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. []