“Next up, Charlottesville!”: Silent Sam and the Confederate soldier at the University of Virginia
On August 20, students at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill toppled a statue of a Confederate soldier known as Silent Sam (Figure 1, below). The statue formerly stood in McCorkle Place, a plaza that sits between two major streets on the UNC campus and is adjacent to the Akland Art Museum. The statue was erected in 1913 through the fundraising efforts of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) who, with the help of then-University president Francis Venable, called on alumni of UNC to support the project with the final $500 supplied by the University. Working under hashtags like #silencesam, #doitlikedurham, #rememberjamescates, and #untiltheyallfall, many journalists and twitterstorians have recently detailed the long standing efforts to remove the statue. As a useful timeline of “Resources about UNC’s Confederate Monument” created by UNC Archives staff members makes clear, these efforts began as early as March, 1965, when “A letter to the editors of the Daily Tar Heel by student Al Ribak, titled ‘Silent Sam Should Leave,’ spark[ed] discussion in the newspaper about the monument’s meaning and history, whether it is a racist symbol, and whether it should be removed from campus.”
Silent Sam has been a blight on the landscape of UNC for more than a hundred years. During that time the monument has been an object of ire and a rallying point for protests led by The Black Student Movement, the Afro-American Society of Chapel Hill High School, and The Real Silent Sam Movement. Interventions have been organized around marches to or from the monument, the creation of alternative plaques that tell a more complete history of Silent Sam, or splattering or spraying the pedestal with paint. One of the most powerful events in recent memory, however, was a direct action undertaken on April 30, 2018 by Maya Little, a doctoral student in the department of history at UNC, who poured half gallon containers filled with a mix of her own blood and red ink over the base of the monument. Little’s choice to draw her own blood for the performative protest drew attention to a history of harm against the African-American community in North Carolina and resonated with previous protests following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in 1968. Little’s actions were staged as part of a larger public protest that pushed for the statue’s removal, and video records of her action spread in real time on Facebook Live and later distributed across the Internet. In a clip posted on Twitter (viewable with a Twitter account, here, or see below) Little works her way around the statue, covering it with blood, until she is stopped by a policeman who is met with chants of “No cops, no Klan, get rid of Silent Sam!”
Little continues to face criminal and honor court charges as a result of her actions and could spend up to 60 days in jail and/ or be expelled from UNC. In a recent interview with WUNC 91.5 North Carolina public radio Little reflected on the meaning of the movement she helped to build. She notes,
“This movement has been 50 years in the making. There’ve been so many protests of students — black student activists, workers and community members — against this statue and against white supremacy at UNC. And the administration has never responded. When students have said: We’re in pain. This statue is causing us direct harm. The people who gather around this statue are dangerous, and they call for us to be lynched. The university didn’t respond. The only time the university has responded has been to harass, surveil and target anti-racist activists.”
Little continues to be a leader of the #silencesam movement, not just on August 20 but also during additional protests on August 25, 30, and September 8 (you can see raw video and distinguish clashes between white supremacists, counterprotestors, and cops on a special section of the Daily Tar Heel website). She has been, at times, eloquent and angry, and perhaps most importantly willing to stand at the front alongside many others to deliver simpler messages such as “Fuck the Confederacy!”, “You lost, you lost, you lost!”, “Go home cops, go home Nazis”, “Nat Turner John Brown anti-racists run this town”, and — most creatively — “Silent Sam is a gender neutral bathroom.” Little continues to be an inspiration for community members who are willing to work against the inertia of institutions for the sake of more equitable public spaces, and the need for such an effort became even more clear as reactions to the events of April and August appeared in major media outlets. News coverage and the first public statements made by university leaders made it clear that student actions against Silent Sam were considered vandalism, mob rule, defacement, and the destruction of public property. The language that flowed from voices of authority at UNC proved, once again, how quickly a dominant voice with an overwhelming respect for white authority could criminalize the dissent of black and brown students.
Many of those who spoke out in support of the activists at UNC were united in citing a harrowing speech delivered by Julian Shakespeare Carr at the unveiling of Silent Sam on June 2, 1913. Carr was a Confederate veteran, a philanthropist, and a white supremacist all in one, as an article by UNC professor William Sturkey makes clear, and a typewritten version of his speech has been digitized thanks to the early effort of Adam Domby (now an assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston) and the UNC University Libraries. The contents of the speech can only be described as bald-faced racism. Carr writes,
“The present generation, I am persuaded, scarcely takes note of 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 13 Southern States — Praise God. I trust I may be pardoned for one allusion, howbeit it is rather personal. One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomatox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison, and for thirty nights afterwards slept with a double-barrel shot gun under my head.”
