussed for over one hundred years. After the Civil War, Confederate sympathizing genealogical and social organizations acted as historical gatekeepers, producing historical narratives and public monuments to their fallen fathers and brothers. Groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and United Sons of Confederate Veterans left written records of their discussions regarding their views on history and the purpose of the various monuments that they placed around the United States. These meeting minutes were the first written records produced of public discussions regarding Confederate monuments and will be analyzed.

As time passed, the conversation surrounding Confederate monuments grew to be more diverse, as racial minorities began to join the ranks of historians and other fields of academia lend their voices to the conversation such as art historians, geographers, and sociologists. Confederate monuments can be found everywhere from; street signs, museums, book covers, and labels on BBQ sauce. The conversations that academics are having are vast and their literature will be reviewed comprehensively to gain a better understanding of this genre of history. It is also important to address gaps in the current literature and the ethical ramifications what is happing in the public sphere regarding this topic.

On the first day of the Fourth Annual Convention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which was held at the state museum in Raleigh, the “Southern Cross Flag” was grouped in clusters throughout the auditorium. The Daughters gathered to “collect and preserve the materials for a truthful history,” of the Civil War and to “rear monuments to the heroic dead who stood as a wall against the invading foe.”[1] A year later, the “Robert E. Lee” chapter was engaged in raising money for a monument to the Confederate dead in the public square of “this town” of Lexington, NC.[2] As the chapters from all over the state are reported to be in the midst of collecting money for memorials which include: windows, grave markers, and statues.

The UDC saw memorials of all kinds as a way to memorialize the Confederacy. Their attempts to correct a history in which they felt was wrongly vilified by the current tide of historical writings.  They believed that a “land without monuments is a land without memories.”[3] What is key to these pieces of literature is that they were published for others to read, not just members. These minutes could be shared as a recruiting tool, a recruiting tool that detailed exactly how the UDC interpreted history and what their goals were as an organization.

The UDC was hardly the only organization of its kind. The United Sons of Confederate Veterans were just as vocal in the monument building business. During the sixth annual reunion of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, monuments for Winnie Davis, the Confederate veterans of South Carolina, and Confederate General Nathan Forrest were discussed.[4] What is more interesting is their views on history and the way the South is vilified in Southern schools. It was the aim of the Sons to move Southern schools towards a “proper study of our true history.”[5]

The Louisiana Division of the United Sons of Confederate Veterans printed a list of current monuments that have been built in Louisiana in their ninth annual meeting minutes. An 1886 monument dedicated to the Confederate dead in the pubic square of Baton Rouge, a Confederate tomb in Monroe, and a tomb and monument to Stonewall Jackson. Also listed are, two scholarships for Confederate descendants, schools named after Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, and a list of Confederate books.[6] This is important to note because the fusion of education and monuments will be an issue in the coming years when these very monuments are being questioned and removed. The Sons saw these statues as a form of education and a correction to an unfair historical narrative placed upon them post-Civil War.

Karen Cox, a professor of history at University of North Carolina at Charlotte wrote Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy. In this book she fleshes out the history of various statues and other forms of memorialization that the UDC embarked on. Statues are the most visible part of public spaces, they tower over visitors and are made from immovable stone. These statues were also placed in public spaces because the UDC saw them as a way to educate children.[7] These monuments were meant to educate children, but the UDC went further and distributed Confederate flags and books to all White schools in the South. They saw the importance of weaving “true history” with education, instilling in the youth a certain pro-Confederate narrative.[8]

These statues were not just a form of education, but also a form of vindication. The UDC saw these monuments as a way to vindicate Confederate men and their cause in the war.[9] These statues are a visual record of the South’s devotion to patriotic principles, which includes states’ rights and Constitutional purity.

Cox also goes into how the purpose of Confederate statues shifted after World War I. Confederate statues were often confined to cemeteries and used for memorialization during Memorial Day celebrations. Tending to Confederate graves across the South was also a project the UDC and groups like them took on. After World War I the notion of “home rule” changed and Confederate sympathizers took their Confederate ideology into the public space.  These statues became a symbol of celebration and found their way on the grounds of courthouses, state houses, and other government buildings. [10]

Cox views these monuments as forms of education and vindication that eventually made their way into the public space. In Florida Monuments to the Civil War, William Lees and Frederick Gaske take that narrative one step further and bring race front and center to their discussion. The Florida chapter of UDC began to raise funds for a monument to Confederate soldiers at the Olustee Battlefield in 1897.  The next year, the state legislature granted the Governor the power to appoint five people to take on the task and appropriated 2,500 dollars for the project. This monument was to be for Union and Confederate soldiers, but the UDC lobbied for it to be exclusively a Confederate monument.  The UDC did not care to “divide honors between “federal and negro soldiers.” One member of the UDC went further and said, “If the Federal dead would have been White we would have remembered them in the bill.” [11] This is important to note, because although the UDC concerned it’s with “true history” their biases were open, and their narratives were self-serving. The UDC was successful in having the purpose of the monument changed in 1899 and in 1912, the monument was dedicated to the Confederate dead.

