The War of Northern Aggression: Memory Consensus and Confederate Memorials in The American South

By Burgess Brown

In July of 2015, the United States was in mourning after the massacre of nine African American churchgoers during a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In the wake of the massacre, carried out by Dylann Roof, a self proclaimed white supremacist, conversations about race relations in America reached a fever pitch. The focus of many of these conversations centered around Roof’s use of the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of his racist ideology.

Before carrying out the massacre, Roof published a manifesto online justifying his plans for racial violence. He included a photo of himself wearing a jacket with a stitched on patch from the unrecognized African white supremacist state of Rhodesia (Gawker). Other photos show Roof posing with the Confederate battle flag, which re-ignited debates that have been boiling for over a century. What do symbols of the Confederacy mean today? Are they representations of heritage or hate?

Source: CNN

The debate over the Confederate flag was particularly relevant in Roof’s home state of South Carolina because, at the time of the massacre, the state still flew the Confederate flag on its capitol grounds. South Carolina made the decision, despite deep contestation, to remove the flag from state buildings and grounds, with several other Southern states following suit.

As flags were being lowered on public property across the American South, the debate extended to the Confederate war memorials that occupy town squares and public parks in many of the same cities and towns. One of those cities was Macon, Georgia where the conversation manifested publicly in the form of an open letter published in the local paper written by Macon’s first African American mayor.

C. Jack Ellis was elected mayor in 1999 and served until 2007. Ellis came into office riding a wave of hope: hope for reconciliation and the bridging of racial divides. Ellis carried nearly unanimous support in the black community, which made up 66 percent of Macon at the time, but Ellis also garnered plenty of support in the white community and many felt he would bring long overdue unity to Macon. However, Ellis ended his tenure having failed to bring that unity. Scandal after scandal, from grand jury investigations into bond spending to tax funded trips to Africa and a letter of solidarity to Hugo Chavez, further divided Macon, often along racial lines. Understanding Ellis’ history in Macon is crucial when reading his open letter and the conversations that took place after because, despite the letter being well reasoned and persuasive, it’s difficult for Ellis to do anything in Macon without causing a stir.

Ellis’ letter, published on July 12, 2015, called upon the current mayor, Robert Reichart, to “remove the Confederate statues located in downtown Macon to a museum or perhaps Rose Hill Cemetery, where the burial ground is dedicated to and populated by the fallen from Macon who fought in the Civil War.” Ellis goes on to state that “refusal to consider such requests is based upon [Reichart’s] belief that these statues and monuments pay tribute to the bravery and patriotism of those who died while fighting to divide our country and maintain an economic system based upon the free labor of enslaved Africans and their descendants.” Ellis points out that, “Those who fought for the Confederacy were traitors and committed acts of treason against their country — the United States of America — in order to maintain slavery under the guise of states’ rights in order to continue the practice of slave labor to preserve an economy built on the backs of those enslaved and to uphold white supremacy.”

It might seem strange that Ellis would include statements clarifying the motives of the Confederacy in the Civil War, but if responses to his open letter are any indication, there is anything but consensus surrounding those motives. Responses to Ellis’ letter from elected officials and community members were published in the local paper in the following days and weeks. Many of the responses were expected, but no less troubling. The general tone of the responses can be summed up as follows: “So my G’pop was a traitor huh? Some advice C. Jack: Stop whining and get over it. The history of that war is not going away.” That’s from Clifford Dunaway in the Viewpoints section. Karl Adams chimed in with this statement, “Recently we have seen a movement by people who have made it their mission to remove historical monuments because they conflict with their ideology. Because they can only allow a narrow-minded view of the world to exist, they must erase any reference of an opposing idea. Many at this point would think that I am talking about ISIS destroying history throughout the Middle East. They would be wrong. I am talking about an American version of ISIS that is surging through the South.”

The idea that Confederate memorials are representations of southern history and that their removal is an attempt to erase, or rewrite history is commonly held. At worst, there are white Southerners who view Confederate memorials with pride, as a reminder of a noble past and a way to remember fallen heros. At best (or perhaps just relatively better), there are those, like former Bibb County Commissioner Joe Allen, who believe Confederate memorials should be left in public space as a way to learn from our sordid past. “To me, it’s a part of history, and you don’t destroy history,” Allen said. “You leave it up there as a symbol of the past, but you don’t want to go back to a past of hatred. … [Ellis] wants to wipe away everything that was a miscarriage of justice to black America.”

However, this line of thinking crumbles when the past that a monument symbolizes is not agreed upon. Monuments, like history, are not objective. They have been subjected to the vagaries of time and may mean one thing to one person and a very different thing to another. Andreas Huyssen, in his book Present Pasts, asks, “[How] can there be a memory consensus about a national trauma that pitted the majority of a society against a relatively small minority drawn from all ethnic and social backgrounds, that divided the national body into perpetrators and victims, beneficiaries, and bystanders?” (Huyssen, 102) He’s referring to Memory Park in Buenos Aires, commemorating the disappearance of 30,000 Argentineans during the military dictatorship of the late 1970’s, but could easily be referring to any city across the American South coming to terms with its Confederate past.

Huyssen makes a distinction between history and memory and says that, while neither are completely objective, it is possible to strive for some consensus. But how, without memory consensus or some accepted version of history, can a group learn from that history? If the responses to C. Jack Ellis’ open letter are any indication, there is far from a memory consensus around the Civil War, Confederate memorials, and what they represent. This is no accident.

The history of the Civil War was being rewritten by Southerners before the Reconstruction Era had even begun. In the immediate wake of the loss of the war, Confederate veterans, Southern authors and journalists, and citizens scrambled to rework and reframe the Confederate cause and narrative in a way that allowed them to maintain their sense of honor. This denialist reframing became known as the Lost Cause after Virginia journalist Edward A. Pollard’s postwar book entitled The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates (Williams).

