Confederate Memory

By Olivia Ortman ’19

This year as a CWI Fellow, I’ve been doing a lot of research and thinking on Civil War memory, specifically that of Confederate memory. When doing this work, the question at the back of my mind is always: How should monuments, symbols, and other examples of Confederate memory be handled? This is a very difficult question, so up until now, I’ve left it alone, knowing that there would come a time in the future that I would sit down and wrestle with my conflicting opinions on the matter. A couple days ago, the Civil War Era Studies Department here at Gettysburg College sent out an email sharing the news that New Orleans had begun removing Confederate monuments and several other cities were thinking of doing the same. After reading this, I knew the time had come for me, and all of you, to join the discussion about Confederate Memory.

The first question that I ask myself when thinking about how to handle Confederate Memory is what the people want. Confederate monuments have a variety of owners. In some cases, the monuments are owned by a private organization or individual who put them up, in other cases, the city, state, or federal government may own them. The same goes for the land they are on. If owned by individuals or private groups, it’s their choice what happens. When the monument or land belongs to the local government, as is the case with the New Orleans monuments, it should be the people’s choice what happens. Although the city council of New Orleans voted 6 to 1 to remove several monuments, the residents didn’t get the chance to vote. For many issues, allowing the council to take care of matters on their own is fine; the people elected them because they trusted them to make the right decisions. In matters that generate a lot of public concern, though, residents are usually asked to vote. We vote on taxes, why not on monuments? If the majority of city residents agree with the removal of a Confederate symbol or monument, remove it and say no more. If the majority of residents are against the action, however, it doesn’t seem right to disrespect their wishes. The popular vote in New Orleans may have agreed with the removal of the monuments, but without that formal vote, we can’t know for sure.

Liberty Place Monument
Monument Dedicated to the Crescent City White League and the Battle of Liberty Place. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Another important question to ask is what message the monument or symbol is sending. When the message being sent is one of explicit hate, the monument should be removed. I actually agree with New Orleans and their removal of this first monument. The monument that New Orleans is currently removing was a monument built in 1891 to commemorate the Crescent City White League. As the name implies, the White League was a group of white men agitating for racial inequality in the Reconstruction Era South. While the monument was presented as a memorial to those who died in the Battle of Liberty Place—a violent confrontation between the White League and city police—it instead acted as an acute reminder of white supremacy and the government’s inability to prevent racism. For many years, there was a plaque at the base of the monument specifically referring to white supremacy. Monuments like this one that promote ideas that we don’t tolerate as a country should be removed. Little by little we’ve been working to rid the country of racism and removing monuments like these should be part of that process.

The other monuments being removed are dedicated to Confederate Leaders Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Robert E. Lee (they’re also renaming a park named for Lee). None of these monuments are specifically racist. The arguments being made for their removal are that these are men who fought against their nation and fought for slavery. This is tricky, though, because using those two points as cause for removal can lead us down a slippery slope. If we remove every monument dedicated to someone with ties to slavery or racism, even Lincoln won’t be left standing. Our Founding Fathers would have to be the first to go; they created the system of inequality in this country that later led to the Civil War. I’m certainly not in any rush to see Jefferson monuments toppled, so I don’t think we should start pulling down these Confederate monuments.

Lee Monument in New Orleans
Robert E. Lee Monument in New Orleans. Via Wikimedia Commons.

So now we’re back to the question of how to handle Confederate memory. I think my ultimate answer is to use it as an educational opportunity. We need to find ways to use these monuments to create open discussion. We all know that removing these monuments will not remove these Confederate leaders from people’s hearts, so it would be pointless to try. If anything, we will create martyrs out of these men. People who were moderates on the issue of handling symbols of Confederate memory will become radicals. Those who are currently open to the ideas of open discussion on the full meaning, good and bad, surrounding these monuments will shut down. They will see this as an attack on history and a white-washing of our gritty past. They will protest and get up in arms, unwilling to listen to others with different views. This is the opposite of what we want.