Lees and Gaske also give the UDC credit for their preservation efforts which is linked to Confederate memorialization. There is one antebellum period mansion and plantation left in South Florida, which is the Gamble Plantation. The UDC purchased the land and began to restore it due to the fact Confederate Secretary of War, Judah Benjamin fled there towards the end of the war. The UDC was instrumental in the preservation and restoration, and also in placing a stone monument dedicated to Secretary Benjamin on the property.[12]

Coming to terms with the fact that the UDC was an organization that ignored slavery and the plight of African Americans during the Civil War, and after, but was also essential in historic preservation can be hard. The UDC was a useful organization in many ways in terms of historical preservation. The Gamble Plantation is just one example, but it must be mentioned that if one types “Gamble Plantation” into google, “Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial at Gamble Plantation” is the first link that appears.

All of these sources deal with the notion that Confederate history needs vindicating and groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy took up that fight. They created a narrative and had their views of history which they exported throughout the South, challenging the notion that their fathers, brothers, and husbands were rebels and traitors. Missing from the works mentioned thus far is just how much racism played a central role in the views of history of Confederate sympathizers. These statues which were meant to educate White children across the south were not only seen by White children. Black children also saw these towering stone statues of Confederate heroes. Fear and intimidation may not have been a motivation of the Sons and Daughters, but this was certainly a byproduct of these statues.

John Bardes, who studies crime and punishment at Tulane University focused on how race was ignored by early Confederate sympathizers and even currently. In his article, Finding Historical Meaning in Confederate Memorial Hall. Bardes speaks on how curatorial choices originally implemented disguise regional politics in the name of national reconciliation.[13] This confederate museum which is located in New Orleans, gives no chronological or thematic organization and as he says objects are “detached and baffling.”[14] With somber lighting and grainy photographs, the mood throughout the museum is more melancholy than educational.

The artifacts shown in the museum have little to no historical importance as Bardes names objects such as; a spoon used by Robert E. Lee, General Bragg’s toothpick, and Stonewall Jackson’s tent pegs.[15]  Bardes also goes into the language used to describe Confederate heroes. Words such as “gallantry,” “heroically,” and “patriot,” all string together a narrative of the “mythic Old South aristocracy.” He gives the example of General Nathan Forest, first Grand Wizard of the KKK and the general responsible for the slaughter of Black troops at Fort Pillow during the Civil War. He was identified as “legendary” and “brilliantly captured Fort Pillow.”[16]

Memorial Hall also avoids direct contact with slavery, race, and blackness. Bardes says that Memorial Hall, “erases White Southern culpability for slavery.”[17] Bardes took it upon himself to mention that Confederate Memorial Hall lost public funding in the 1980s. City guidebooks began to shorten their descriptions of the museum and visitor numbers declined. Museum staff, according to Bardes, have interpreted this as a cultural war that “aims to erase history in the name of political correctness.”[18]

Confederate iconography in public space can be found in many places, not just in parks and courthouses, but also on the roads we drive on. Euan Haugue of DePaul University is a professor of urban development. His co-author, Edward Sebesta works for the Anti Neo-Confederate Institute in the public policy department.  Together they wrote The Jefferson Davis Highway: Contesting the Confederacy in the Pacific Northwest. Haugue and Sebesta have a lot to say in regard to statues and the purposes of Confederate statues.

Statues and monuments are an essential part of cultural landscaping. American cultural landscapes because of White supremacy, reflect a historical practice of racism and exclusion.[19] These monuments act as “cultural signposts” directing America’s history of race without directly mentioning racism, white supremacy, or slavery. In 1913, at the UDC Annual Convention, it was proposed that an east-west US highway should be named after Jefferson Davis. The UDC then went on to place monuments, road signs, and trees, alongside roadsides.[20] It was in Washington State where this controversy unfolded when Washington State Representative, Hans Dunshee, a white male drove by a four feet tall marker in Blaine, Washington. [21]

