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The Political Subtext of Confederate Memorials

Photo by Don McCullough | CC BY 2.0

North Carolina is home to more than 200 Civil War memorials, statues, and markers. One such statue, a towering bronze figure of a rifle-bearing Confederate soldier, nicknamed “Silent Sam,” erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1913, faces defiantly north on the upper quad of the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

The debate that has raged around Silent Sam for decades is a microcosm of the national debate about Confederate statuary.

Anti-racist activists say that UNC’s Silent Sam and other statues honoring Confederate soldiers uncritically memorialize the fight to preserve slavery and are symbols of post-Reconstruction resistance to racial equality. As such, they offend contemporary morals and should be relegated to museums or scrapped.

But if the only thing the statues memorialized was the defense of slavery, or if all they did was exalt white supremacy, they would have fewer defenders, and it would be easier to get rid of them.

What the statues also memorialize, even celebrate, are manhood and militarism. This is why statues honoring Confederate soldiers can be found not only in the South but in some Union states as well. It’s also why the statues have such staying power. They visually echo today’s insistent demand to “support the troops.”

Those who want to keep the statues in place are partly right when they say that the statues aren’t about slavery but about recognizing men who fought honorably to defend their home states. In this view, memorials to Confederate soldiers are no more celebrations of slavery than memorials to those who died in the Vietnam War are celebrations of capitalism. The morality of the system being defended is to be distinguished from the sacrifice and valor of the soldier.

In this breach between the virtue of the soldier and the ignobility of the cause lies another meaning of the statues. Men are honorable, the statues say, when they take up arms to fight and kill others at the behest of their leaders, even if those leaders and the system at stake are morally corrupt.

The stone base on which Sam stands depicts a woman in classic robes, an iconic representation of the state of North Carolina, resting her hand on the shoulder of a young man whose books are falling away. Lest this imagery be too subtle, the accompanying inscription clarifies: TO THE SONS OF THE UNIVERSITY / WHO ENTERED THE WAR OF 1861-65 / IN ANSWER TO THE CALL OF THEIR / COUNTRY AND WHOSE LIVES / TAUGHT THE LESSON OF / THEIR GREAT COMMANDER THAT / DUTY IS THE SUBLIMEST WORD / IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE.

Political and economic elites need to reinforce this message about the links between manly honor, duty, and war. Young men of each new generation must believe that they will be revered for their willingness to commit violence on behalf of the state. If this belief does not take root, elites can muster no armies to fight their wars.

Defenders of the statues, both neo-Confederates and their pundit allies, inadvertently make the same point. They say, correctly, that most Confederate soldiers were not slave owners and did not fight to preserve the wealth and ease of the planter class. Yet fight and die they did—for a class that elevated them only slightly above their unfree, darker-skinned neighbors.

The ordinary soldiers memorialized by Silent Sam and other Confederate statues became fodder in a power struggle between agrarian and industrial capitalists. As Confederate officer and North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance put it, the conflict was “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”

This is the truth that is obscured when the statues are seen as only about honorable sacrifice, on the one hand, or about white supremacy, on the other. Many memorials to dead soldiers hide similarly tragic truths about who benefits and who pays for war.

To make this point is not to deny that the statues serve a different purpose for the families and descendants of those whose deaths are memorialized. Ennobling these sacrifices makes them bearable and provides comfort. Perhaps the more dubious the cause, the more important the comfort.

Proposals to relocate and contextualize the statues raise the question of what kind of information should accompany them. What shall we say to future generations?

If we say that, once upon a time, white people, not knowing any better, fought and died to defend a society based on enslavement of people of African descent, how will we account for “not knowing any better”? Can we add that young men went to war because older, richer men led them to believe that fighting to preserve an oppressive system was their duty and would make them heroes?

Perhaps if that information accompanied all war memorials there would be fewer new wars to memorialize. It would diminish the power of reckless and dishonest politicians to send young people to their deaths. Instead of supporting the troops without question, more people might ask whose interests the troops are supporting. About these matters, Sam remains silent, but in service to humanity, we should not.

An earlier version of this essay appeared on 5/26/18 in the News & Observer (Raleigh, NC).

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Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at MLSchwalbe@nc.rr.com

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