Brief Comments on Monument Removal

Updates Below


The news of the removal of various Civil War & Reconstruction monuments in New Orleans is certainly making its rounds. I have not devoted a lot of time or energy to commenting on the issue of monument removal thus far, outside of few statements on Facebook and Twitter. However, as someone who grew up in a South where these monuments blanket the countryside, I want to establish my position on this issue.

I should state first and foremost that I am not in favor of the removal of Confederate monuments. Allow me clarify. I believe that they represent wonderful educational opportunities. They provide an educational opportunity in terms of history and collective memory. The monuments typically tell us a lot about the generation that erected them as much as they tell us about the event that the monuments commemorate. I would like to see more educational opportunities crafted around such monuments for interpretation and analysis, rather than removal.

I do not think that I am alone in thinking that when the monuments are removed, there are lost educational opportunities. Even more so, I am concerned that some of the removals are subject to a mob mentality, current flavor, or the popular sentiment of the time. I hate seeing things disappear due to a fleeting moment or emotional response. This is a sentiment I have seen expressed elsewhere and one I am in agreement with. Granted, I feel some of these concerns can be alleviated by relocating the monuments to a monuments’ yard or museum for proper historical interpretation. Unfortunately, I know many communities will not spend money on such things, opting instead for more frugal options.

That being said, the concerns I pointed out should not be used to dismiss the right of a community to shape its own landscape. Ultimately, communities should reserve the right to erect, preserve, or demolish the monuments they deem necessary. In fact, they must. A democratic society cannot function without choice and the freedom to craft a future in their vision. So although I disagree with monument removal, you will not find me protesting it outside of my community.


Update: 

After some dialogue on Facebook and the realization that some of my positions can lead to misconceptions, I want to emphasize that my position on this is evolving and not yet set in the proverbial stone. I do want to clarify some positions that I have.

  1. I am in no way arguing that history will disappear with the removal of these monuments. After the monuments in New Orleans came down, I checked the bookshelf in my office just to be certain. Low and behold my histories on Robert E. Lee and other Confederates were still there.
  2. I do not want my arguments for preservation to fall in line with the prominent arguments of the Southern “Heritage” crowd. (SCV, Neo-Confederates, etc.) Not all Confederate monuments (or any monument) have the same history behind them. We’ve seen examples of this in New Orleans. Some are put there with the emphasis on post-war nostalgia, southern manhood, honor, etc. while others represent a symbolic “DO NOT ENTER” sign for certain races. It all depends on contextualization, and the motivations and values of the communities that erected them. The same is true in terms of the motivations and values of the communities now choosing to remove the monuments.  I think this is what makes these monuments important in situ.  However, I wouldn’t dare to take serious any arguments suggesting that monument removal is cultural genocide or similar to the destruction of historical sites by ISIS. That’s just preposterous.
  3. I want to point out a few writings that I’ve found that are becoming more and more instrumental as I craft my opinion on this polarizing issue. The first four of these articles build on one another and I’ve put them in order.
    1. Christopher A. Graham’s post – “Historians doing historian things on Confederate Monuments is not enough”
    2. Ashley Luskey’s – “Confederate Iconography, The Next Steps: On Shared Authority, Historical Stewardship, and the Role of the Public Historian”
    3. Chris Graham’s – “Public Historians, social good, and measures of success”
    4. Kevin Levin’s – “Confederate Monuments and the Limits of Public History”
    5. And finally, Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts’s – “Take Down the Confederate Flags, but not the Monuments”
  4. Please feel free to post writings, comment, or disagree with my position. Like I said, this is an evolving position on this issue and I appreciate civil discourse.
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26 thoughts on “Brief Comments on Monument Removal

  1. Nightflyer

    They should NOT be removed from Civil War battlefields.

    Furthermore, I would rather see memorials to honor ordinary Confederate soldiers, for a simple reason: those kids, many of them conscripts under the first such act in American history, were the ones who paid the ultimate price for their leaders’ stupidity, folly, incompetence, and high treason, doing so with their lives. Those who did not die in battle (or more commonly, of disease), often hobbled home having suffered ghastly amputations. Their courage and valor in horrific situations and a bad cause is unquestioned, their families suffered great losses, and the snuffing out of all these bright young lives speaks to the uselessness and destructiveness of war.

