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 corpses, gave them Christian burials, and planted a few inoffensive cenotaphs and obelisks, usually using uncontroversial iconography such as eagles. The first one of their memorials is thought to have gone up in the spring of 1867 in a cemetery in Cheraw, South Carolina. As a UDC historian portrayed it nearly 40 years later: “The faint-hearted (and the most of them were men) decried the undertaking, saying the United States would never allow such honor to be conferred on Confederate dead.”
That victim complex energized some followers to the cause (it still does), but in reality, the United States did allow such honor. In fact, the column is still there. Still, the first projects set a tone by pushing boundaries with subtle messages of a coming insurrection; the Cheraw memorial’s east side pictures a falling tree with the darkly promissory legend “Fallen, but not dead.”
Beneath the veneer of polite society, a resistance movement bubbled, developing a Trojan Horse of verbiage that Federal overloads would find palatable and perfecting schemes to accomplish their work under the unassailable cover of civic improvement. It’s such a perfect metaphor for the character of the United States, isn’t it? We pretend everyone has a seat at the banquet while underneath the table, we frantically knife each other in hatred.
The Daughters sounds like a quaint circle of harmless tea socials and quilting bees. But in its heyday, it was no quixotic Red Hat Society. It was a memory industry. Under the cover of a docile-sounding ladies’ club, the UDC redefined and rekindled war in a sort of reverse Lysistrata, cajoling men to help finance permanent bronze reminders that the Civil War simmered on. It’s possible that the work they did wouldn’t be much remarked upon today—to honor a fallen soldier is not always a controversial thing—but their campaign had a critical error.
The UDC intentionally omitted the Negro (their preferred term) from the story of a war that had ultimately been fought over them. During Reconstruction, the great slave uprising that had terrorized white Southerners with centuries of sleepless nights had finally happened, and now their property wore suits, read books, and passed laws. Black Americans were suddenly being educated and elected to office nationwide. Southern memorials, led by the UDC, put them back into service as symbols, permanently silent and supportive. Had they also included some statuary celebrations of emancipation as part of their handiwork, perhaps more of the women’s legacy would have a chance of surviving our generation.
When it became clear, in the late 1800s, that Southern resentment could be successfully channeled into coded monument building, the Confederacy re-emerged as a kind of shadow movement dedicated to orchestrating installations by the thousand to forge a landscape of signposts meant to signal solidarity.
To call the women of the UDC merely determined would be patronizing to both their breeding and their brains. Their war was as total as Sherman’s.
Northerners had no interest in slowing the UDC’s efforts — the country had seen enough conflict, the reasoning went, so let them mourn their defeat as long as they accept it. (Instead, Northerner’s joined the statuary arms race, sometimes ordering from the same sculptors’ catalogs.) This was the state of the re-United States following Reconstruction, limping along in awkward détente like when you dump a guy but pretend you’ll still be friends. In that way, the South was like a bad roommate that the North couldn’t get off the lease. The mutual false appearances North and South presented to each other were ancestors of the now-familiar bubbles that America’s two camps occupy today — one side feeling wronged and oppressed but refusing to show weakness, the other incredulous that their opponents won’t rejoin them in a full diversity it’s not truly equipped to offer.
After atrocities happen in any nation, a crucial part of a society’s survival is a forgiveness of the oppressors — for example, South Africa’s insistence on a Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of apartheid is recognized as a keystone in holding back a flood of revolutionary bloodshed. In America, though, true reconciliation was never achieved — only the pretense of it was. Other nations slap the disagreements out of each other for decades, but the American system depends on mutual compromise to function, so ongoing violent recriminations are discouraged. As even the most high-ranking Confederates resumed respectable lives of influence, Americans quickly learned to embed their resentments within gamesmanship, propping the door open to a ceaseless, simmering re-litigation of the past.
Amid this, the United Daughters of the Confederacy was founded in 1894 by a new generation of motivated Southern socialites bent on rehabilitating the reputation of their parents. The people most traumatized by the war began to die off, leaving behind children who were embittered by a culture that, thirty years on, remained a shadow of the tales they had heard of its pre-war vitality. The UDC women were mostly too young to remember much of life before the war, but they could glimpse its idealized sweetness in their families’ losses and lore, and they could taste the sourness in the economic wreckage they saw around them. They grew up in ashes and blamed the Union for lighting the fire.