We may not be able to remove these monuments from public view, but we can work on how people view these men and the Confederacy. The root of the issue with Confederate monuments is not really the monuments themselves. The root is our fear about the monuments feeding into Lost Cause or Neo-Confederacy ideologies. Instead of targeting the monuments, we should be targeting the ideology. This starts by providing knowledge. Many cities have begun erecting interpretive plaques to go along with monuments, giving a more holistic story of the subject. This is a great approach not only to Confederate Memory, but to history in general. It allows us, as a people, to remove our romantic notions of the past and understand people and events for what they were. Those who demonize Confederate leaders need to understand that their lives were filled with more than just their roles in the Civil War. Those who iconize these men need to see that they did make mistakes. We can’t fully put aside lingering Civil War tensions until we face our past in its entirety, and these monuments can be the beginning of that journey.

What do all of you think? What should we do with these monuments and other symbols of Confederate Memory?


Begley, Michael. Battle of Liberty Place Monument. November 1, 2010. New Orleans. Wikimedia Commons. Accessed May 1, 2017.

Blackwell, William. Robert E. Lee Monument (New Orleans, Louisiana). November 17, 2015. New Orleans. Wikimedia Commons. Accessed May 1, 2017.

Chadwick, Gordon. “The Battle of Liberty Place Monument.” New Orleans Historical. Accessed May 2, 2017.

Wootson, Cleve R. “After a lost court battle, New Orleans protesters launch last-ditch effort to protect Confederate monuments.” The Washington Post. April 30, 2017. Accessed May 01, 2017.

Gallorini, Marguerite. “Charlottesville Votes to Sell Lee Statue, But Debate Continues.” WMRA and WEMC. April 19, 2017. Accessed May 01, 2017.

Herbert/AP, Gerald. “New Orleans Pulls Down a Monument to Post–Civil War White Terrorism.” Daily Intelligencer. April 25, 2017. Accessed May 01, 2017.

Holmberg, Mark. “Why Monument Avenue is safe as other cities remove Civil War statues.” WTVR. April 28, 2017. Accessed May 01, 2017.

New Orleans takes down prominent Confederate monument.” Fox News. April 24, 2017. Accessed May 01, 2017.

Thompson, Kathleen Logothetis. “Editorial: Removing Confederate Memory: How Far is Too Far?” Civil Discourse. October 15, 2015. Accessed May 01, 2017.

Victor, Daniel. “New Orleans City Council Votes to Remove Confederate Monuments.” The New York Times. December 17, 2015. Accessed May 01, 2017.

12 thoughts on “Confederate Memory”

  1. “We vote on taxes, why not on monuments?” Taxes affect everyone, the civil war monuments issue does not. Was the initial installation of these monuments voted on?

    1. I would argue that civil war monuments affect everyone in the town they exist in. These are the people who see the monuments everyday and face many of the effects, positive or negative, that go along with those monuments. Some monuments were voted on when they were installed, especially those installed on public land. The White League monument that is getting removed now was originally put to a vote when it was first installed. Unfortunately, it was a different time and the residents of New Orleans voted in favor (most of these voters were white and it was a time of extreme racism). However, later residents voted to change the white supremacist plaque because they realized it sent the wrong message to the world about New Orleans. So in some cases, not all, people did vote on the installation of monuments and then on later renovations to them.

  2. The discussion surrounding removal of Confederate monuments tends to fall into two somewhat-related fallacies. The first is the idea that removing these monument is literally the same as attempting to erase their subjects from history. This is of course laughably untrue. The historical record is not being rewritten, and indeed those advocating for the removal of such monuments are most likely those who remember the entirety of these figures’ history. Removal is not historical erasure but rather a rejection of these topics as worthy of memorialization and public reverence. The second fallacy, which fuels the first, is that there can be such a thing as an innocuous or inoffensive Confederate monument. Contrary to the thoughts expressed here, every Confederate monument is by definition explicitly racist and contrary to the values of the United States. The Confederacy was founded for the sole purpose of defending the existence of slavery, as has been made abundantly clear in its own primary sources and by the entire modern historical community. In the occasion for its secession, the Confederacy also belied its inherent opposition to the principals of democracy itself, as leaving a democracy due to losing an election is anathema to the very idea of democracy. Confederate monuments therefore by their nature honor those who attempted to sabotage the fundamental principles of our country in order to preserve their ability to oppress other human beings. As such, they certainly do not deserve any kind of commemoration.