There are many ways to interpret this event, but what the most important aspect of this controversy was the role the government played in naming the highway. The highway was never formally named after Jefferson Davis, federal, state, and local officials all denied naming the road Jefferson Davis Highway, but the marker was left untouched for years.  In 2002, Dunshee, stated that there cannot be monuments to those who “led an insurgency to perpetuate slavery and killed half a million Americans.” He proposed to rename the road after William P. Stewart, an African American Union solider who moved to Washington after the Civil War in the 1880s. Neo-Confederates urged for the government to reject the plan and keep the roadside marker.[22]

The UDC is an organization with chapters across the United States, not just the South and the controversy in Washington State is just one example how the UDC and groups like it exported their ideals on history, the Civil War, and the Confederacy. Jonathan Leib, professor of geography and political science at Old Dominion University teamed with another geography professor, Gerald Webster of University of Wyoming to discuss the Southern landscape and the work of John Winberry, a geography professor who died in 2012 and studied the geographical aspect of Confederate statues.

On Remembering John Winberry and the Study of Confederate Monuments on the Southern Landscape, is an in-depth article in which two academics do an amazing job in teasing out the ideals of John Winberry. This article takes a historical narrative, but it should be read as a geographical narrative.  Like many other scholars, Winberry believed that many of the Confederate monuments were first built in cemeteries.  Where Winberry diverges into his own narrative is his belief that these monuments were part of a response to the 19th century Populist movement which sought to unite poor Whites and Blacks.[23]

There is also a sense of suffering, loss of manhood, and death, that these statues represent. In that, Winberry sees these monuments in the 19th and early 20th century as a tool to unite Southern Whites and deny political and social power to the region’s African American population. [24] This is an interesting narrative, that these symbols were not just to frighten African American citizens but also worked in tandem with Jim Crow laws, segregation, and, political violence. [25]

For decades, the power of creating narratives laid solely in the hands of White people, in this case White Southerners. It was White organizations that could openly organize, pull their resources to together to change laws and public space to fit their own agenda. These interpretations are changing as James Broomall, a professor of history at Shepard University writes in The Interpretation is A’Changin’: Memory, Museums and Public History in Virginia.

Broomall tackles the complexity of museums telling stories that have multiple narratives to a diverse population. Broomall focuses on museums in Richmond and Petersburg, Richmond being the former capital of the Confederacy. Historical sites such as the Richmond National Battlefield, the Museum of the Confederacy, and the Pamplin Historical Park are the parks of Broomall’s focus. Broomall praises how the National Park Service exhibited their, “Richmond Speaks,” exhibit at the Richmond National Battlefield. This exhibit is chronologically driven and presents the narratives of citizens in Richmond, Confederate soldiers, Union soldiers, and slaves.[26] The American Civil War Center also blends the, Northern, Southern, and African American narratives together to “tell the whole story of the conflict that still shapes our nation.”[27]

It is the Museum of the Confederacy (MOC) that takes up a bulk of Broomall’s writing. A museum that was once the center of the Lost Cause narrative is now a “professional facility” that employs social historians, modern museum practices, and up to date scholarship.[28] Broomall makes it a point to compare the MOC with similar institutions in South Carolina and Louisiana.

Lawrence T. Nichols, a professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of West Virginia takes a different approach. For Nichols it is not necessarily the history of the monuments, in this case the Confederate battle flag which is also flown in many public places across the South, but it is what sociologists call “collective memories” which are never permanent or unanimous.[29] Nichols lists three symbolic meanings that the Confederate battle flag has, which can also be said of other Confederate monuments. First, the military struggle in which was carried and the impact it had on the South. Second, romanticism of the “Lost Cause” which has “ran through collective memories” about the Civil War. Last, the racial connotations to slavery and white supremacy.[30] The Confederate battle flag, just like Confederate statues, found their way onto state capital lawns, courthouses, and public parks all across the South, also fundamentally changing the landscape of the South.[31]

In 1993, after a series of court cases, the Confederate flag was removed from the state capitol dome and placed inside a Confederate memorial located on statehouse grounds. Georgia and Mississippi would vote to remove the Confederate flag imagery from their own state flags.  In this, Nichols says these changes told the public the Confederate flag “was at best a controversial symbol.”[32]What Nichols focuses on is the fact that symbols of racism are readily available throughout the country. These symbols can be found on state flags, on college campuses, and NASCAR events. It is not the history, per se, but the collective memories that supporters and opponents create towards these symbols. The question that is araises from reading his work is, how is shared history and collective memory different? History is the study of humans throughout history as sociology is the study of humans in the present. Historians would do themselves a great disservice by ignoring the human aspect of the field they study.