The Daughters’ principles are now known as “the Lost Cause.” They believed Southerners once lived in a harmonious and functional society that obeyed the Constitution as the Founding Fathers wrote it. They believed they had died for those principles when the North tried to force them to do things that weren’t in the Constitution, and that the battle was not directly about slavery, really, but a battle to maintain a state’s rights to preserve its own economic system. Defending the law, they believed, was noble, and if that law permitted slavery, then changing the law was a quibble for another day.
If you’ve heard this capsule ideology before, it’s because the UDC, and a few lesser groups, so brilliantly fused it to the national narrative that even astute historians gave it berth and only now are some Southerners questioning it openly. It was also a textbook psychological rationale. The children of Dixie declared themselves correct, because if they weren’t, the slaughter of 750,000 would be on their heads.
Spreading “Southern Truth”
By 1896, when the Plessy v. Ferguson verdict threw its Supreme Court blessings over the dark arts of segregation, the UDC found itself supercharged with boldness. The women’s groups’ postcard-ready monuments converted many a lonely field into a shrine of pious pilgrimage. Although UDC chapters often rose from some of the country’s most impoverished districts, they made sure the Lost Cause counterpoint was articulated in the biggest, if not several of the biggest, monuments on the landscape. Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, the Confederate capital of Richmond, and Petersburg were given close attention because of their fame, but just name a Civil War site and you will find, if you read the plaques, that the UDC canvassed its premium locations for top prominence. Soon, the tributes existed without question, like end tables or garden gnomes — and they became so common that people forgot they were the product of a distorted misinformation campaign. Only in our times, as a new generation of diverse young Americans protests their primacy in our public spaces, has the UDC’s triumph started to crack.
UDC propaganda — or, to use its motivating term, “Southern truth” — was installed in nearly town throughout the South and much of the Midwest. Every modern road-tripper has passed through countless central town squares with old brick courthouses and city halls. Out front of most of them sits the prototypical stone column with the lonely soldier standing vigil on top. Today we take them for granted as evidence of some bygone antique grief, but they got there by the UDC’s tireless campaigns. If high society in one county erected a shaft, their UDC sisters in the next county over demanded to follow. The women wheedled neighbors and politicians alike, and if they found resistance at any level, they would shame their opponents in the local press. “Surely the finger of scorn will not be pointed at Oconee [County] any more,” scolded Marye R. Shelor in her appeal for donations in one South Carolina paper. “It is the only county where the women have not banded together to preserve the history and care for the soldiers… Ask her to do as your father did — offer yourself to your country.” Having a UDC chapter in your town was like living next door to Patty Simcox from Grease.
The highest-ranking members were the high-born wives and daughters of the South’s most established men — in typical society style, they referred to each other by their husbands’ names, a not-so-subtle reminder of each member’s relative wealth and power. Lacking the ability to vote themselves, and often not interested in winning the right to do it so as not to appear revolutionary, the women threw their weight into influence and lobbying. Socially, there was nothing unseemly in it, because honoring soldiers fell within the bounds of their paternally ascribed role as caretakers. Venerating the dead, and politely passing over their flaws, was a perfect expression of the filiopietistic fantasies that are an essential cornerstone of white Southern culture.
You will search long and hard to find any Black people who lobbied alongside the UDC to erect these landmarks. In towns that had freed slaves on the city council, such Richmond’s John Mitchell, Jr., they were always outvoted by the white members when it was time to place the newest one. Over the objections of Mitchell and two other Black councilmen, Monument Avenue was created and named expressly to showcase all the incoming Civil War monuments, several by the UDC, where they could instruct the most people on “Southern truth.”
The UDC brandished wistfulness as a weapon. The ladies held essay contests, fiddling contests, bake sales, concerts, barbecues, rummage sales, and penny drives. The group funded scholarships homes for the Confederate aged, too, but the heart of its mandate was what psychologists now call generativity, to inculcate the next generation with the glories of the previous ones.
That’s why the UDC almost always targeted kids as their most important standard carriers. It convinced teachers to read only from UDC-approved textbooks that published “true history” (its phrase), and it persuaded or blackmailed school boards to ban any book that implied Confederates had erred. They hung portraits of Robert E. Lee to lord over classrooms from Florida to New England — for their success was not limited to the former Confederacy — and they understood that beliefs are asserted through whatever sentiment is dominant.