    1. They should NOT be removed from Civil War battlefields.

      I don’t think anyone could make a serious argument otherwise. Civil War Battlefields belong to us as a nation and/or state and they are there for the purpose of preservation. I am speaking more in terms of monuments on courthouse lawns, on the town’s “Main Street,” or a designated [Insert Confederate Here] City Park.

      1. Nightflyer

        Didn’t say anyone was, but I wanted to head off neo-Confederates who say, “Next the politically-correct libtard fags will be trying to remove the statue of General Lee from Gettysburg!”

        And you made the argument to support me very well.

        I think the memorials on “Main Streets” and city parks should honor the kids from that town who went off to war in 1861 and never came back, and then the ones who did the same in 1898, 1917, 1941, 1950, 1965, and so on…

        1. Not that I support this stance:

          But what do you say to arguments that the monuments built, in the context that they were built, are meant for more than just honoring the soldiers; but also for political resistance to Republican and Populist challenges at the turn of the 20th century?

          1. Nightflyer

            No, I would make it clear on the statue’s plaques that they honor what I wrote about upstairs — sacrifice, courage, loss, reunification, and the tragic waste of lives and war.

            Some of the most effective and powerful war memorials are those that speak to those subjects — the Germans have some excellent statuary at Langemarck, near Ypres, honoring the “Kindermord,” which depict grieving parents in agony. That should be the tone of such statuary.

          2. Nightflyer

            The monuments that honor traitors who seceded from the Union, seized federal property, attacked federal forts, declared war on the United States, ordered the massacres of United States troops (Fort Pillow), and defied the Constitution must be removed.

            I don’t see any monuments in America to honor Benedict Arnold. Or any of the Tories, and many of them WERE American.

            Come to think of it, the only Briton I ever see honored in America is Winston Churchill, and he’s half-American.

          3. I don’t see any monuments in America to honor Benedict Arnold. Or any of the Tories, and many of them WERE American.

            Welllll, technically.
            The Boot Monument. It celebrates the actions of Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Saratoga. But it contrives not to name him.

          4. Nightflyer

            What is that monument? I have no idea of what it is.

            But name me a monument in America to a Briton outside of Winston Churchill.

            The only one I know of is the statue honoring Field Marshal Dill in Arlington, where is buried. And I don’t think any American could tell you who he was.

            Montgomery they know from American war movies that make him and the rest of the British armed forces look like arrogant incompetents who are a greater menace to winning the Big War than the whole German Army.

          5. It’s the Boot Monument – it’s on the Saratoga Battlefield in honor of Benedict Arnold’s actions there. However, they refused to put his name on it for the obvious reasons.

  2. I think that adding more information or more context to the monuments or statues would simply help to make a better case for taking them out of prominent public places.

    This take them down v don’t take them down argument reminds me of the Confederate flag arguments in a way… I don’t personally need additional context for a person flying the Confederate flag, and I would be right to assume that the person flying that flag would be really ignorant at best, or really racist at worst.

    I similarly feel like those monuments and statues don’t deserve prominent places in our society because they aren’t worth memorializing. When I see them, I am reminded of who holds the power in that community and how little power those who would never erect those monuments in the first place do not have. I don’t think I need more context to know that those people don’t deserve my reverence…

    I get the instinct to preserve things from the past, but as you said, the monuments not being around doesn’t make us lose much other than an eyesore and constant reminder that there are people who would have wanted a different outcome for that war.

    I do get tired of the hyperbole. This isn’t a tyrannical act. This is effectively landscaping. They can go cry about it to someone who cares… such little power has been exerted by people mobilizing to take them down –the white supremacists are gonna be fine for now regardless.

    And, to another commenter’s point, there are plenty of things memorializing people who weren’t Americans… that isn’t the point of a Memorial.

    1. I don’t have anything to add or detract from you last couple of paragraphs but the first three I’ll take a shot at.

      For starters, the Confederate Flag and Monuments are not in the same category and we probably shouldn’t make general arguments for both.

      As far as your first couple of arguments – I recommend you read the Ashley Luskey article I posted above. She makes the argument far better than I do.

