Those Confederate Statues Were Put There As Propaganda. Meet the Women Who Got Away With It
History, it’s said, is written by the winners. In America, that isn’t true.
Here, history is written by the people most determined to write it.
We’re also told than men control the narrative. But in America, women have done more — far, far more — to shape popular historical memory in the public square than any other group. Put simply, the women of the South — allegedly on the losing side, allegedly powerless — directed the most powerful public relations movement in historical circles.
For my book, Here Lies America, I traveled to town squares, historic sites, and public parks from Monticello to Mayberry. No matter where I went, Confederate memorials were the street furniture of American history. The scheme to plant them in nearly every town worked so brilliantly that only now, a century later, are we realizing exactly what groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy were able to accomplish.
America’s Civil War ended in 1865, but the Confederate statue boom took decades longer to gestate. Few of them went up in the 1870s and 1880s, as most people assume. Construction didn’t gather peak velocity until the second generation following the bloodshed, more than thirty years after the last bullet found its target. By the turn of the century, thousands of monuments and plaques were being installed annually—all part of an organized propaganda effort.
Memorials to the Confederacy could be ordered from a catalog. If your town didn’t have much money, you could order a mass-produced one and the well-placed ladies of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the leading group responsible for thousands of memorials. would charm and hector the appropriate civic leaders until it was installed in a conspicuous location — not in the cemetery where memorials to the dead usually belong, but in public squares where kids were likely to see it on the way to school. The domination of their message was the entire point.
It takes protracted and focused effort to turn a horrific war into something gloriously ubiquitous. So the ladies started small. In the years immediately after the Civil War, the surviving women of the South formed Ladies Memorial Associations. The LMAs tidied up their broken land under the watchful eye of the Reconstruction government, doing work that most people agreed was necessary. They retrieved far-flung…