The atrocity described in Carr’s speech — which he recounts with such pride and confidence in applause — was reason enough to topple Silent Sam. If we read Carr’s speech carefully and do not turn away from its sickening racism, the students’ turn to hard iconoclasm and the toppling of Silent Sam is not vandalism and can only be considered an act of civil disobedience. Carr’s words are a permanent stain on the monument, and therein lies the brilliance of Little’s willingness to endure further pain for the sake of a statement that has resonated, worldwide.
“Next up, Charlottesville!”
Silent Sam came down at approximately 9:20 PM on Monday, August 20, and as the statue lay on the ground there came up chants of “Next up, Charlottesville!” (Figure 2).
Protesters may have referred to Charlottesville’s more famous monuments to Generals Lee and Jackson — objects that became rallying points for neo-Nazis and white supremacists during the so-called Summer of Hate — or even the Confederate soldier that stands outside the Albemarle County Court Building. In scrolling through the resulting wave of news coverage, however, I thought of another, related monument: UVA’s own Monument to the Confederate Dead (Figure 3).
Today the statue stands at the intersection of Alderman and McCormick and adjacent to UVA’s Observatory Hill Dining Hall (Google Maps here), and like Silent Sam honors “the sons of the university” who lost their lives in the American Civil War. But unlike Sam, who operated among sidewalks and stop lights, the example in Charlottesville stands within the quiet confines of a Confederate burial ground and very near to the cemetery for enslaved African-Americans at the university.
It is important to note, at the offset, that Silent Sam and the Confederate soldier at UVA are not equivalent. They have differences in both form and context. In placing the monuments side by side I do not insist on seeing them as related, only. Much of the outcry against Silent Sam is rooted in Julian Carr’s plain-spoken racism and the legacy of his words on display in a very public place (as Chancellor Folt notes, “at the front door” of an institution of higher learning). Silent Sam is problematic because it must be viewed by undergraduates on the way to class or a major sporting event. In contrast, the Confederate soldier at UVA can be forgotten, particularly by those with the privilege of such forgetting. The monument is currently surrounded by walls on four sides, and my own straw poll resulted in more statements of “I don’t know where or what that is” than summaries of the object’s history. While both statutes depict an anonymous Confederate soldier and share a certain similarity in the arrangement of pedestal and plaques and a surmounting figure, they do possess significant differences. Silent Sam, for example, earned his name based on the empty ammunition box attached to his belt, a fact that makes him ill-prepared to take up the next Confederate charge. In contrast, the stance of the soldier at UVA suggests greater vigilance as his eyes surveil the landscape from the high ground with a bayonet fixed at the end of his rifle.
Silent Sam is undoubtedly part of a larger movement, one that has moved across the South and changed the face of public commemoration in cities like New Orleans, Durham, Charleston, and yes, Charlottesville. The connection between UNC, Duke, and UVA also feels particularly close, not only in proximity but also because Charlottesville was on protestors’ lips and in their minds just moments after Silent Sam made his divot in the ground. The goal of this essay, then, is to pursue this connection and in doing so extend the conversation between the works. It is my contention that if the statues of Lee and Jackson in Emancipation and Justice Parks deserve our attention; if the statue of a Confederate soldier in Court Square deserves our attention; if plaques bearing the names of Confederate soldiers on the Rotunda deserve our attention; then the statue of the infantryman in the Confederate cemetery at UVA also deserves our attention.
