Confederate statues and monuments have made local and national headlines as the country decides how to respond to the memorialization of confederate soldiers. We talked with historians on both sides of the issue to find out what led people to build the statues, to begin with.
HISTORY OF HATE?
We’ll start by hearing from Daniel Vivian – he’s the first person who talked to me about Kentucky’s history of memorialization.
“The idea is to make sure southern communities stay places where white democrats hold control, where there’s not enough black voters to put people into office,” explained the historian. He works for the department of historic preservation at the University of Kentucky.
“To try to separate the heritage of the south from race and slavery can’t be done,” said Daniel. “The nation remembers the Civil War by a pro-southern narrative, a narrative that valorizes the confederacy and obscures the contributions of African American’s to the war effort, and the role of emancipation at the catalyst for black freedom.”
He says the south lost the war, but not the narrative.
“It’s very unusual. The line you hear, which is truthful is that ‘the winners write history.’ ”
Daniel does believe some monuments really are about family and heritage though. He mentioned statues that went up relatively quickly after the civil war, like the one in Cynthiana Kentucky. It was the first in the state and was built in a graveyard, surrounded by the graves of confederate soldiers.
“That’s intended to pay respect to the soldiers who have fought for the confederacy,” explained Daniel.
But he says there’s a second wave of memorialization that happens years later that asserts a southern narrative, turning confederate soldiers into heroes.
“Southerners as a whole feel as though their society is changing and they need to assert their values publicly… Part of the narrative that’s being promulgated publicly is to make sure African Americans understand their place. That their place is always subordinate and that’s abiding concern of southerners and to a lesser extent white Americans in general during that period,” explained Daniel.
He says that’s why the monuments of later years aren’t in cemeteries, they’re more public, like the ones we recognize from Louisville and Lexington.
“It is impossible to separate the confederacy from race. This is an attempt to create an independent nation that was set up to propitiate black slavery.”
For Daniel the message behind confederate monuments is clear.
“The idea is to make sure southern communities stay places where white democrats hold control, where there’s not enough black voters to put people into office, and that black men are not allowed to date white women, you know, these are very clear messages being sent, so yeah, you can’t miss it,” he explained.
HEALING AND HERITAGE?
But some people don’t get that message at all, they get an entirely different one. The second person we talked to was Susan McCrobie.
“It’s closure. It’s the healing process,” said Susan, who has an interesting perspective on the matter. She’s a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the group that helped get a lot of the monuments built, but she’s also a member of the Daughters of the Union. That’s because she had family members who fought on both sides of the war.
“They (the monuments) were about honoring their families, they had greater problems of their own than to be setting up and thinking of ways to put people down.”
Susan says women of the time were more worried about things like getting their own right to vote or own property.
“They had to live through the war and they had to live through what came afterward: the rebuilding, the reconstruction. They came through hard times and that was their sense of pride, to be able to make something beautiful, to remember something that was a horrible time period for them,” said Susan.
But what about the monuments that came years later – the ones Daniel mentioned that aren’t in a graveyard?
“There [were] anniversaries of the war and I think later on during that time period, there was a marked rise in the amounts of those statues and monuments going up on the landscape,” explained Susan.
I took a look at the data – every year, that every confederate monument was built in Kentucky. It doesn’t show Susan is right, but it also doesn’t show she’s wrong. The civil war spanned multiple years, so statues could have been built to commemorate a 25th, 30th, or even a 50th anniversary of the start of the war, a specific battle, or the end of the war. With more than 50 monuments, it’s hard to know exactly, but I can say there’s no not large a wave of memorialization linking to one specific anniversary.
“They were during observance times and the memorial of the war, and the statues, when women bought them, those were in memoriam,” said Susan.
Susan believes that rather than take monuments down, society should work to better educate people about them. That means changing or adding plaques on monuments to help people understand why the monument is there.
Susan did give me a copy of the minutes of the fifth annual convention of the Kentucky division of the Daughters of the Confederacy. It's a meeting that was held in Elizabethtown in 1901. In it, you are given more insight to the society. Below are several quotes pulled from the document.
"The truth of the days of the civil war should be the earnest effort of every member of our organization. It is the one thing eternal in this society. Preserve the truth!"
"Search the textbooks that are given in to the hands of your children at school Some of them teach your boy that his father was a 'traitor.' "'
"The Southern States had rightfully the power to withdraw from the Union into which they had, as sovereign States, voluntarily entered."
"The question of slavery was but an incident of those trying times brought up and made political capital of."
"I plead with you that you teach the truth to the children; foster in them a tender reverence for the Lost Cause; point out to them the great wrong which has been cruelly and systematically practiced by the constant misrepresentation as to the acts and purposes of the people and the General Government of the Confederate States, by the reiteration of such inappropriate terms as 'Rebellion' and Treason.' "
"The ranks of the Confederate Army were filled by men whose convictions were honest, whose loyalty could not be questioned."
"The time is sure to come when their deeds will be proclaimed with pride by a united people and become the glory of a nation. Teach the truth to the children."
Like the monuments, the events of the civil war are long set in stone. How you interpret those events are still up in the air. The narratives of the North and the South of old, are still at battle today.
Daniel did bring up an interesting point about this issue in today’s context. Whether you like the statues or not, many of them were put up in a time where if you were if you were black, you didn’t have a say. Slavery may have just ended, but unfortunately, that didn’t mean you were immediately given the rights of white Americans. So today, for the first time we’re having a conversation about these memorials, and everyone gets a voice.
MONUMENT BY MONUMENT
When I sat down with Daniel Vivian, I asked him about some of the specific monuments that have drawn attention in Kentucky. Below are some notes from each of them -- keep in mind these are from his perspective.
John Breckenridge Statue, Lexington, KY
John Hunt Morgan Statue, Lexington, KY
Jefferson Davis Obelisk, Fairview, KY
U of L Statue, Louisville, KY