Can Confederate symbols be separated from history?


By Matt Higgins

“However expressive, symbols can never be the things they stand for.” – Aldous Huxley

The recent controversy surrounding New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s plan to remove four monuments dedicated to Confederate figures and events has sparked a rowdy chorus of supporters and opponents. Landrieu and his supporters contend that the statues do not reflect the diversity or serve as proper symbols of New Orleans in the 21st century. Critics counter that the monuments do not in themselves, support slavery or white supremacy.

While it is true that the reasons for the creation and dedication of the monuments serve as symbols beyond slavery, it is also true that based on historical evidence, the monuments stand for far more than individuals or events and include the harsh realities of slavery and segregation.

The three most prevalent statues – those of Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis – were erected in 1884, 1911, and 1915, respectively. During this era, the idea of the “Lost Cause” was the dominant ethos in the South, particularly among those who served the Confederacy.

The Lost Cause’s ideology is that the South agreed that the Civil War had settled the questions of secession and slavery and that neither would occur again. And Southerners asserted their loyalty to the United States. At the same time, the ideology asserts that the South lost not because the Southern cause was unjust but because of superior Northern military force.

Often, supporters of the Lost Cause will argue that the South was defending itself against an aggressive national government and that the states had the right to secede and did so in order to preserve their way of life from Northern dominance. Today, supporters of the Lost Cause will rarely mention slavery as a reason for the secession and subsequent war, but one need only to look at numerous political clashes in Congress between Northern and Southern states, as well as the Southern economy during the first half of the 19th century, to see that slavery was the obvious cause of the war.

Even after the Civil War though, slavery and inequality were mentioned as justifications for the war. At the dedication of Jefferson Davis’ statue in 1911 – which was attended by the governor and mayor. Davis’ friend and one time associate justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court Charles E. Fenner spoke honored Davis. In his speech, he stated, according to the Daily Picayune, “Property in slaves was a distinction recognized in the Constitution and the protection of that property was guaranteed.”

The Daily Picayune mentions the term Lost Cause many times in the article about the dedication.

Virginia journalist Edward A. Pollard wrote in his 1866 book , The Lost Cause, “The war properly decided only what was put in issue: the restoration of the Union and the excision of slavery, and to these two conditions, the South submits. But the war did not decide Negro equality; it did not decide Negro suffrage. . . . And these things which the war did not decide, the southern people will cling to, still claim, and still assert them in their rights and views.”

As events in 20th century clearly proved, Pollard was not only correct; he was a visionary.

One might argue that while slavery and inequality were mentioned in the adulation of the Confederate figures, this was not the dominant reason. It is true that at the dedication of Lee’s statue, most of the speeches’ content was about Lee’s honor, courage, sacrifice, and the respect his men had for him.

Nevertheless, slavery and racial inequality cannot be separated from these events and what they celebrated, which is unfortunate because there are legitimate arguments in favor of states’ rights.

In the 1980s, the federal government, supported by President Reagan, used the threat of withholding highway funds to persuade states to raise their legal drinking age to 21. This included Louisiana, the southern portion of which uses alcohol in many of its traditions.

Whether it is wise for 18-20 years old to drink is a valid debate. Nevertheless, 18-20 year olds can argue that laws recognize this age group to be adults in many other areas including military service and punishment for crimes. They can also argue, quite simply, that the federal government has no right to impose a drinking age on the states.

Public education has been under the domain state governments and many veteran teachers and administrators oppose the “Race to the Top” initiative of the U.S. Department of Education under President Obama, which also uses money as a carrot and stick approach to exert its influence. Many people argue that federal government should play little or no role in how the states education their young people.

Those states like Louisiana who suffered so greatly from Katrina cannot through their state governments hold the Army Corps of Engineers legally accountable for the levee failures and ensure that the Corps maintains sound flood protection. The states’ rights, in this area, are strictly constrained. Many, in New Orleans in particular, might argue that the states ought to be able to sue the Corps of Engineers for its failures.

Just as there are legitimate arguments in favor of states rights, so are there reasons to support preservation of local traditions. For example, would anyone in his right mind want to see Café Du Monde in the French Quarter replaced by Starbucks?