    The idea of interpretive plaques as accessories to these monuments is an intriguing one, and has been employed in other contexts of treacherous historical memory besides the American Civil War. It appears at first glance to be laudable, and indeed is certainly better than leaving them to stand unopposed. Yet I can’t help but wonder if these plaques are no more than proverbial fig leaves, post-it notes reading “Just Kidding” tacked on to highly objectionable monuments we were too apathetic or not courageous enough to remove. Their effectiveness is certainly based on the wishful thinking that the plaques or other interpretive material would be read enough to combat the sheer visual presence of the monument. Perhaps if these monuments are to be preserved for historical value, they should be removed to a separate, controlled environment for interpretation such as a museum or visitor center. Here their purely historical value could be studied without allowing their repugnant memorial value to remain on prominent display.

    1. Bryan,

      “Repugnant memorial value” is in the eye of the beholder. What you might find offensive, others might wish to celebrate. This is certainly the case here.

      What makes you “right” and others wrong?

      If we take these monuments down because some people are offended by them, it sets a dangerous precedent. No one is perfect (as Ms. Ortman clearly stated), and few symbols are without some negative taint or connotation for someone. Should we create a new national flag because slavery existed under the Stars and Stripes for decades? Should we take down the Sherman statue from the White House grounds because of the war crimes he committed during the Civil War? Should we raze the Truman Library because of his authorization of the atomic bombings against Japanese cities in WWII?

      Just because someone finds a symbol offensive, does not mean that alone is enough to tear that symbol down. If that were the case, we would have little to celebrate or memorialize in this country.

  3. I think anytime we remove a monument or change a name, we do more harm than good. These monuments remind us that even after the war, the country was not truly “one nation” as much as people tried to show it was.
    The monuments offer us a teaching moment to others new to the history and a reminder each time one passes by them in a daily routine, that this is what we were, and look where we are now. The history still exists, yes, with or without the monument, but in the empty space, moments of reflection as to what was, and is now, would be gone.
    So, what we’re saying by taking down monuments or removing names from parks is that down the road anyone who disagrees with a person’s name or group on a building or monument can remove it and people will feel better.
    There is no person past or present that people could unanimously rally behind as a valid name for a monument or park or any other place. Yet, so many places in our country are named to honor someone or group. What others do we begin to remove because they offend someone?
    I’m not crazy about John F. Kenney. I’d like to remove any mention of him with NASA, remove his name from any schools, and anywhere else except history books. He was a womanizer, unfaithful, and the family made their money bootlegging liquor, meaning they went against Federal law for their own purposes. Keep him off coins too.
    Columbus Day should be removed as a holiday and on anything with his name. Columbus was lost. He didn’t discover American – there were people here already. If you want to say, “well, he was the first European here,” that’s wrong too as Vikings had been here hundreds of years earlier.
    MLK is the only individual American with a holiday. Why did he get one over others? Washington lost his holiday to the group now called “Presidents’ Day.” Do we agree to honor ALL presidents that day? I can think of a lot of presidents I don’t like and some I do like. Who is deserving of a holiday?
    Imagine all the places with the name Washington: How many Washington Streets are there? Washington Squares? Washington Schools? Mountains? Washington, D.C., or Washington State? Etc.
    If you begin to remove monuments and such you don’t like, watch out, some place you like named for someone you honor and respect might be next.

