“We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice. I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my ‘right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth’, if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.” – Frederick Douglass (1871).
About Confederate monuments
As we explained in our July letter to the Catawba County Board of Commissioners, we believe first and foremost that the Confederate monument in downtown Newton is an ongoing threat to public safety and a form of “racist government speech” that “is inconsistent with North Carolina’s obligations” under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution (Dellinger, et. al.). However, we also recognize the problematic nature of the monument in terms of the inaccurate and incomplete history and public memory that it reinforces. Below are responses to some of the frequently asked questions and concerns about our request.
Isn’t removing monuments erasing history?
No. As the American Historical Association notes, “[h]istory comprises both facts and interpretations of those facts. To remove a monument, or to change the name of a school or street, is not to erase history, but rather to alter or call attention to a previous interpretation of history. A monument is not history itself; a monument commemorates an aspect of history, representing a moment in the past when a public or private decision defined who would be honored in a community’s public spaces.” In fact, Confederate monuments are themselves examples of the original “cancel culture” with respect to Civil War memory and were never really about preserving history as much as they were symbols of white supremacy representing the “Redemption” of the South after Reconstruction and tied directly to the disenfranchisement of Black voters during Jim Crow. As Gary Freeze put it in the latest official history of Catawba County, “[t]he whites of the South had restored singular control of their society. The message of the monument left no other interpretation” (Page 77). “The closer to Newton, the more some Catawbans clung to the Old South memory they manufactured about their past to help organize the future” (Page 78). Instead of erasing history, removing or relocating and properly contextualizing monuments makes new history. But even with respect to the past, we want more history – not more erasure.
Shouldn’t all veterans be honored?
Although the federal government continues to provide headstones for Confederate graves, these men were not United States military veterans. Instead, they participated in “an insurgency to preserve slavery and destroy the American experiment” (Blight, 2020). As General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently said in sworn testimony to the U.S. House Armed Services Committee (9 July 2020), “[t]he Confederacy…was an act of rebellion…It was an act of treason at the time against the Union, against the Stars and Stripes, against the U.S. Constitution, and those officers turned their back on their oath.” That is one of the reasons the Marine Corps barred public display of the Confederate battle flag on all their installations in June of 2020, because it “presents a threat to our core values, unit cohesion, security, and good order and discipline.” Additionally, as Thomas J. Brown’s new assessment of Civil War monuments argues, these symbols “were pivotal to a national embrace of military values” and “proposed new norms of discipline and vigor that lifted veterans to a favored political status and modeled racial and class hierarchies.” It is also worth noting that while many Southern communities still honor Confederates with memorials, United States (or “Union”) military personnel are notably missing from their commemorate landscapes. For example, there is no monument in Catawba County to recognize Jonas Killian‘s service to his country. Nor are there any monuments or historical markers to the “Heroes of America” or those who avoided conscription into the Confederate insurrection by hiding out in mines near Anderson Mountain (Freeze, 1995), like the hundreds of men living in the woods of Caldwell County in 1864 with only a rifle and bed quilt who “had resisted the conscriptions of the rebel authorities through two years and more of vicissitudes and suffering” (Drake, 1880).
Aren’t historical museums appropriate places to contextualize monuments?
Historians and preservationists continue to disagree about the proper location and context for Confederate monuments, but few would agree that non-contextualized monuments on the lawn of a county history museum at a downtown intersection is an appropriate venue. With appropriate context, battlefields, graveyards, and museums may be the best places to preserve and interpret these historical artifacts today. However, they are certainly ill suited for prominent public spaces and should be “visually and dramatically” contextualized within the broader context of the history of slavery, “Redemption” of the South after Reconstruction, and the disenfranchisement of Black voters, segregation and lynchings during Jim Crow. But “putting monuments in their proper context is anything but a simple, declarative act,” as Janeen Bryant, et. al. recently noted in a piece for the Center for the Future of Museums blog, and “the ‘put them in a museum’ response to Confederate memorials reflects a misunderstanding of what museums are for—and an effort to sidestep conversations that we really need to have.”
Isn’t removing Confederate monuments a slippery slope?
Not necessarily. As the American Historical Association notes, “George Washington owned enslaved people, but the Washington Monument exists because of his contributions to the building of a nation. There is no logical equivalence between the builders and protectors of a nation—however imperfect—and the men who sought to sunder that nation in the name of slavery. There will be, and should be, debate about other people and events honored in our civic spaces. And precedents do matter. But so does historical specificity, and in this case the invocation of flawed analogies should not derail legitimate policy conversation.” While current protests have arguably resulted in some notable excesses due to “justifiable passion and outrage”, as David Blight recently wrote, “the righteous present is not always right.” We believe that the removal, relocation, and contextualization of monuments should be the result of a deliberate public process that draws on the expertise of historians and preservationists instead of the nostalgia of a “Lost Cause” or the passions of the moment.
Didn’t some Confederates fight for states rights or loyalty to their state?
While it is impossible to ascribe intentions to individual actors in history, the historical record is clear. One need only consult the primary sources to discern what led to secession by the Southern states and the deaths of more than 600,000 Americans between 1861 and 1865. Granted North Carolina was the last state to secede and only did so reluctantly, and our state’s Ordinance of Secession doesn’t even mention slavery. However, the message from the churches, politicians, and community leaders at the time was unambiguous. Perhaps for some, “[s]lavery did not enter into the question” at all and they “didn’t know much about the issue, but enthusiasm, patriotism, and the fact that all [their] companions were enlisting, made up for the lack of knowledge and decided [them]” (Rabb, 1929). Many were forced to participate or believed that they had no other option, while others “willingly and obediently offered their services [to their state] when they saw that war was inevitable” (Hahn, 1911). But as the pastor of the First Methodist Church in Newton noted during an “eloquent tribute” to Robert E. Lee in Janurary of 1907, “[s]lavery was the cause, and sole cause, of the war.” Participation in “the nation’s great evil” (Frederick Douglass), out of either ignorance or coercion, is not worthy of commemoration.
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”