Have you ever seen one of those faux Mardi Gras “celebrations” in other cities? It’s why New Orleans remains unique. Can anyone imagine going to Galatoire’s or Antoine’s and not having your usual waiter, someone who has worked there for decades?

The problem is that many Confederate defenders won’t admit that slavery was the cause for the Civil War. They often cannot acknowledge that Southern states disenfranchised blacks until the federal government intervened.

Just as defenders of the Confederate monuments refuse to see in spite of clear evidence to the contrary, how the monuments in their current form can be associated with racial oppression, opponents too often simplify the statues as nothing more than symbols of racial oppression. There is ample evidence that the statues do stand for bravery, honor, and sacrifice.

My great-great-grandfather served in the Confederate army, including at the Battle of Vicksburg. He endured a siege and nine-month prison sentence. While he wasn’t of the planter class, he did own a few slaves. Whether not he was a “good” man, I cannot say. He was certainly brave and his cause included many of the principles found in the U.S. Constitution. At the same time, I can recognize slavery was wrong because of the facts about the institution and the belief that all men are created equal. Like most people he was most likely somewhere in between the extremes of “good” and evil”

Without a proper understanding of the historical context of the statues, it does not appear that New Orleans will be able to move beyond the racial strife associated with this conflict. Let us hope that whatever replaces the monuments will more accurately reflect the complexities of these men and events.

As historian John Coski wrote, “The discipline of history strives to present the past objectively, but acknowledges historical interpretation is inevitably subjective and must evolve as new evidence and new perspectives emerge. Heritage is a presentation of the past based not on critical evaluation but on faith and the acceptance of dogma.”

Matt Higgins is an assistant professor of History at SUNO and a freelance journalist. He taught in the Jefferson Parish Public School System for four years. 

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5 Responses to Can Confederate symbols be separated from history?

  1. Monique Edwards says:

    Great article. History is. What concerns me is the amount of money it will take to remove, store and erect something else. Couldn’t those funds be used for more pressing issues like after school programs, youth employment, access to quality healthcare, and food deserts? Perhaps the city of New Orleans would be better served by having reconciliation tribunals as South Africa did under Nelson Mandela. It would cost a lot less and have a lasting impact for generations to come.


  2. Stephen Winham says:

    Of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, 49% are reported to have owned slaves. Of the people we consider our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, John Hancock of Massachusetts, and John Jay of New York all owned slaves at one time or another. Our first U. S. President owned slaves. Other revered national figues, including Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson held slaves before the Civil War.

    I am not one to make the kind of leaps of logic the NRA makes with regard to gun ownership, or that ISIS makes when it destroys religious idols that happen to be irreplaceable works of art , but I do think we should consider that monuments to some of the people we are talking about here are not necessarily monuments to the institution of slavery and, therefore, relegated to some dark corner. Robert E. Lee, for example, should not be judged solely by his role in a war about slavery – and just think of how many things bearing his name and/or image would have to be altered or removed if we just followed the removal of his statue and the naming of Lee Circle to a logical conclusion.

    I know nobody who believes pre-civil war (or any other) slavery should be celebrated. I also know nobody who fails to see the danger in pretending it never existed.

    I also agree, wholeheartedly, with Monique Edwards’ comments above.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fredster says:

    Mitch also wants to rename Jefferson Davis Pkwy in the city. For those businesses along that street that have, say, business stationery, business cards and maybe vehicles with their business names and addresses on them, who will pay for them to have all of that redone? The city? I wouldn’t hold my breath.


  4. jechoisir says:

    This flurry of politically correct tearing down of statues and renaming streets and buildings should call to mind scenes from Europe under Hitler, Russia after the revolution, the Middle East under ISIS, China under Mao and in the Cultural revolution. All share a devotion to theory: they come from the brain, not from observation or history. If your theory doesn’t work out, then try another Five Year Plan. But don’t question the validity of the theory. And don’t permit anybody else to question it!

    Statues erected by ancestors, streets named for people who embodied virtues, parks and other civic places named in earlier times acquire meaning through time and the experience of generations.