On the morning of August 21, or the day after Silent Sam fell, I decided to pay a visit to UVA’s own Monument to the Confederate Dead. I followed my GPS to a small roundabout, and as I got out of my car I made eye contact with a member of the UVA Ambassador Program who had been parked just a few yards away. If you are a student at UVA or have spent any time on Grounds, you likely know the Ambassadors as the men and women who patrol areas around the Rotunda in designated “zones” and wear bright neon vests. They have been a sign of soft power at UVA for several years now, going back to February 2015, but this was my first interaction with one of their representatives. We greeted one another, shook hands, and I immediately launched into an explanation of my interest in the monument as a current graduate student and teacher in the Department of Art History at UVA. We entered the cemetery together and spoke alongside the statue for about twenty minutes. I told him more about why I was there (“interested, curious”; “Silent Sam came down last night”; “Where is the cemetery for enslaved laborers?”) and as we got deeper into our conversation I also tested a more persuasive mode, telling how Confederate monuments from the 1890s are often symbols of the Lost Cause and betray the prejudice of the Jim Crow era. Civil conversation and four or five additional handshakes established and reiterated the bond between us. I invited him to walk with me through the cemetery. He took a few steps, then declined. But most significantly, in getting back into my car I realized that a UVA Ambassador, acting as an employee of the University Police Department (UPD), had orders to watch over our Confederate monument. UPD knew what had happened to Silent Sam the night before and had the sensitivity to see the monuments as linked. They grasped, on some level, that some might view the statue as a racist. And try to tear it down.
The question is: Should we? Is the Confederate soldier at UVA the next step in the #silencesam movement?
Let’s begin with its history.
The Confederate Cemetery and its soldier
The Monument to the Confederate Dead at UVA was installed on June 7, 1893. The work was designed by Casper Buberl (a Bohemian artist, b. 1834 — d. 1899) and cast by the Henry-Bonnard Bronze Company of New York. The monument features four bronze plaques, one on each side of the pedestal, which list the names of soldiers who served in regiments from eleven southern states, all of whom died at the Charlottesville General Hospital during the Civil War. A stone inscription below the plaque that faces the entrance of the cemetery reads: “Fate denied them Victory but clothed them in glorious Immortality.”
The monument was paid for through a campaign of the Ladies Confederate Memorial Association, Virginia Division, Albemarle Chapter. A fundraising brochure with the heading “Dear Sir — — ,” produced by the association in 1890 and now in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at UVA, records that “$1500 have been expended on the enclosure and shrubbery,” around the Confederate portion of the cemetery (Figure 4).
According to this document, the cemetery grounds were “greatly in need of attention and a movement has recently been set on foot to put them in decent order, and, if possible, erect a simple monument to their memory.”
The efforts of the Ladies Confederate Memorial Association in the year 1890 coincide with the revitalization of the Albemarle Chapter. The collected papers of the group, also in Special Collections, includes their constitution and bylaws, dated February 22, 1890, and according to its author this early iteration of the group was organized “for the purpose of caring for and erecting a memorial for our Confederate dead.” In another brief history of the UDC (which, in the historical retelling, is conflated with the Ladies Confederate Memorial Association), also among the papers, the names to be listed on the four bronze plaques are also said to be compiled “In response to an appeal to this association from the John Bowie Strange Camp, C.V., of Charlottesville, through Professor Garrett, commander, for a ‘ladies auxiliary to the Camp,’ to assist in providing for needy Confederate Veterans, their widows and orphans, that Mrs. Garrett formed the Albemarle Chapter, Daughters of the Confederacy.”
The dedication ceremony
Another important source on the soldier at UVA is the program for its dedication ceremony on June 7, 1893 (Figures 5 and 6).
Among other features, the folded sheet includes instructions for an elaborate, military-style procession. The cavalcade is told to begin in “Public Square, west of Court House.” Mounted police were to organize in the park, itself, with the First, Second, and Third Divisions taking their place on nearby Market, East Fourth, and East Third Streets. The program also says that “Faculty and Students of the University will join procession at University, taking place in line immediately in rear of Fire Department.” Once the procession arrived at the cemetery, there are also instructions for the running up the Confederate flag to the tune of “Dixie,” followed by a speech by Major Robert Stiles, listed as a “comrade of the RE Lee Camp, No. 1, C. V.”
Stiles’ oration was eventually published as a pamphlet in Richmond (and a version can be found online, here) (Figure 7).
His speech begins by linking the Monument to the Confederate Dead in Charlottesville to the famous Oakwood monument, a memorial that still stands in the oldest portion of the cemetery in the East End neighborhood of Richmond. Stiles says of the monument (which takes the form of an obelisk): “The Oakwood monument reminds us that the brave may fall, the right may fail. This shaft, the silent orator of this occasion, claims glory for the vanquished, immortality of glory for the brave who have fallen in a cause that is lost” [emphasis mine].