The UDC’s simplified logic scored high with schoolchildren and at death tourism sites where visitors might be learning about the Civil War for the very first time, so choosing a location was crucial. In 1922 Greenville, South Carolina, the stone soldier of one memorial, about to be moved to busy motorway, was literally hidden in a nearby barn for two years until the state Supreme Court pressured the city into relocating his roost to somewhere prominent, where passersby would be more likely to “pause to read the sermon in stone.”
The Daughters also orchestrated unveilings to be each town’s highlight of the year, if not the decade. Balls were thrown, school was cancelled, Main Streets were draped in red and white bunting, parades were mounted, and one lucky child was selected, with much anticipation and fanfare, to pull the cord that dropped the sheet off the new installation.
The UDC invariably mustered young children to lead these ceremonies, which had the happy effect of deflecting accusations of politicization. One UDC motif at countless festivities was the use of thirteen girls, each proudly wearing a sash representing a Confederate state. One unveiling in New Orleans featured a “living” Confederate flag composed of 576 pupils dressed in red and white. In the Confederate Museum of Charleston, there’s a hilarious archive image from Richmond, Virginia, of a throng of 3,000 very young schoolchildren laboriously heaving the new statue of Jefferson Davis, toiling like a workhouse’s worth of orphans from a bus-and-truck production of Oliver!. The museum preserves a relic of this civic slavery: a section of the rope they dragged Davis with, tied with red ribbons, presented with the same reverence an Italian parish church might bestow upon the alleged thumb of St. Andrew.
The UDC used a Nashville booster newspaper called The Confederate Veteran as its de facto house organ to broadcast and chronicle its assorted drives, folklore, dedications, and condemnations to all of its “camps.” Members (and there were more than 100,000 by 1914), saw the Veteran as the perfect place to publish opinions and memories that would otherwise be lost to time, which makes it a bonanza, sometimes embarrassingly so, for researchers in Southern history or for anyone who wants to claim the Lost Cause isn’t inherently racist. Annual volumes could top 600 pages of sparingly illustrated fine print, each one a back-breaking cornucopia of Southern derring-do and Northern dastardliness. The advertisements contained pitches for temperance products, battle flag pins, and far more damning mail-aways. For many months, this eye-catcher was among its regularly appearing classifieds:
KU KLUX KLAN.
This booklet, published by the Mississippi Division, U.D.C., to be sold and all proceeds to go to erection of monument at Beauvoir, Miss. (home of Jefferson Davis), to the memory of Confederate Veterans, contains absolutely correct history of the origin of this famous Klan. Price, per copy, 30 cents, postpaid.
In an article in the December 1910 issue, Mrs. S. E. F. Rose, the division president who published the booklet, boasted that the Veteran had already helped sell the volume in 33 states and China. She also furnished a version of her Klan history that was “in suitable form for school study.” The sales funded a monument arch in Biloxi that was consecrated in 1917. That memorial was torn to pieces by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but proud locals took considerable pains to reassemble it. You can still go see it. To this day, Harrison County promotes an annual Confederate Memorial Day there. Bring tribute wreaths for the rebels and a potluck lunch.
In poorer towns, the UDC ordered soldiers from the same catalogs used by Union memorial-builders. In wealthier cities, UDC ’s approved sculptors were often European-born artists who cared less about causes than commissions, such as Germans Rudolf Schwarz and Frank Teich, and Italian Pompeo Coppini, who openly criticized anything mass-produced. He complained that Confederate societies too often tossed up poor workmanship under the cover of sanctity: “It is easy to influence small communities to give parks or other utilitarian projects for memorials, as the small masses are not educated to art appreciation,” he sniffed. Still, the American landscape was covered with European-styled Civil War remembrances that were purchased out of a book and viewed as kitsch even in their own time.
Corpses cannot speak for themselves, so the UDC gave them words, and the method of their ventriloquism was memorials. Now, as we know, their PR plan is backfiring, challenged a century late, a lag time that proves how successful it was. In places where differing opinions are likely to mingle, Confederate memorials are being toppled, hidden in storage, explained away. We are amid a great tearing-down.