    The generation that erected the statue of Robert Edward Lee sought to honor courage in the face of almost certain loss and humility and dignity in defeat. For that is what Lee represented to those who fought in that war that was about many things more than slavery. Defeated, their lands destroyed, they looked to Lee for an example of how to live. And Lee’s example is still instructive. On the morning he rode out to meet General Grant at Appomattox, he told his aide Major Taylor, “I’d rather die a thousand deaths than go out to meet General Grant.” Yet he went, even in the face of those who begged him not to surrender his army. He rejected those who proposed then and later, when Reconstruction turned into Retribution, that the South wage guerilla warfare from the mountains. They could have lasted forever, as we learned from Vietnam. But in either case, his ragged bands or the people of the South would have suffered and for nothing. And only six days after Appomattox, he agreed to pose for the photographer Matthew Brady. In the photographs he looks dignified, composed. Those photographs, which circulated widely through print journals and newspapers in both North and South, reminded a broken people to look up, not down. His dignity lessoned those who looked to him for leadership. Offered lucrative positions on the boards of banks and industrial institutions in the East, Lee chose instead to go to little Washington college in the Blue Ridge mountains, named for the man he admired most and now named for him too. But in 1865, Washington College was poor, so poor that no one on its board had a suit appropriate to call on Lee. They all pitched in to buy a suit for one of their number who would represent them. Lee served as President of Washington College until his death. By example and through his writings and in interviews, he stressed the importance of education and particularly scientific and technical education (Lee himself had been in the Corps of Engineers before the war) that was needed in the modern world. Even in defeat, he was dignified, positive, and a devoted Christian. In his life, Southerners of another time were reminded that humility and courage were virtues that would serve them well. If New Orleans’ schools still taught history, the generations who grew up would recognize that, would know that Lee, who had no slaves, stood for something worthy that had sustained their forebears.

    But Lee Circle is more than that. It became part of the experience of every succeeding generation in the city. Generations of children passed it when they went to the park or the lake. It was a landmark that everyone used in giving directions. All sorts of people passed it on their way to work, coming home from hospitals, visiting kith and kin. It too endured Katrina and Betsy and hard times and good times. It came to mean New Orleans. Along with Andrew Jackson’s equestrian statue, the Cabildo, the buildings of the French Quarter, the cathedral and so many other physical objects, it said New Orleans. It said home. It is shared by generations. To tear that statue down would break yet another tie with the city’s culture and history, yet another reminder of who New Orleanians are.

    Landmarks are important. They remind us of good and bad times. Because they accrue shared memories of all who pass them or use them, they enrich and bond a people with a place.

    The mayor ought to remind people of this. He is no leader. He is simply pandering to a passing PC fad and a group he considers his constituency. The truth is that mayors come and go, but the city and its people, for whom sites like Lee circle have acquired meaning, goes on. Once destroyed, they cannot be replaced. Mitch ought to study Lee’s life. He could learn from it.


  5. R P says:

    I agree wholeheartedly that the people who seem to be supporting this initiative of the mayor’s have tended to vastly oversimplify the narrative in seemingly looking to turn it into that the statues are all about “oppression” and nothing more than that. Moreover, where is it written that people of today somehow cannot recognize the wrongfulness in slavery and racism, etc. without needing to destroy these structures that do have historical significance in their own right (and I just can’t bring myself to believe in that the end result of this project is going to be the statues being displayed in some museum somewhere — there hasn’t been any museum, as far as I have seen, who has volunteered to take them and thus I strongly suspect that what is going to happen is that the statues will be left in storage somewhere to fall into a state of disrepair)? The mayor had said that these statues “are not who are.” Okay, fine. They aren’t, and I won’t pretend that the people of the time in the 19th century were not highly racist and so on. If we all know that and how in our current times we’re moved beyond such thinking, though, then why the rush to tear these statues down? Why is it impossible to say that they’re just inanimate objects of a past era and that also have no power to do anything to anyone? This episode just seems more like a sign of tremendous insecurity of our part than anything else.

    Liked by 1 person

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