      1. Isabel

        I don’t think that’s what I said: “This take them down v don’t take them down argument reminds me of the Confederate flag arguments in a way…” I said that I am reminded of this argument. I do not believe them to be the same.
        I’m not swayed by the argument Ms. Luskey makes that the monuments should stay put. I don’t think we need the monuments to stay where they are to teach complex historical facts or have complicated conversations about our collective memory. I spend a lot of time traveling around the Deep South, and I am plenty reminded of our history when trying to provide services to marginalized communities here. Perhaps that’s by the nature of my job(s).
        I have to say that it may be difficult for a lot of people to find a “shared purpose” with those who do not see the problem only memorializing people who fought to keep others enslaved. Maybe I would feel differently about this issue if there were a more diverse set of monuments to that time, but there is only one version of the story memorialized in most places. Most of these communities haven’t chosen to add to their monuments the faces or stories of abolitionists or Union leaders, and if they did I suspect that those arguments would not be any less contentious –because most people aren’t arguing on behalf of history. From where I sit, most people arguing for these to stay are arguing on behalf of a conquered nation that stood for white supremacy. I’m not sure how to find that common ground to be perfectly honest, and I am not sure that keeping these monuments will help with that goal either.

        1. I think on a superficial level, the arguments between the flag and the monuments might seem similar but they ultimately are different issues. You didn’t hear many historians weigh on the preserving the Confederate Flag as far as on court houses, etc. Inside museums, yes.

          The monuments are important in terms of forcing the issue of conversation. Most areas or outlets where these conversations can take place are opt-in. That presents issues. College classrooms and museums are limited points of conversation. They simply don’t happen in high school due to standardized testing. However, monuments are meant to be encountered and they are; by the person walking their dog, jogging, etc.

          I agree about having a more diverse set of monuments, in order to represent a more pluralistic society. One day, I’d like to push for a monument or memorial for the unnamed slaves that occupied Catoosa County prior to the 13th Amendment. I think Richmond is an excellent guide in terms of what you said. “Add, rather than subtract.” How powerful would a statue of Harriet Tubman be, helping slaves to freedom, in the shadow of one of these monuments?

          I liked your last comment and here is why – I saw a new report of someone protesting I think the P.G.T. Beauregard statue in NOLA; he made the usual comments about heritage, history – offended by the racism arguments. If the “Battle of Liberty Place Monument’ still stood in NOLA, someone could have shown him the plaque on it. It says,

          McEnery and Penn having been elected governor and lieutenant-governor by the white people, were duly installed by this overthrow of carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers, Governor Kellogg (white) and Lieutenant-Governor Antoine (colored).
          United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.

          It’s a tangible reminder of just how wrong his statements were. Ultimately though, NOLA chose to remove the monument – which I recognize their right and authority to do.

          What I’m saying with my post, at this moment at least, is I empathize with two arguments on this issue: 1, as myself an educator and historian I emphasize with those public historians and educators who have spent countless hours in and around the monuments teaching; and 2, tangible contextualization of white supremacy that African-Americans experience in and around many of those same monuments. Although I am concerned with the sanitization of the landscape, I recognize my concerns are limited when up against the arguments of those who rightfully feel oppressed by these monuments.

    2. Nightflyer

      Ir’s true that many non-Americans have been honored in America — Gandhi being a major example — but Britons are generally not. I have a pal at work who is English who is amused by that. He says that in New York, where every ethnicity on earth is represented, there is no celebration of the Queen’s Birthday. He found one in New Orleans, of all places.

        1. Nightflyer

          I know there’s one to the British dead at Concord Bridge in Massachusetts — my English work pal has been there personally and said he was very moved to find that it was decorated with plastic British Legion Poppies.

          1. I read there are planned “Sister” monuments for British people who found in the Civil War. One is supposed to be in England, one here. Not sure how far in the works that is yet.

        1. Nightflyer

          My point is that the British are an ethnic group in America that gets ignored — along with the Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, and Newfoundlanders.
          Everybody else gets a parade (usually down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan), a party, concerts, and sometimes even a film festival.
          We’re just the evil “Redcoats” who fought incompetently at Concord and Bunker Hill, or the even more incompetent Field Marshal Montgomery who was a bigger menace to Allied victory than Hitler, or arrogant upper-crust snotnoses like Paxton Whitehead’s economics professor in “Back to School,” cooks who make lousy food, or comedians who dress up in women’s clothing and make horrible puns.
          My pal at work who wrote the above for me says that his British relatives and ancestors deserve a little better than that.

          1. You might have noticed I did not approve that comment. It is vulgar – it has no place on my blog. I also saved your email address (It appears to be a NJ government email) and IP address. Do not comment on my blog again or I will notify your employer.

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