One might say that the South’s determination to prove itself has always been its Achilles Heel. When it seized John Brown after his Virigina raid, the smart thing to do, as writer George Templeton Strong suggested at the time, would have been to throw him into the nuthouse where he’d live out his days with the reputation of a loon. Instead, Virginia killed him, certifying him as a martyr, and the consequences in turn unmade their dominion. And now, after refusing to grant an inch to opponents of Confederate monuments over years of mostly polite local flare-ups, their defenders find themselves overwhelmed by an explosion of pent-up frustration. But the warnings were there.
Time and again, Americans imprudently cave to the temptation to be recalcitrant when compromise is probably best called for.
My favorite figure from the UDC, and there were many self-important showboats that leave me slack-jawed, was Mildred Lewis Rutherford, the erstwhile school principal from Athens, Georgia. “Miss Millie,” as she was called, was 10 when the war broke out, and she spent the rest of her life obsessively re-living it. Well into World War I, she indulged a bizarre penchant for running around in the 1850s hoop skirts of a Southern belle despite her advanced age. Her mother had run a Ladies’ Memorial Association, the Reconstruction-constrained precursor to the UDC. When she died, Mildred took that over and also jumped into the UDC with an intimidating intensity, becoming historian-for-life of the Georgia Division of the group, and delivering both speeches and new manuscripts wherever she went. She was a prolific thinker but not a fair one, building a career writing UDC-approved school textbooks such as The South in History and Literature, a reader making a not-altogether unreasonable case for the strength of Southern writers, plus ample detours into the political inculcation of Southern children: “This is the story: The South never violated the Constitution, That instrument conceded to each State the right to conduct its own affairs. The Constitution was violated by the North, as the many amendments necessary after the war proved.”
If anyone doubts whether the forces that installed the Confederate statues were racist, simply look up a few issues of The Confederate Veteran and read the speeches they made to get them erected. One of Mrs. Rutherford’s most ethically acrobatic speeches was delivered at the national convention in Dallas in 1916, in which she assured her adoring public: “What progress has the Negro made in those fifty years? He has as a race, note that I say as a race, become disorderly, idle, vicious and diseased… There is no doubt that the Negro finds his truest friends in the South, and that, too, with no social equality ideas to upset him.”
Miss Millie was a maiden aunt with poison in her heart.
In time, because inscriptions were carefully constructed to be uncontroversial— “honor,” “glory,” “duty” — the UDC’s commentary was taken as documentary. The perfidious arguments of Miss Millie and countless ones like hers caught fire, and not just in the South. In 1906, a T.H. Mann of Norwich, Connecticut wrote a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Georgian: “The best thing for the negro as well as the white man is that the relative inferiority of the negro man should be recognized definitely and clearly in every relation of life,” wrote the flatteringly named Mann, proving for the millionth time that our passions as patriots too often trample our feelings as humans.
His sentiments were not unique among his fellow Northerners. Ask yourself, for a moment, why the North didn’t erect any major memorials about Black liberation. They fought and won a war to free the slaves — or, depending on your view, to take away the right to own any — and yet can you name a single public work adored by Americans that celebrates the smashing of African-American chains? Other countries, including Brazil, Guyana, Haiti, Mexico, Cuba, and others, have their own monuments to the quashing of slavery, and what’s more, they give the former slaves agency in their own liberation. America has mostly paternalistic statues for the white men who fought.
Another favorite theme, one that still powers political minorities today, was that the newspapers were unfair, suppressing information and distributing false stories. On May 20, 1895, Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell delivered the dedication speech of the Confederate Monument in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“The accepted history of the late war, like the previous history of the United States, has been written by Northern men, and a Southerner, reading it, cannot help recalling what Fronde said about history generally: namely, that it seemed to him ‘like a child’s box of letters with which we can spell any word we please. We have only to select such letters as we want, arrange them as we like, and say nothing about those which do not suit our purpose.”
Yet not a minute later, Waddell followed his North-baiting by professing purity: “Let no man say that in discharging this duty I am digging up sectionalism. I utterly disdain any such desire or intention, and I could not if I would, for they are things now buried.” That was a lie, of course. He was literally erecting a partisan statue when he said it.