There are others who are caught in the controversy of Confederate memorialization and those people are the managers and workers at national parks and cultural sites. Irvin Winsboro, a historian at Florida Gulf Coast University, tackles this issue as it pertains to Florida. Winsboro takes the position that Confederate memorials worked in tandem throughout history with Jim Crow laws and political violence to keep Southern African Americans from reaching their full political and social potential in the South, especially in Florida. [33] Through historical misrepresentation, The Lost Cause narrative, and White nationalism, confederate monuments were allowed to take on a meaning that romanticized and vindicated the Confederacy.

Winsboro researches the issues with policy which would allow or prevent the removal of these statues. He admits that the status quo of Confederate monuments in Florida is not sustainable, but what to do with them will not be easy.[34] Involved in these policies of monuments are “memory brokers” such as the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy, sympathetic state legislators, and a lot of historical evidence, no matter how misconstrued.

What comes into question for Winsboro, is because a history is uncomfortable, is that enough to reject the public display of history. Winsboro quotes public historian, Hall Rothman in asking his readers understand bow the vision of Confederate monuments and sympathy rose from a few and was always socially objective.[35]  Managers of parks are often required to make decisions, if they are allowed to, based on policy decisions and bureaucratic dealings and not on sound historical scholarship.  The balancing act of proper operational procedures and historical narratives is only going to become more challenging in the future as the call for these monuments to be torn down continues.

When both sides argue that their side of history is right, and the fact Americans interpret past events through words and visual symbols, managers will be put in a tough predicament for the foreseeable future. Winsboro says that cemeteries and battlefields are reasonable policy decisions and should be protected under law. The issue comes from the distortion of a history that is rife racism, segregation, and violence. [36]

As mentioned, these monuments can be found on college campuses as well which is what Patrick Slattery, an art historian focused on in Deconstructing Racism One Statue at a Time. He details how the University of Texas and Texas A & M have statues in very public places. Texas A & M decided in memorializing a former President of the College, Lawrence Ross. Ross just happens to be a Confederate general and member of the KKK. University of Texas has large statues of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis on the south lawn of their campus.[37] Slattery has no issue with claiming this form of art expression as racist and exclusionist.

There is something missing from this entire discussion of Confederate monuments and memorialization. One of the most iconic symbols of the War in Iraq was the toppling of the giant bronze statue of Saddam Hussain. The next move was to remove his image from the currency in Iraq, truly removing his likeness from every form of public life, signaling a new begging for Iraqis.[38] In response to this African American Dave Chappelle during a standup comedy special called For What It’s Worth questioned American money, claiming it was nothing more that baseball cards with slaveholders on them. He goes on to say that George Washington was “the worst of the worst” and details the mythology surrounding him while being a slave owner.  Although this was a comedy special there is truth is a lot of truth in this and public historians should take notice.

If the only difference between Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson Davis was one tried to destroy the union and one tried to unify it, this has little clout with racial minorities. Both Jefferson and Davis were slave owners, both were White supremacists, and both saw America, or their version of it as for White men. Yet, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, James Madison, all have monuments in or around Washington DC and throughout the country. What does this say about public history? How far is the study of public history and public historians willing to go in the name of inclusion?

A statue of Thomas Jefferson at Hofstra University was said to have been a memorial of “slavery, rape, eugenics, and racism.”[39] In 2017, a Chicago pastor urged the mayor to remove a statue of George Washington and rename the park it stands it due to his role in slavery. [40] Public historians, especially white public historians, need to come around on this issue and take it seriously. A six-foot statue of Jefferson Davis and a six-foot statue Thomas Jefferson evoke the same emotional response in a large segment of the American population.

To ask Confederate sympathizers to remove their statues of racists and slave owners, but, allow some racists and slave owners to stay says one thing, white supremacy is allowed but only a certain type of white supremacy. This is where the discussion of Confederate monuments is heading and the response from the academic community should be one of compassion and understanding.

There is a resounding consensus that Confederate statues are the product of sympathizing White southern, especially women who found themselves politically disenfranchised, but still able to weaponize their whiteness. They produced what can self-serving historical narrative which, to this very day have importance and are believed by millions of people across the nation. With the current scholarship and the constant push back from academics, civil rights groups, and politicians, these statues and flag will not go quietly in the night.

The modern-day challenge of creating a diverse public sphere where all citizens can enjoy public space will be hard for one reason, American history is full of contradictions that both sides of the Confederate monument debate willfully ignore. The ethical ramifications of pushing Confederate statues from courthouses into museums, is nothing more than a statement that certain types of White supremacy are worthy of celebration. If public historians do not grapple with this fact, the integrity of the field is in jeopardy.

