Editor’s note: In the October 2017 issue of Civil War Times magazine, Dale Center co-director Dr. Susannah J. Ural was invited along with 14 other leading Civil War scholars to offer her thoughts on the current debate over Confederate memorials. The post below is an extended version of her thoughts on subject.
By Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D.
There’s an obelisk at Karnak built to honor Hatshepsut, one of the few women pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. Its inscription captures her curiosity at how she, who ushered in a period of prosperity and peace, would be remembered: “Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say — those who shall see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done.” Hatshepsut’s successor, for reasons still debated, nearly destroyed every memory of her. But history has a way of haunting us. Our current struggle with a Confederate past has me wondering, like Hatshepsut, how future generations will interpret our decisions.
In an era of great division, a point that is often missed in the Confederate monuments debate is that most factions rightly agree that history should not be erased. The question is in how it should be remembered. In my opinion, if citizens come together through a democratic process and agree to remove monuments in their community, they should do so. That’s how democracy works. But don’t hide them away in warehouses. Place them at museums or battlefield parks where historians and interpreters can help visitors learn about the motives behind the Lost Cause. These monuments were erected at the height of this movement to, yes, honor concepts of sacrifice for liberty and family. Countless letters from the men and women who endured the Civil War and raised the money to build these monuments verify that. When Confederate veteran Joseph B. Polley, who fought in the 4th Texas Infantry, debated with his fellow veterans about the design of the Texas Brigade monument in Austin, he insisted that it had to feature an individual soldier rather than Jefferson Davis or a Confederate commander. “If a medallion of Davis appears on the monument at all, it is bound to have the central and most conspicuous place, and the men and women who when we are dead and gone look at it, will accept it as a monument to Davis and the cause he represented.” Instead, Polley and his fellow Texas Brigade veterans decided to depict a common soldier representing “the brave men to whose memory alone it should be dedicated.” (J. B. Polley, Floresville, Wilson County, Texas to Col. B. F. Chilton, Angleton, Texas, July 18, 1908. F. B. Chilton Papers, The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.)
We need to recognize, however, that many of these monuments were also erected amid an effort to entrench a ruthless tradition of white supremacy. One of the best-known examples of this is the recently removed Battle of Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans. Another appears in the speech by Confederate veteran and Southern philanthropist Julian S. Carr at the 1913 dedication of the Confederate memorial at UNC-Chapel Hill. Carr celebrated many things in his speech, including “what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war, when the facts are that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South — When ‘the bottom rail was on top’ all over the Southern states, and to-day, as a consequence, the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States — Praise God.” (Carr’s full speech is here; this quote is from page 9-B; sources relating to this monument can be found here).
I don’t believe there is a universal answer to the monuments question, just as I fail to see a universal motivation in those who erected them. The past is messy, and that messiness is what inspires so many of us to study it. So, let’s talk about these complexities, and preferably at sites that have trained historians and archivists on staff who can help visitors research and read original sources and enjoy an informed debate about the issues — not so we can all agree, but so we can reach our own informed conclusions about the past to help us shape a better future.
I truly hope the fury over these monuments will inspire a similar fury to support education about the Civil War and its enduring legacy. Rather than mock simplistic videos and erroneous postings from museums that are understaffed and misinformed, we might consider how we can come together to help sites across the nation improve their facilities. We can remind our representatives why funding education in the humanities is so important. We can support groups like the Civil War Trust, which works tirelessly with diverse groups of scholars, educators, and preservationists to save and interpret Civil War history. We can also volunteer our services at historic sites in our area. But I want to be clear that volunteering needs to be done under the direction of a trained public historian, archivist, or museum curator. Otherwise, well-intentioned volunteers can interpret in ignorance or damage more than we preserve. But under such direction, many of us have the education, research, computer, and organizational skills that museums can put to use transcribing and digitizing collections, editing signage, and helping with publicity. These approaches would be a better use of funds and energy than, as some suggest, erecting more monuments that represent alternatives to, say, the White League memorial in New Orleans. In a city that is facing potentially crippling financial challenges, I’m not convinced that erecting and maintaining more monuments is a realistic solution.
Like Hatshepsut’s obelisk, Confederate memorials “speak of what [we] have done.” Let us do just that at historic sites designed for that purpose, where Confederate symbols, including the flag, are and should be part of the landscape from which visitors learn.
Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D., is Co-Director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss and President of the Mississippi Historical Society. She is the author of Don’t Hurry Me Down to Hades: The Civil War in the Words of Those Who Lived It (Osprey, 2013) and The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861-1865 (NYU Press, 2006). Her current project, Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit, will be published this year by LSU Press.