It would be “wiser…not to keep open the sores of war,” said the former Confederate general Robert E. Lee in 1869, “but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.” Lee wrote those remarks as he rejected an invitation to enshrine Confederate memorials for fallen soldiers.
In the decades following Lee’s death in 1870, many such monuments would come to be, and many would bear his likeness. But the erstwhile general may finally be getting his wish. In the wake of protests across the country, set in motion after a Minneapolis cop killed George Floyd, an unarmed black man, numerous communities have seen a reinvigorated push to remove local homages to Confederate soldiers—the likes of which amount to little more than grand participation trophies that celebrate the most racially fraught time in U.S. history.
There’s a rich irony to the fact that Lee, who recognized the ill-conceived nature of the idea, would become the unwitting mascot for those who support those memorials. After all, statues of the general himself are not few and far between. They have become the quintessential lightning rod in the debate, famously drawing the attention of the white supremacists who marched on Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, as they protested the removal of his statue.
So it should come as little surprise that monuments of Lee are often a target of demonstrators and city councils alike. Fort Myers, Florida, announced today it will remove a bust of the general. Protesters in Montgomery, Alabama, toppled a statue of Lee, while other protesters in Richmond, Virginia, defaced a similar memorial that sits on the town’s “Monument Avenue.”
Protests weren’t limited to Lee, however. Over in Nashville, Tennessee, demonstrators upended a statue of Edward Carmack, a newspaper publisher and early-1900s state lawmaker who called for the firebombing of the civil rights activist and journalist Ida B. Wells. His monument stood in front of the Tennessee State Capitol, an odd place for someone whose racist ideology did not withstand the test of time.
Supporters of Confederate monuments often argue that the stone exaltations preserve heritage. Memorials inherently celebrate a particular time and place—it’s right there in the name. But what good does it do if the heritage preserved and celebrated is an inherently racist one?
The bulk of these Confederate memorials were erected between 1900-1930, long after the Civil War’s conclusion. Behind their enshrinement was the very same racial animus that the country is currently attempting to grapple with. The 1924 reception for Lee’s statue provides an adequate anecdote. As I’ve written previously:
Over in Charlottesville, the Ku Klux Klan commemorated the May 21 unveiling of Lee’s statue with a public cross burning on May 16 and a two-hour parade on May 18 attended by “thousands,” according to archives from The Daily Progress, the Charlottesville newspaper that’s been publishing since 1892. The throngs of people “equaled those usually seen here to witness the parade of the large circuses,” the paper wrote. “The march of the white-robed figures was impressive, and directed attention to the presence of the organization in the community.”
That wasn’t the exception but rather the rule. In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the industrialist Julian Carr introduced the now-toppled Silent Sam statue in 1913 with a speech on the merits of preserving white supremacy. “One hundred yards from where we stand,” he noted, “less than 90 days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench, until her skirts hung in shreds.” New Orleans’ 1911 celebration of the monument of Confederate President Jefferson Davis—a fierce defender of slavery—had a Stars and Bars formation singing “Dixie” at a ‘Whites Only’ ceremony. The list goes on.
I don’t doubt that those invocations of heritage are genuine. But that heritage incontrovertibly hinges on a legacy of slavery and racial terrorism, whether some like to admit it or not. Those who fought for the Confederacy should never be forgotten—but put them in a museum, keep them in the history books, and so on. Don’t give them a reception fit only for history’s best heroes.
The collective unwillingness to confront that history may be coming to an end. Birmingham, Alabama, directed the removal of the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors monument Monday night, coinciding with Jefferson Davis’s birthday, which remains a state holiday. Alexandria, Virginia, similarly removed its Confederate monument Tuesday morning. It had not been defaced.
Vandalizing property and setting fire to buildings must certainly be condemned, no matter the protesters nor the topic at hand. But at such a pivotal moment, Confederate-monument defenders now have the perfect chance to, at the very least, empathize with the protesters’ arguments. After all, conservatives rightly decry participation trophies. Why keep up the biggest ones in history?