Pollard’ Lost Cause argument is one that insists “the South fought nobly and against all odds, not to preserve slavery but entirely for other reasons, such as the rights of states to govern themselves, and that southerners were forced to defend themselves against northern aggression” (Williams). The war is still referred to as “The War of Northern Aggression” by many white Southerners. Georgian Civil War veteran, Clement Evans, warned “If we cannot justify the South in the act of Secession, we will go down in history solely as a brave, impulsive but rash people who attempted in an illegal manner to overthrow the Union of our country.” Thus the birth of the Lost Cause narrative and the beginning of a centuries long battle to “maintain the concept of a distinct, and superior, white southern culture against perceived attacks” (Williams).

Huyssen says that, “Inevitably, every act of memory carries with it a dimension of betrayal, forgetting, and absence” (Huyssen, 4), but the proliferation of the Lost Cause narrative is far more intentional than inevitable. The deliberative reworking of history and dependence on that false narrative also speaks to the incredible fragility of white supremacy and the Confederate cause. The Lost Cause is a hijacking of memory consensus and one that must be constantly reconstructed, maintained, and defended “against perceived attacks.” It is a narrative that has become ingrained in the South and its propagation and longevity have been wildly successful. A 2011 Pew Research Poll found that 48 percent of Americans believe the Civil War was fought over States’ Rights and just 38 percent believe the cause to be slavery.

When a regional (and racial) identity and a justification for a war is built on false history it must be legitimized not just through narrative but in physical space. As David S. Williams points out in his writings on the Lost Cause, the narrative became, over time, a culture religion. Culture religion refers to ideals that a given group of people desire to strengthen or restore. Culture religions, like any kind of religion, employ the use of myths, rituals, and symbols to express their ideals. The Confederate flag, the song “Dixie”, and the gray uniforms of the Confederacy became icons of the cause. But the culture religion of the Lost Cause was not to be practiced in secret behind closed doors, it was to be practiced and spread through town squares and thoroughfares.

This became a task for organizations like the Confederate Daughters of America and the United Confederate Veterans who raised funds to construct Confederate memorials that were placed in the most visible and and prestigious public spaces (often the courthouse or city hall) in cities and towns across the American South. The monuments, depicting fallen soldiers and military leaders, include quotes like, “No nation rose so white and fair: None fell so pure of crime” (Williams). This quote perfectly sums up the Lost Cause movement’s attempts to maintain Confederate pride and honor. These monuments became physical manifestations of a desperate need to justify a failed overthrow of the Union motivated by the desire to maintain the institution of slavery.

The United Daughters of The Confederacy. Source: New Georgia Encyclopedia

Huyssen says that “the main concern of the nineteenth-century nation-states was to mobilize and monumentalize national and universal pasts so as to legitimize and give meaning to the present and to envision the future: culturally, politically, socially” (Huyssen, 2). By the end of the Civil War, many Southern communities had lost their land, their infrastructure, and the basis of their economy. However, white Southerners maintained enough power to ensure that their culture was firmly planted on the steps of courthouses and in the greens of public parks across the South, and that their version of the past would determine the direction of the Southern future: culturally, politically, and socially.

Most of those Confederate memorials remain untouched and in situ from the day they were constructed and continue to lay claim to the identity of the South. Sharon Zukin, in her book Whose Culture, Whose City?, speaks to this when she says, “culture … is a powerful means of controlling cities. As a source of images and memories, it symbolizes “who belongs” in a specific place” (Zukin, 1). Confederate memorials, as images and hijacked memories, clearly define “who belongs” and make it clear who doesn’t. In his open letter, C. Jack Ellis alludes to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man when he says, “We [African Americans] were seen in the eyes of the majority of the white community as invisible people.” Surely this is a narrative that is bolstered by fighting to keep Confederate memorials in public space. How can these spaces claim to be public when they are decorated with memorials honoring men who fought to oppress the ancestors of half of that public?

Confederate memorials are a means of symbolically bestowing ownership of that public space to those who subscribe to a certain narrative of Southern history and a way to exclude those who have been oppressed and continue to be oppressed by that narrative. Zukin says, “The look and feel of cities reflect decisions about what — and who — should be visible and what should not” (Zukin, 9). Fighting to keep Confederate memorials in public space is a decision to keep white supremacy visible.

It could be said that that decision is clear and conscious, but for many it simply isn’t. That’s a testament to the effectiveness and prevalence of the Lost Cause narrative. Macon Mayor, Robert Riechart, in his response to former mayor C. Jack Ellis, called Confederate memorials “monuments that were built to honor courage and loyalty.” The decision to keep Confederate memorials in public space supports either unabashed white supremacy or the continued spread of a false history- neither are causes worth supporting. Without a consensus on the actual history of Confederate memorials, there is no way for them to function as a learning tool. Rather, they function as a tool of exclusion and a means of maintaining a centuries old power dynamic.

Until there is memory consensus around the Civil War and the Confederate cause, and until the black community has equal claim to public space, Confederate memorials must be removed and placed in museums where their history can be preserved and learned from. These memorials were erected by white supremacists and blurred their history and their cause. They must not continue to define the image of the Southern city. The Southern city is as black as it is white and, as Zukin says, “the groups that have inherited the city have a claim on its central symbolic spaces. Not only to the streets that serve as major parade routes, not only to the central parks, but also to the monumental spaces that confirm identity by offering visual testimony to a group’s presence in history” (Zukin, 44). Monumental public spaces in the South must no longer confirm an oppressive identity, but offer visual testimony to all who make up the Southern public.


Works Cited

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