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Stonewall Jackson statue, Richmond.

The Strange Case of the Bronze Confederates

Two weeks ago, workers in New Orleans dismantled a monument that had originally been erected in 1891 to celebrate the fight of white supremacist vigilantes against the city’s police forces during Reconstruction (1865-77). The workers were acting on a December 2015 city council resolution that this monument be removed, along with statues of Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Jefferson Davis. Although the city council was overwhelmingly in favor of removing the monuments—the vote was six to one—a minority of the city’s population was strongly opposed to removal. To protect themselves against violent reprisal, the workers removing the monument wore bulletproof vests, helmets, and masks.

Like New Orleans, most major southern cities have monuments to the failed Confederate States of America and its defeated leaders. Although they represent the Civil War (1861-65), these monuments belong to a later period, as they were built after the war’s end and reflect the concerns of the time when they were built.

Monuments built in the first fifteen years after the war were funereal (gravestone-like), usually obelisks with urns or drapes. The symbolism of the monuments, many of which were located in cemeteries for war dead, represented a sense of grief for the great numbers of men lost in battle.1

It was only after 1880, when the horrors of battle receded a little in the collective southern memory, that monumental memorials to the Confederacy began to appear. New Orleans completed its monument to General Lee—now slated for demolition—in 1884. In Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, city leaders developed a new street for Confederate statues, Monument Avenue. Richmond’s own Lee monument was dedicated in 1890, and a busy (I would say ugly) memorial to Jefferson Davis in 1907. The Davis memorial was the last major Confederate monument built in the South.2

Before 1880, Confederate monuments commemorated grief and loss; after 1880, they boasted of heroism and moral rectitude. What changed in the last two decades of the nineteenth century was that the South adopted the ideology of the Lost Cause, which claimed that even though the Confederacy had lost the war, it had acted justly and with honor. This ideology was accepted by a North jaded about industrialization and beset by labor unrest and endless crises in its capitalistic economy. In doing so, the North also accepted white supremacy, a decision that continues to haunt the nation more than a century later.3

Confederate monuments have been caught up in the controversies of our own day. Two years ago, after a white supremacist murdered nine members of a Bible study group at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, activists graffitied “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on monuments in several southern cities. The Jefferson Davis memorial in Richmond was one that got the spray can treatment. The monument vandalisms were part of a general rejection of Confederate imagery by much of the South’s white population, in reaction to the shocking mass-murder at the church. At the same time, Confederate flags disappeared from public monuments, the shelves of WalMart, and many private residences.

This newfound willingness to reinterpret the Confederate past—especially as it was reimagined decades after the war—is a good thing, and I only wish it hadn’t taken such an appalling crime to bring it about. As for the Confederate flags, good riddance, I say. The use of the Confederate flag to represent the South only dates back to the 1960s, when it was deployed in opposition to Civil Rights activists—so it really is a racist symbol.

The New Orleans city council also made the right decision to dismantle its Confederate monuments. The Confederacy only has a weak claim on New Orleans, because the city spent three-quarters of the war under Union occupation.

Other cities may make similar decisions, and they too may be making the right call. But when it comes to most Confederate monuments, I would not be in favor of demolition. Demolishing the monuments would amount to an attempt to erase the past, which we shouldn’t try to do lest we forget it. Instead, we should change how we remember the past. Rather than destroying monuments we now find distasteful, we should reinterpret them with interpretive signage, plaques, or even extensions to the monument that subvert the original white supremacist message. Some of the monuments can be moved to museums, but others should be left where they are, because it is easy to ignore things in museums, and harder to ignore what is in the middle of the street or in front of the statehouse.

  1. Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865 to 1913 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 41. []
  2. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy, 91, 100-102, 158. []
  3. Nina Silber, The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 4. []
A Consolidated B-24 Liberator from Maxwell Field, Alabama, four engine pilot school, glistens in the sun as it makes a turn at high altitude in the clouds.

The Little Big History

What stories matter in history? If you had posed this question to a historian in the United States or Europe a hundred years ago, he probably would have told you in a roundabout way that only the experiences of white men mattered—more specifically, powerful white men. Historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, almost to a man (and they were all men), only studied the lives of kings, prime ministers, presidents, senators, and generals; or great artists, great thinkers, great industrialists, and great inventors. These historians didn’t pay any attention to the common man and woman, because these people simply didn’t matter in their worldview.

This sort of thinking about history seems silly and old-fashioned now, as well it should. All people are a part of history, not just the white and powerful, and their stories deserve to be told too. One outcome of this contemporary understanding of history is a profusion of books, movies, and museums about minority experiences—for example, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Museum of Chinese in America, Roots, and Hidden Figures. Another outcome is the rise in popularity of genealogical or family history research. If all people’s experiences are a part of history, then one’s ancestors are a legitimate subject of research, even if they were not powerful or influential.

Even though they are studying the past, family history buffs don’t really have the same objectives as historians. The job of a historian is to ask questions about the past—not only what happened, but why. (“History” comes from a Greek word meaning inquiry. The discipline of history is not, and has never been, just about facts.) Historians need to make connections from event to event, to understand why something was important. For family history researchers, significance is a given: this person is my ancestor, therefore he or she is important. Because family history isn’t exactly history as historians understand it, I prefer to use the term family heritage instead.

