The Landscape of the Lost Cause and What To Do About It

Confederate_soldier_monument,_Union_County,_AR_IMG_2583

Everyone is a historian these days.  Or at least they think they are historians.  Just check your Facebook page or Twitter feeds.  Every pundit–real and imagined– seems to have an opinion on what to do with Confederate Monuments and not all of them are very informed.

So it is always good to hear from someone who knows that they are talking about.  I was pleased to see University of North Carolina historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage weigh-in. (Two of his books on the Lost Cause were recommended here).

Here is a taste of his recent piece at VOX:

A crucial step in many Southern states will be to repeal laws constraining the removal or alteration of historic monuments, such as North Carolina’s two-year-old Historic Artifact Management and Patriotism Act. Let there be no doubt about the intent of this or similar “heritage preservation” laws: They “protect” and perpetuate the racist commemorative landscape that currently exists. Why shouldn’t the citizens of Durham have had the choice to preserve, move, or remove the Confederate monument there? Local choice may allow some communities to keep “their” Confederate monuments. So be it. Let them defend their decision if they do so.

We are also sure to hear calls to add monuments (honoring African Americans, for example) as an alternative to removing those we find offensive, and thereby “erasing” history. But removing — or moving — Confederate monuments is not historical erasure. The same logic could have been used to justify maintaining, after 1964, signs that identified “Negro water fountains,” “Colored waiting room,” and the other markers of Southern segregation.

In an ideal world with unlimited resources, a proposal to add monuments might make sense. But given the vast number of monuments to the Confederacy across the United States it would take decades, and millions of dollars, to add enough statuary to create a more inclusive commemorative landscape. And is there any reason to believe that state legislators are going to appropriate sufficient money for that purpose? Perhaps the defenders of Confederate monuments will demonstrate their good faith by pressing for funding for new monuments to Southerners, white and black, who fought on behalf of the Union or otherwise opposed the Confederacy. Until then, I will view their devotion to heritage preservation with skepticism.

This is hardly the first time that a society has confronted the issue of dealing with art harnessed to objectionable causes. Art museums are filled with medieval and early modern Western art that is offensive to many of our contemporary values — depicting rape, the slaughter of Muslims, or demeaning images of non-Europeans. Like those works of art, those Confederate monuments that have aesthetic significance can and should be preserved in museums where they can be properly interpreted by curators and docents. In such settings, they will serve as historical artifacts rather than civic monuments.

But many Confederate monuments were essentially “mail order” sculptures mass produced by Northern and Southern foundries during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whatever value they have as historical artifacts, they were not the work of some latter-day Michelangelo.

Before any Confederate monuments are removed, they should be carefully photographed and measured so that the historical record of the monuments in situ can be preserved and made available for historians and art historians in the future. Then they can be transferred to the archives, museums — or the trash heap of history.

Read the entire piece here.

2 thoughts on “The Landscape of the Lost Cause and What To Do About It

  1. Several people have pointed out on different sites that the monuments date to different eras. Those erected soon after the Civil War, as memorials to persons known to those who established them, have more merit than those erected in the 20th Century, as symbols of opposition to racial equality.

    When I was growing up, here in Massachusetts, Robert E. Lee was presented in history courses as a man who experienced conflicting loyalties, and ultimately decided that he owed his first allegiance to Virginia. Thus his leadership of Confederate forces was based on his understanding of the relationship between the Union and the States which created it. Furthermore, Lee was seen as one who accepted the defeat of the Confederacy and in his way stood for reconciliation, not resistance. In other words, we were taught to look on him a a noble figure who fought on the wrong side.

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  2. Always good to get an expert opinion. But we should also remember that our profession is not a priest craft. Since these monuments are for the public, we should welcome public engagement–even if sometimes misinformed. We all get things wrong, even professional historians😇 As I see it, and Brundage seems to at least concede this, communities should make the final decisions –through their locally elected bodies (wherever they have proper jurisdiction, of course).

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