    1. And this is one of the overarching fallacies of any Southern apologist or apathetic argument. The idea that, if we remove Confederate monuments or condemn Confederates for their white supremacist and anti-democratic beliefs, we must then condemn every other figure in history for their unsavory ideas is a false equivalency. These monuments and the men they honor did not just happen to have slaves; the entire reason they are being memorialized is because they explicitly acted in defense of slavery and in opposition to democracy. A monument to Washington as a founder of our nation, or to JFK as a pioneer of the space program, is a different situation altogether. While their own personal habits or beliefs may be repugnant to modern morality, these monuments honor these men and their actions in a specific context that is not explicitly objectionable. In a wider sense, however, this fallacy isn’t a fallacy at all. It’s users simply use it for their ‘slippery slope’ argument without ever taking into account the accuracy of their meant-to-be-hyperbolic statements. Yes, very few historical figures deserve to be commemorated. No, America is not any more unique or virtuous than any other nation. Yes, our own exceptionalism is a rampant myth which renders our society incapable of actually coming to grips with these facts and its own transgressions, instead waving them away and somehow thinking that the harm of leaving in place monuments to white supremacy, racism, and oppression can somehow be superseded by the benefit of anecdotal personal reflection that the vast majority of the historically-disinterested populace does not share.

      1. Bryan,

        If these statues are taken down you don’t HAVE to “condemn every other figure in history for their unsavory ideas”— it would just be intolerant, hypocritical, and discriminatory if you did NOT. Last time I checked, those were not American values, or at least, the values Americans strive to live by. This is not a hyperbolic argument, but goes straight to the heart of what it is to live in a free and open society.

        These memorials were also not/not established to honor these men for their ties to slavery. Any quick glance at the historical record on the commencement ceremonies for these monuments will demonstrate that they were put up to celebrate the martial valor of these men, as well as their willingness to put their lives on the line in defense of their homes. I think these traits are worth celebrating, even in light of the political realities of the Confederacy.

        And lastly, these men were not opposed to democracy, nor was their aim to destroy the republic (which I have seen in other criticisms). They simply wanted to establish their own independent republic, and never sought to overthrow the United States government. Indeed, one could argue they believed in a deeper democracy where more power was transferred to states and the local population (though wartime constraints kept the Confederacy from living up to their State’s Rights goals). Harper’s Weekly called the Confederates an “oligarchy of slave-holders” in the 1860’s, but this was propaganda to bolster the unionist sentiment. It was not reality.

        1. Bruce,

          Rather than respond to each of your comments, I’ll gather my thoughts here. It would appear that you’ve missed my refutation of precisely the kind of slippery slope claims you are making, particularly in your first comment. Rather than take up more space here, I refer you to my above comment. I do feel compelled, however, to point out that your two examples of Truman and Sherman do not fit even your framework, as presidential libraries are not monuments but research facilities, and William Sherman in no way committed war crimes at any point during his career.

          To address your second comment: the idea that values of martial valor and the defense of the home can be separated from larger ideological concepts is yet another fallacy all too common amongst reconciliationist arguments. The willingness to fight for beliefs is a basic human trait shared by all regimes ever to exist; they do not alone constitute grounds for commemoration, but must be examined through what precisely was being fought for, and why those homes were endangered.

          To that point, any person willingly serving the Confederacy, in any capacity, was fighting for a government explicitly founded for the defense and perpetuation of racial chattel slavery. These monuments are thus not objected to because they are connected to slavery, but because they explicitly commemorate slavery. Even more so, the manner in which that government was formed was indeed in direct opposition to the principles of democracy. The secession of the Southern states and formation of the Confederacy was a direct response to the election of Abraham Lincoln in November of 1860. Lincoln won a plurality of the popular vote and a majority of the Electoral College, thus winning the presidency in a fair election by any consideration. To secede as a result of this fair election is anathema to the idea of democracy. Leaving the compact as a result of losing a vote, particularly when the nation had been subjected to the South’s own political dominance for decades (inflated and sustained by the highly undemocratic 3/5 Compromise), is no different from attempting to overthrow the government. It makes the idea of democracy a farce, and would have destabilized both nations if allowed to succeed. The fact that the Confederacy then formed their own nearly identical democratic republic after seceding (along with immediately prohibiting secession) makes its founding one of the most hypocritical events in all of human history.