There is a genre of historical writing that discusses people who may not have been important in their own time, but their experiences can be used to draw broader lessons about the period in which they lived. This is known as microhistory. When written well, microhistories can be good reads that teach you about much more than the small event that is their main subject matter. (That not all microhistories are this well-written is not a valid reason for condemning the genre as a whole, as some of my classmates did in grad school.)

One excellent microhistory is Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, by Scott Reynolds Nelson. The author takes a well-known but little-understood folk song and uses it to discuss convict labor and industrialization in the post-Civil War American South. The results of archival research are interspersed with accounts of the author’s travels to the places where John Henry lived, worked, and died. I have read more books about convict labor than I would care to count, but this is the only one I keep thinking about long after I read it.

Another great microhistory wasn’t even written by a historian, and it is on its face a creative nonfiction biography. But Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, is about more than just one man’s sensational life story. Hillenbrand uses Louis Zamperini’s experience of capture and imprisonment by the Japanese to illustrate the experiences of thousands of Allied prisoners of war in the Pacific Theater.

Can family heritage buffs learn something from the microhistory genre? I hope they can. If I were not a member of my own family, I wouldn’t care about the stories of, say, my Austrian immigrant ancestors who settled in Colorado a hundred years ago. But I would be interested to know how their experiences of migration, acculturation, and ultimately assimilation reflected broader trends in the lives of European immigrants in rural America at the turn of the twentieth century.

(Header picture: B-24 Liberator bomber in flight over Montgomery, AL. USAF photo from Wikipedia.)

Alabama State Capitol

Good Bye Wallace!

Fifty years ago, every American who paid any attention to the news was familiar with George Wallace, four-term governor of Alabama and perennial presidential candidate. To many people who lived outside of Alabama—and especially outside the South—Wallace was a reactionary and antagonist, the stereotype of the race-baiting Southern Democrat and white supremacist. Baby Boomers like my parents remember Wallace’s calling for “segregation forever” in his inauguration speech in 1963, and then making a show of bodily blocking a doorway to oppose the desegregation of the University of Alabama. It was during Wallace’s first term as governor that vigilantes and law enforcement intimidated, beat up, and even killed civil rights activists. The villainous image of Wallace was passed down to later generations by that great repository of Boomer nostalgia, the 1994 film Forrest Gump, which features a scene set at the University of Alabama during Wallace’s desegregation protest.

As I found when I moved to Alabama for graduate school six years ago, Alabamians have more positive memories of George Wallace. He is not a villain but an influential, if flawed, leader. In his later terms as governor, Wallace reversed his stance on segregation and voting rights, and ultimately welcomed racial minorities into his administration. In 1972, while running for president, he was shot by a would-be assassin. The attack left him paralyzed below the waist. Popular memories of Wallace usually identify this attempt on his life as the Damascus Road experience that led to the reversal of his views on race.

It may be that Wallace had a real change of heart, but it is also true that he was, to his core, a politician who always knew what would appeal to voters. His first bid for the governorship, in 1958, ended in defeat when his integrationist platform was a flop with Alabama’s overwhelmingly white electorate. Between this defeat and his first victory four years later, Wallace reinvented himself as a segregationist, the image that would define him for so many Americans outside Alabama. By 1972, Alabama’s African Americans had been enfranchised by the Voting Rights Act, and Wallace needed black votes to stay in office. An accurate image of Wallace is neither a racist, nor a man who (like Darth Vader?) became good in the end. Rather, he was a cunning politician and a populist, who played to the fears of voters.

Six years ago, George Wallace’s name and image were everywhere in Alabama. Wallace’s likeness stared out from plaques at rest areas on Interstate 85, which was constructed during his tenure as governor. On the campus of Auburn University, where I studied, several of the prominent buildings were built in the Wallace era. On my way to assist for history classes in Haley Center each day, I walked by a plaque with the name Lurleen Wallace, George’s wife who won election handily in 1966 when he was forbidden by state law from running for a second consecutive term. I occasionally went to the architecture library in Dudley Hall, which had a plaque of George Wallace himself.

The rotunda of the state capitol has spaces for four portraits of governors. In 2011, I was surprised to find that only two of the spots were occupied by recent governors; the other two featured George and Lurleen Wallace. The capitol tourguide claimed that these paintings were on permanent display because George was Alabama’s longest-serving governor, and Lurleen was the state’s first “lady governor.” To me, this seemed like a rationalization, the real reason being the state’s Wallace cult.

Two years after moving away from Alabama, I recently returned to attend commencement, and I used the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the state. I was surprised to find that George Wallace was much less visible in 2016 than he had been earlier. The plaque at the Alabama Welcome Center on I-85 was hidden behind a brochure rack and a Christmas tree. The portraits in the rotunda of the state capitol were gone, having been replaced by more recent governors. At Auburn, Lurleen’s plaque on Haley Center was still in place, but George’s plaque on Dudley Hall had disappeared entirely. The building was recently remodeled, and the plaque didn’t survive the renovation.

The ghost of George Wallace has finally been served its eviction papers. Good riddance, I say. Even though George Wallace was not the meat-headed segregationist and racist that many people remember, he did support views like this for much of his political career, and by memorializing Wallace, it seemed as if Alabama was giving tacit approval of the ugly parts of the governor’s legacy. Alabama shouldn’t forget either the good or bad things Wallace did, but he has no right to be a hero. I’m glad to see that Alabama has begun to move on from the cult of Wallace.

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