This is not the only time the language of the Lost Cause is evoked in reference to or in the context of the soldier at UVA. The Virginia University Magazine from March, 1890 also tells how “At a meeting held at the Opera House, February 20, a stirring appeal was made to the community to erect a suitable monument to the too long neglected Confederate dead, as a last tribute to a lost cause, and not forgotten heroes, who have found their last resting place in our cemetery, and who [sic] graves are marked by nothing at present except weeds and grass.” In the following section, which falls under the heading of “Sounder views as to the causes of the war,” Stiles also peddles that key tenet of the Lost Cause, namely that the Civil War was about states’ rights and not slavery. He says,
“Time was when men spoke of slavery as the cause of the war, or the determination of one section to dominate the Union. To-day intelligent citizens generally recognize as the real cause of the war, an irreconcilable difference as to the construction of a written instrument, and the rights of the sovereign and independent States which ratified it. Candid men of all section and all parties to-day admit that this difference of opinion was not only honest but intelligent — that the question involved was, and is one, upon which men of intelligence might, and did, and do, honestly differ. May I be pardoned for advancing yet one step, and suggesting that there is at least a vague impression in the minds of the majority of intelligent men, the country over, that, upon the great and burning question that divided us, the weight of the argument was with the South.”
Stiles also highlights UVA’s participation in the war and the sacrifice made by its soldiers. He notes the number of young men who “hurried to the front” and, in so doing, manages to take a swipe at an elite college in the North. Stiles says the war took:
“… largely over one-half of the 604 students at this institution in the spring of ’61, while there joined the first army of invasion but 73 out the 896 students on the roll of great Harvard the same year. It gave to the Confederate service, from ’61 to ’65, more than 2,000 men of our University, of whom it buried in soldier’s graves more than 400 — while but 1,040 Harvard men served in the armies and navies of the United States during the four years of the war, and only 155 of these lost their lives in the service.”
Much of what remains of Stiles’ speech is given over to extolling the virtues of Lee and Jackson, with several personal anecdotes pulled from the major’s service. He finally concludes with the monument, itself, and the removal of a tarp that concealed the soldier. Stiles says,
“Comrades: We are about to unveil a monument to ‘The Confederate Dead’ — but, one interesting feature of this occasion is its tender association with a Confederate, thank God, yet living. When little Sallie Baker shall draw aside yonder veil, and reveal the noble figure behind it, her act will also serve to recall the pathetic figure of the hero father to whose superb gallantry she owes her distinguished part in the ceremonies of this hour, — comrade James B. Baker, a soldier who never faltered till he fell, and who has borne his wounds as bravely as he had worn his sword.”
Many of the sources mentioned above can be found in the Small Special Collections Library at UVA. They provide some insight into the history of the Confederate Cemetery and the Monument to the Confederate Dead, and beyond that to the similarities and differences in their early histories. To appreciate the relevance of the texts to our current situation, however, we must return to several threads established, above.
First: The Ladies Confederate Memorial Association
Knowing who paid for the monument at UVA changes how we view it. As with Julian Carr, the members of the Ladies Confederate Memorial Association, Albemarle Chapter were philanthropists and nurses who both tended to wounded Confederate soldiers at Charlottesville General Hospital and were white supremacists who, after 1894, had much in common with the newly founded United Daughters of the Confederacy. According to Encyclopedia Virginia (s.v. “Ladies’ Memorial Associations”), such civic organizations gave many Confederate soldiers a respectable burial at a time when little financial support was provided by the northern government. With that being said, Ladies’ Confederate Memorial Associations were also part of a much larger movement that erected hundreds of monuments of a similar type all across the southern states, with a particular profusion set up in the 1890s. While it is important to note that Ladies’ Memorial Associations are not synonymous with the UDC — the organizations were founded at different times and had separate administrative structures — it would also be inappropriate to disassociate the two (a conflation suggested by their own collected papers and the brief history they chose to write). By 1900, the organizations were effectively merged under the auspices of the Confederate Southern Memorial Association, and a similarity in vision and goals relates to what Caroline E. Janney has called “a reverence for states’ rights, with white supremacy imbedded in this philosophy.” We should pause for a moment to let this sink in: The Ladies Confederate Memorial Association in Albemarle, as an organization that would share many sympathies with the UDC, were the patrons of a sculptural program that extended across the South and peddled the notion of white supremacy. Significantly, the legacy of both organizations can be felt at several sites in Charlottesville and the University of Virginia. One example is the statue of a Confederate soldier outside of the courthouse building in downtown Charlottesville (an object that was draped in a mesh of knitted vines in 2017 by artists working on The Kudzu Project) but was paid for by the Ladies Memorial Association; and the UDC, in turn, was the organizing force behind two bronze plaques that were once attached to the Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda but came down after the events of A11/12, 2017 and a list of demands that were posted and then negotiated by members of the Black Student Alliance at UVA.