          In your above comment, you made an appeal to American values. Two fundamental values to America and indeed a humanist world are that all humans are created equal, with equal rights before the law, and that the most just form of government in line with that principle is that of democracy, be it direct or representative. Monuments to the Confederacy or any of its supporters inherently spit in the face of both of these principles. Morality may certainly be relative, as you observe, but any morality that can justify celebrating Confederate monuments is thus a morality incompatible with the foundational values that form our system of governance; a system of values that makes America great not for their original promise, but in our efforts since to embody them to the best of our ability.

  4. Bryan:

    I did not miss your refutation, I just felt it was based on flawed logic.

    Your argument is essentially that because slavery was a key aspect of the Confederacy, then nothing about the Confederacy is worth memorializing, especially those who fought for it. It is an inescapable and inexcusable aspect of their existence.

    I get it.

    But there were certainly OTHER factors besides slavery which governed the behavior, actions, and attitude of the Confederacy and its leaders. They wanted to pursue free-trade policies instead of protectionist economic policies. They believed State Rights trumped Federal Authority, save in limited cases. They believed states and local communities should have a larger say in the laws that governed them. And they also believed in their inherent right to self-defense, and consent of the governed. The Confederacy has many other aspects to it, besides slavery, and ultimately they had a different vision of what American democracy should look like.

    Just like the first 90 years of US history, there was much more going on in the Confederacy besides slavery. But if the stain of slavery on a country’s history means that no other aspect of its existence is even worth considering for commemoration, then we have to hold that same standard to all others. If we do not, then we are acting in a very discriminatory way.

    This isn’t a slippery slope argument or some gross exaggeration of reality. If we take down Davis, we have to take down Jefferson. If we take down Lee, we have to take down Washington. All of them were leaders and military commanders who worked to found a slave republic. Period. If that is all there is to their stories, then they all have to come down. The good will get thrown out with the bad.

  5. And to continue with the dialogue:

    “the entire reason they are being memorialized is because they explicitly acted in defense of slavery and in opposition to democracy.”

    …that’s not true.

    As I stated, that is not why they were being memorialized. The statues do not say, ‘Jefferson Davis, Slaveholder’ or “Robert E. Lee – Champion of Slavery” or “PGT Beauregard – Monarchist” If they did, I’d be the first in line to champion their removal– but they don’t. They were memorialized for other aspects of their character and their history, as noted quite clearly in the commemoration remarks. You can indeed separate out political aspects from the actions and character of its participants. We do it all the time. The examples I highlighted demonstrate that.

    And on that point, you have to admit your “research facility” remark was rather shallow, as the status of the thing matters little for the purpose of the argument. There is still a big bronze statue of Truman outside of his library, and his name is on the door. My point still stands. Should we remove these things because they memorialize a man who did terrible things (right or wrong in their historical context)?

    …and burning cities and homes, allowing women to be raped without consequence, and purposefully starving civilians is a war crime. I just looked up the definition to be sure. Sherman was all for the March to the Sea campaign. He helped design it, and he executed it with great efficiency. You cannot in good faith say he committed no criminal acts during war— I think he would say they were necessary, and justified, but I doubt even he would shirk from his own guilt.

  6. And in regard to the idea that the Confederacy was opposed to democracy simply because they seceded from the United States is ludicrous. Were the American colonies opposed to democracy because they broke from Great Brittan (who had a parliamentary government after all)? Were the Scots opposed to democracy because many of them wanted to leave the United Kingdom in 2014? Were the British opposed to democracy because they broke away from the European Union?


    Nothing about the secession of the southern states put the United States in jeopardy, or threatens democracy at large. The US still could have traded with the South to get its raw materials (or have gotten it elsewhere), and in no way was the US government in danger of dissolving because of it. Nor did southern secession jeopardize democracy as a political or governmental concept. Instead of having just one democracy in the world (I will not include Switzerland in this count), you’d have two.

