Although a few communities are removing a few statues, the nation’s Confederate memorial infrastructure — estates, plantations, battlefields, graveyards, birthplaces, shrines and at least two huge obelisks — is too vast and diverse to be moved, hidden or destroyed.
The sites range from small, privately owned house museums honoring obscure soldiers to the massive bas-reliefs carved in the side of Stone Mountain, Ga., that historian Fitzhugh Brundage calls “a billboard to white nationalism.’’
These places are an almost inexhaustible source of potential flash points for battles between those who want to preserve or to remove Confederate symbols.
They're an issue that President Trump raised Thursday on Twitter: "Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson — who's next, Washington, Jefferson?''
"It's a sticky wicket,'' Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum, said in an interview earlier this week. "I'm a public educator, and, like 'em or not, these things have a story to tell.''Erasing Confederate sites from the American landscape would be difficult or impossible.
There are a lot of them — more than 700 statues and monuments in 31 states. That does not include things like homesteads and museums, according to The Southern Poverty Law Center. There are more than 40 in Kentucky, even though two-thirds of Kentuckians who fought in the Civil War did so for the Union.
And many of these sites not especially portable.
Beauvoir, the Mississippi homestead of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, is controlled by the state chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a neo-Confederate group. The only thing that’s going to move the 1852 mansion, one of only 2,600 National Historic Landmarks and a top Gulf Coast tourist attraction, is a hurricane.But Beauvoir is a mere paperweight compared to the 35-story concrete obelisk (one of the nation's largest) in a state park in Fairview, Ky., to mark Davis's birthplace. .
Similarly, in Asheville, N.C., the most notable downtown landmark is a 75-foot high granite obelisk that sits in a public square. it honors a Reconstruction-era governor who’d owned slaves and opposed the freed slaves' right to vote.There’s also the question Trump cites: Which sites should be condemned? Where do you draw the line?
Take Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general venerated by generations of white Southerners (as well as many in the North). He came to personify the now-discredited "Lost Cause" argument that South rebelled in 1861 not over slavery but states’ rights.
Although Lee’s statue was hauled away this May in New Orleans and is under siege in Charlottesville, his former home in Arlington — built by slaves — is administered by the National Park Service as a memorial to him.
Arlington House, where Lee lived before the Civil War, is in Arlington National Cemetery, overlooking the National Mall. In the past decade it received a multimillion-dollar renovation from the park service that included restoration of slave quarters. After it was damaged in an earthquake in 2011, financier David Rubenstein contributed $12.4 million to a private fund for further work.
Why should Lee’s memory be banished from a New Orleans traffic circle and lovingly preserved on sacred ground at Arlington?
Brundage, chairman of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill history department, is an expert on Confederate history. He said this week that he thinks the contrasting treatment of Lee has to do with intent and context.
Lee had no real connection to the New Orleans. The statue was erected decades after the Civil War primarily as a symbol of white resistance to, and triumph over, federal efforts to empower and enfranchise former slaves.
And Brundage said it’s one thing to preserve Lee’s house as a museum, to which a visit is optional. It’s another to put his statue outside a courthouse, which some citizens may be obliged to enter.
In a museum, even an open air one like the Gettysburg battlefield, a memorial’s meaning can be explained. But, he says, “you can’t do that if it’s sitting in a traffic circle.’’A mountain and a boulevard.
Some Confederate sites enjoy more public support, or at least acceptance, than others. The two best examples are Stone Mountain, in Georgia, and Monument Avenue, in the old Confederate capital of Richmond.
“If you want to erase the Confederate legacy, those are two of the hardest nuts to crack,’’ Brundage said.
Between 1916 and 1972 sculptors created three huge bas-relief images of Lee, Davis and Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson on the side of Stone Mountain, an 80-story-high rock outcropping in Atlanta’s eastern suburbs.
The site was a gathering point for the Ku Klux Klan, which was revived there in 1915 after a post-Reconstruction hiatus. The state bought the mountain in 1958 and today operates it as a state park. It remains a symbol of oppression for many blacks, a popular recreational destination for many whites, and an unmistakable landmark for all.
This week, when Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams called for the sculpture’s removal, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said that would require two things.
The first would be a change in state law, which orders the Stone Mountain sculpture “preserved and protected for all time as a tribute to the bravery and heroism of the citizens of this state who suffered and died in their cause.”
The second requirement? “A monster of a sandblaster.’’Change may be more feasible in the case of Monument Avenue, which is probably the greatest expression of the South’s recovery from the Civil War and triumph over Reconstruction.
The long boulevard’s broad grass median has larger-than-life statues of Davis, Lee, Jackson and Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart – the last three on horseback, facing south. They were erected between 1890 and 1919, an era when the South rolled back civil rights for blacks in the face of federal indifference.
But that’s not the whole story, noted Coleman, who co-chairs a city commission that was charged in June by Mayor Levar Stoney with “adding context” to the avenue’s Confederate ethos.
Monument Avenue is also an aesthetic triumph, a masterpiece of urban planning and a successful real estate development scheme. It’s been named one of the nation’s “10 Great Streets’’ by the American Planning Association.
“It’s all part of a combined history,’’ she said.
But on Wednesday, Stoney — reacting to the violence around Charlottesville’s Lee statue — expanded his charge to the commission to include study of the monuments’ removal or relocation.
“I personally believe they are offensive and need to be removed," Stoney said. “But I believe more in the importance of dialogue and transparency by pursuing a responsible process to consider the full weight of this decision."
Currency for the Confederacy
Stone Mountain and Monument Avenue are merely the most conspicuous examples of public control of Confederate sites. Even as some governmental bodies try to eradicate them, others spend generously to preserve and operate them.
The state of Alabama, for instance, pays a $100,000 annual subsidy to the the United Daughters of the Confederacy's First White House of the Confederacy in Montgomery, which offers school groups an explanation of the Civil War that downplays slavery.
In 2008, the $3.9 million renovation of Davis’ Beauvoir homestead after it was damaged by Hurricane Katrina was largely covered by state and federal funds, including a National Park Service “Save America’s Treasures’’ grant.
Many other Confederate sites are in private hands and thus outside public control.
One example is the Oakley Hall Museum in Edgefield, S.C. It's also owned by the UDC, which at the beginning of the last century planted Confederate memorials across the nation.
The museum, housed in a white ante-bellum Greek Revival-style plantation house, offers an unapologetic, Confederate view of the Civil War (to which it refers as “The War Between the States’’).
Oakley Hall particularly celebrates a group of Confederate military veterans known as the Red Shirts who in the 1870s drove Republicans out of the county, curbed black civil rights and returned power to whites.
No less than Stone Mountain, Oakley Hall shows that erasing the nation’s Confederate heritage would be harder than lowering a flag or changing a school name. Harder, even, than moving a 25-ton statue.