Second: The dedication ceremony
Imagine being in Charlottesville on June 7, 1893. Remember that the day-of program describes a military-style procession that would begin in downtown Charlottesville, wind through the University of Virginia, and conclude at the Confederate cemetery. Recall the “order of formation,” the mounted police, the cavalry, the so-called “divisions,” the commanding officers, and all the veterans who were, presumably, wearing Confederate uniforms. On this occasion, nearly thirty years after Emancipation, it would have been as if the Civil War had never ended; as if the institution of slavery was still a fact of law. With a crowd of people gathered in the Confederate cemetery in Charlottesville, the proceedings would looked very much like an archival photograph showing the unveiling of Silent Sam (Figure 9).
The photo is a chilling record of a time when Julian Carr felt he had a community’s permission to summarize how he had violently “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds,” and with a different camera angle or fewer trees, the photograph might even show the University buildings where the assault took place. Or maybe the photo was taken from the top of that very building. And it could have been Charlottesville. So while it may have been a relief to find that the dedication ceremony in Charlottesville did not include the out-and-out bigotry of Carr’s speech we should not deceive ourselves in thinking the situations were so different. Also: this is not a competition to determine which orator was the greater racist. Both dedication ceremonies are deeply troubling, deeply problematic, and beyond that show how both public and private spaces can be raced as white and dominated by the same.
Third: Events in a history of racism in Charlottesville
Finally, it is important to note that in the 1890s the cemetery for enslaved African-Americans at the University — which lies only a few hundred yards from UVA’s Monument to the Confederate Dead — was under attack by so-called “cadaver agents” or “resurrectionists” who were paid to snatch bodies for dissection in UVA’s School of Medicine and Anatomy. The extent of grave robbing that took place at the cemetery has recently been chronicled by scholars working as part of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University (see also Rivanna Archaeological Services’ Beyond the Walls (2013), Volume 1, pages 23–24), and the institution’s decision to put up the statue in the 1890s should be viewed alongside the indignity that was visited on so-called “servants” of the University who had already been laid to rest. Those who put up the Monument to the Confederate Dead used a racist logic to privilege the “glorious Immortality” of the Confederate dead over the value of people buried just beyond the northern wall. Put another way: the Confederate Cemetery at UVA was created to lay men to rest while agents of the university were being hired to dig up black bodies. The Confederate soldier is thus better understood as a sentinel that gave white people a sense of safety and nostalgia and beyond that permission to operate with impunity.
The Confederate monuments of the Ladies Confederate Memorial Association and the United Daughters of the Confederacy constitute a landscape of intimidation that was used as a weapon against the black community of Charlottesville. More than that, they continue to be fixtures of white institutions that fail to listen to (and often denigrate) their minority populations.
I conclude with a final quote by Robert Stiles from his dedication speech. He says,
“The world has been more just to the Confederate soldier; that is, it has been quicker to do him justice, than I, for one, anticipated. Who, today, vapors or hisses about ‘making treason odious’ or ‘burying traitors in oblivion?’ On the contrary, to the honor of our late enemies, the people of the Northern States, be it said, that to-day, many, if not most of them, accord honor, admiration — glory, if you please — to the dead or living soldier of the Confederacy who is worthy to receive them, as readily perhaps, and in as full measure, as to his gallant foe who fought or fell upon the Union side.”
Let me be absolutely clear: we reject the narrative of the Lost Cause. To re-contextualize the Monument to the Confederate Dead in the Confederate Cemetery at UVA does no harm to the dead. It does not relegate their memories to oblivion. Instead, a discussion of the long and complicated history of the soldier at UVA makes clear a need for accompanying, educative material that takes one step towards redressing a long history of violence.
Go and see the monument, if you can. And then let’s talk about what to do next.