Is there room for Confederate memorials in the public space?

The decision of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu to remove four Confederate monuments from public display following the murder two years ago of nine blacks in a Charleston church by a white supremacist has drawn the ire of some Southern traditionalists, not the least of them being Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke who decried the removals as “destroying our heritage.”

Which raises the question, of what does this “heritage” consist? One of the monuments at issue is a memorial erected in 1891 to the 1874 Battle of Liberty Place where 3,500 mostly Confederate veterans organized by the White League overwhelmed the city’s Metropolitan Police and black militia to occupy the state house, the city hall and the arsenal in an attempted insurrection that, it was hoped, would ignite a second revolt against the U.S. Government. The insurgents dispersed only after President Grant sent Federal troops to the city.

And what was the White League which was able to marshal such a formidable force to its banners? Formed in 1874, the league, in the words of the historian Eric Foner,  “was openly dedicated to the violent restoration of white supremacy” in what would be a successful campaign to unravel the rights gained by former slaves under Reconstruction. During the elections of 1874 White Leagues spread throughout the South in a reign of terror, economic intimidation, night-riding and assassination that led to the de facto abrogation of the 14th and 15th Amendments in much of the former Confederacy and almost another century of African-American subjugation under the heel of Jim Crow.

The erection of memorials to such events was a ritual in the years of “Redemption,” the post-Reconstructionist era in which the former Confederacy, under the mantle of states’ rights, deprived its black citizens of their civil rights. Not too far from New Orleans is Louisiana’s Grant Parish, the site of the 1873 Colfax massacre where scores of blacks were slaughtered defending their right to local control. Of the hundreds of white vigilantes who carried out this atrocity, eight were tried and three convicted, ultimately released when a judge overturned the verdict. It was a signal, if one was needed, that whites could act with impunity in subjugating blacks. This event was commemorated in 1921 by the whites of Colfax with a marble obelisk and a parade.

The other statues scheduled for removal in New Orleans are monuments to the Confederate President Jefferson Davis and two Southern generals, Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard. Memorials such as these mushroomed over the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when apologists for the slave power sought to romanticize its militants as chivalrous cavaliers fighting valorously for a lost but noble cause. The bookends to this myth were evoked not in stone but celluloid with “Birth of a Nation” in 1915 and “Gone With the Wind” in 1938.

One of the defenders of the New Orleans statues, a man carrying an AK-47 along with a Glock handgun, opined that the Civil War had not been fought over slavery, but “really was an economic issue.” He was partly right in that the basis of the South’s economy was racial slavery and the foundation of the confederacy was the principal that blacks were an inferior breed whose servitude to the white man was, in the words of Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens, a “natural and moral condition.” As the historian Matthew Karp writes: “Slavery, rather than an abstract commitment to states’ rights, stood at the heart of the Confederate enterprise.” When the South could no longer extend slavery, it seceded and when secession was suppressed it sought to mask its sedition in the halo of a glorious cause, a war between the States over tariffs, property, autonomy, and the like. The combatants knew better. It was a war of rebellion to perpetuate the extension of race slavery and both sides understood it as such. The

Confederate battle-cry was not “The War Between the States” Yell. It was the Rebel Yell.

This was finessed only in subsequent years when, with the complicity of an expedient North, the South gained control not only of its black citizens, but of the Civil War’s narrative, and its aftermath.

The objection of monument advocates that the removal of the statues is an attempt to erase history rings hollow when the entire era of Redemption was nothing less than a conscious _ and successful _ effort to deny history for almost a century. Historical balance might be restored by juxtaposing the statue of the unreconstructed and defiant Jefferson Davis with a monument to the slave market where blacks were auctioned off.  Or perhaps facing Beauregard’s statue there might a memorial to the black families who were broken up and sold down the river by their expedient white owners. At the very least, some of these Confederate icons merit an asterisk: a plaque putting their valor in the context of the compromised cause for which they fought.

Oddly, enough, there is one Southern hero who does not have a place in this secessionist pantheon: General James Longstreet. Probably the ablest Confederate General after Robert E. Lee, Longstreet was a brilliant brigade and corps commander in  such Confederate battles as Antietem, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and the Wilderness, as well as being the victor of Chickamauga.  Then why the absence? It turns out that after the war, Longstreet had the effrontery to transfer his allegiance to the Federal Government. He was thus considered a turncoat by those who had rebelled against the Union. In fact, it was Longstreet who commanded the Metropolitan Police that faced off against the White Leaguers in New Orleans. No monument to him there. Longstreet’s being cast as a nonperson among the Redeemers makes it clear that the monuments, then and now, were not about historical preservation, but about political justification.

One of the defenders of the Confederate memorials likens them to the Egyptian Pyramids or the Roman Colosseum, which, although built by slaves, are part of our cultural heritage. The Southern memorials, however, were not built by slaves but rather by an oppressive society seeking to justify its slave-owning past. Moreover, unlike ancient civilizations where enslavement was an act of war or chance, American slavery was racialist, based on the hegemony of a superior race over an inferior one. It is no accident that white supremacists are among today’s fiercest advocates for maintaining the Confederate monuments.

If black slavery was the cornerstone of the Confederacy– as its founders proudly declared — then why should we devote our public space to honoring its defenders? Imagine if after World War II the Germans were erecting statues to Speer, Keitel and von Rundstedt? Doubtless part of Germany’s past, but not one to be celebrated. Our statues are models of what we should aspire to. Jefferson Davis, the founder of a confederacy dedicated to the expansion of a slave empire, does not provide such a model. Nor does the Battle of Liberty Place.

Jack Schwartz was the book editor of Newsday.

About the Author
Jack Schwartz is a former book editor of Newsday.