[1] United Daughters of the Confederacy of North Carolina, Minutes of Organization (Serial): and of 1st and 2nd Annual Conventions, (Raleigh, Capital Printing Company, 1901), 4-5.

[2] United Daughters of the Confederacy of North Carolina, Minutes of the Fifth Annual Convention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (Raleigh, Capital Printing Company, 1902), 112.

[3] United Daughters of the Confederacy of North Carolina, Minutes of Organization of the Six Annual Convention, (Raleigh, Capital Printing Company, 1903), 19.  

[4] United Sons of Confederate Veterans, Minutes Sixth Annual Reunion of the United Sons of Confederate Veterans, (Memphis, Bradley and Gilbert Company, 1901), 32,33,40,77.

[5] United Sons of Confederate Veterans, Sixth Annual Reunion, 23.

[6] Louisiana Division: United Sons of Confederate Veterans, Ninth Annual Convention, (New Orleans, JG Hausbr, 1907), 16.

[7] Karen, Cox, Dixie’s Daughters of the Confederacy, (Tallahassee, University Press of Florida, 2003), 2.

[8] Cox, Dixie’s Daughters, xii.

[9] Cox, Dixie’s Daughter’s, 49.

[10] Cox, Dixie’s Daughter’s, 66-67.

[11] William Lees and Frederick Gaske, Florida Monuments to the Civil War, Tallahassee, University Press of Florida, 2014), 181.

[12] Lees and Gaske, Florida Monuments to the Civil War, 202.

[13] John, Bardes, Defend with True Hearts unto Death: Finding Historical Meaning in the Confederate Memorial Hall, (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 30.

[14] Bardes, Defend with True Hearts unto Death, 32.

[15] Bardes, Defend with True Hearts unto Death, 36.

[16] Bardes, Defend with True Hearts unto Death, 36.

[17] Bardes, Defend with True Hearths unto Death, 40.

[18] Bardes, Defend with True Hearts unto Death, 42.

[19] Euan, Hauge and Edward, Sebesta, Jefferson Davis Highway: Contesting the Confederacy in the Pacific Northwest, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011), 285.

[20] Haughe and Sebesta, Jefferson Davis Highway, 287-288.

[21] Hauge and Sebesta, Jefferson Davis Highway, 282.

[22] Huauge and Sebesta, Jefferson Davis Highway, 292.

[23] Jonathan, Leib and Gerald, Webster, On Remembering John Winberry and the Study of Confederate Monuments on the Southern Landscape, Southeastern Geographer, Vol 55. No. 1, (Chapel Hill, University of North Caorlina Press, 2015), 12.

[24] Leib and Webster, On Remembering John Winberry, 14.

[25] Leib and Webster, On Remembering John Winberry, 15.

[26] James, Broomall, The Interpretation Is A- Changin’: Memory, Museums, and Public History in Central Virginia, Journal of the Civil War Era, Vol 3, No, 1 (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 116.

[27] Broomall, The Interpretation is A-Changin’, 117.

[28] Broomall, The Interpretation is A- Changin’, 118.

[29] Lawrence, Nichols, Memories as Problems; or How to Reconsider Confederate Flags and Other Symbols of the Past, (Berkley, University of California Press, 2018), 129.

[30] Nichols, Memories as Problems, 133-1334.

[31] Nichols, Memories as Problems, 136.

[32] Nichols, Memories as Problems, 137.

[33] Irvin, Winsboro, The Confederate Monument Movement as a Policy Dilemma for Resource Managers of National Parks, Cultural Sites, and Protect Places: Florida as a Case Study, The George Wright Forum, Vol 33, No 2, 2016, 218.

[34] Winsboro, The Confederate Monument Movement, 221.

[35] Winsboro, The Confederate Monument Movement, 222.

[36] Winsboro, The Confederate Monument Movement, 225.

[37] Patrick, Slattery, Deconstructing Racism One Statue at a Time: Visual Cultural Wars at Texas University at Austin, Visual Arts Research, Vol 32, No. 2, (Chicago, University of Illinois Press), 28-29, 33.

[38] Richard, Oppel Jr, After the War: Money, Banking Overhaul in Iraq, The New York Times, July 8th,2003.

[39] Caleb, Parke, Hofstra activists want to remove Thomas Jefferson statue, Fox News, March 27th, 2018.

[40] Douglas, Ernst, The Washington Times, August 16th, 2017.


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