The statue Waddell dedicated with those words was finally dismantled in June 2020.
“This is a monument to slavery and human trafficking,” activist Kimberly Muktarian told WTVD, the local ABC affiliate. “This is also a monument to rape, pillaging, and legalized gentrification.”
Waddell’s “child’s box of letters” has spilled, and now they are being used to write a new history.
If you doubt just how widespread the Daughters’ messaging was, go into New York City’s Times Square subway station from 42nd Street. Look up. The tile mosaic trim running under the ceiling throughout the concourse depicts, at regular intervals, a hanging Confederate battle flag.
Adolph S. Ochs, the publisher of the New York Times from 1896 to 1935, built the skyscraper over the station, which opened on the subway’s first day of service in 1904. He was one of the most powerful men in New York City, but also he happened to be the son of Bertha Levi Ochs, a Bavarian-born Jew, Confederate smuggler, and charter member of the UDC. She died in 1910 with full funeral honors from the group, and in 1917, during an expansion of the station, the head architect, Squire J. Vickers, and his head tile man W. Herbert Dole, appear to have tried to please Ochs by embedding those rebel flags beneath the very headquarters of New York’s “Gray Lady” newspaper. Ochs himself helped develop the system that consecrated the Confederate killing fields at Chickamauga. It’s also said that when he died in 1935, the UDC sent a pillow embroidered with the rebel flag to be placed beside him in his coffin. All of that means that for a century, a Rebel flag saluting the United Daughters of the Confederacy has flown over the heads of unsuspecting Yankees on their daily commutes in Manhattan.
The UDC was the most powerful and prolific of the revisionist memorial makers, but it wasn’t alone. Similar groups sprouted everywhere blood was once spilt: the United Confederate Veterans, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and, among Unionists, the ultra-influential Grand Army of the Republic. They competed to prove who could praise their ancestors with the most luxuriant memorial, but they all traded in the same secret symbols. There may be no sharper rebuttal to their soapy rhetoric than a quote by James Baldwin, who was exactly the kind of man the UDC tried to prevent from existing. Ironically, he wrote it about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a racist anti-slavery novel that both he and the UDC despised: “Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty.”
But the UDC’s sentimentality worked, and it still does. In December 2018, Smithsonian magazine calculated that in the preceding decade, at least $40 million in taxpayer funds had been directed to these monuments and their associated Rebel heritage associations, and it found multiple cases of Confederate markers being meticulously restored while all others were defunded and permitted to decay. Some people want them preserved in museums, some want them melted down, some want signage with better context placed on them, and some will run you over with a Toyota Camry if you even think about the issue.
Perhaps the grandest political structure in Arlington National Cemetery is the onededicated to the Confederacy, a country that attacked the United States and helped fill the surrounding gardens of stone. This memorial, too, was erected thanks to the women propagandists of the Lost Cause.
Arlington’s Confederate Memorial, which was dedicated as the Confederate Monument three weeks before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, stands like a wedding cake in metal, nearly 33 feet tall, cast in Berlin, ringed with busy friezes and topped with a robed female figure bearing a laurel wreath of peace to ward off doubters. Its ostentatious flourishes brazenly flout the stark decorum of the rest of the monuments in Arlington, like a drag queen crashing a Shriner’s meeting.
But its inscription is an elegant expression of evasion. Read it, and you’ll see post-Confederates begging you not inspect too closely the reasons why the fight was fought. Vague notions of duty, the sort that even the most uneducated mind could embrace, are the only details that would need to be summoned:
Not for fame or reward
Not for place or for rank
Not lured by ambition
Or goaded by necessity
But in simple
Obedience to duty
As they understood it
These men suffered all
Dared all — and died
“History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it,” Winston Churchill once quipped.
Let’s be honest. He was still gadding about in breeches when the women of the UDC mastered that skill more flawlessly than he ever would.
They triumphed in reshaping America’s national mythology. By erasing hard truths, they made it easy to be proud. But in selecting the public square for their sermons in stone, they chose the weapon of their ultimate repudiation, too.
Jason Cochran, the descendant of Confederate veterans, is the author of Here Lies America: Buried Agendas and Family Secrets at the Tourist Sights Where Bad History Went Down (Well Hall Books). He is Editor-in-Chief of Frommers.com.