    The reality is that your anti-democratic argument is propaganda straight out of Harpers Weekly 1860 edition. The Confederacy was simply abiding by an (often overlooked) founding principal of our republic– consent of the governed. Lincoln did not represent any Southern interest, and intended to execute policies which would specifically hurt the South in favor of the North (policies which had little to do with slavery in the South, I might add). Because Lincoln was so sectional, and because the South could no longer control its own fate in the federal government (as a quick look at the electoral college map of the 1860 election will demonstrate) they decided to break away and form an independent republic.

    If “All Men Are Created Equal” is an unquestioned foundational principal of our republic, so must be:

    “[Governments], deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”

    You can’t have one, without the other.

    In closing, I will say my greatest argument for leaving these statues in place is not for historical preservation. Indeed, it has little to do with the Confederacy, and certainly nothing to do with the institution of slavery. I believe they should stay up as reminders to the government of the United States, that if you push people too hard, they will push back. If Government stops caring about building consensus among its constituents and neglects a significant portion of the population, there will be serious problems. Ignoring sectional issues, and pitting one part of America against another is dangerous– and these monuments are living reminders of that. We have monuments to Lincoln and Sherman and Grant to remind us of the one side– we should leave those of the Confederacy in place to show the other.

  7. Bruce-

    It’s intriguing that you seem to be able to spot the ‘propaganda’ and ‘flawed logic’ in my arguments, yet cannot observe that your own points are made entirely of the same. I actually use very minimal logical reasoning, and instead have simply relayed basic facts about the Confederacy and its secession.

    Fact #1: The Confederacy was formed with the protection of slavery as its core value and overriding objective. I encourage you to read each state’s articles of secession, or Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone of the Confederacy” speech. All the other minutiae that you reference was very remotely secondary and has been played up by Southern apologists and adherents of the Lost Cause myth since the end of the war. As such, a memorial to anyone for their Confederate service is a memorial to the preservation of slavery. Confederacy and slavery are synonymous. Washington and Jefferson, on the other hand, did not fight to create a slave republic but a republic, within which slavery existed. Your adherence, conscious or note, to Lost Cause propaganda is apparent in your insistence that Sherman committed war crimes in his ‘March to the Sea.’ These alleged atrocities have little basis in fact, and what did occur has been greatly exaggerated. Even the notion of ‘war crimes’ as some kind of easily definable indictment is flawed, as a war against a democracy must by definition be a war against its entire population and ideas of racial superiority have historically made some actions ‘permissible’ in other foreign contexts.

    Fact #2: The secession of the Confederate states was anathema to the principles of democracy. You attempted to obfuscate this point by referring to ‘consent of the governed’, which sounds reasonable but has little relevance in this context. The citizens of all the states of the Union consented to abide by the government laid out in the Constitution when they ratified it or were later admitted. That government was and is a democratic republic, whose very simple operating mechanism is that the majority of votes wins the issue at stake. The Southern states had no problem with this system as they used the highly undemocratic 3/5 Compromise to rig the system and dominate the Northern states in the government for decades. The immediate (explicitly stated) reason for their secession was the election of Lincoln and his perceived threat to the existence of slavery. Lincoln was fairly elected, winning both a majority of the electoral college and a plurality of the popular vote. This means that secession was the southern states’ means of contesting a peaceful transfer of power, refusing to abide by the fact that they had lost a vote. If ‘majority rules’ is the mechanism by which democracy functions, then, the seceding states spat in the face of it, and if they were successful democracy would have been a much more fragile institution, as any who didn’t like the outcome of a vote could look to their example. It is also extremely telling that immediately upon forming their own government, the Confederate states forbade secession. This does not mean that secession from a democracy is entirely anathema, as secession could occur on the grounds of improperly-functioning government or an unfair election. Again, your choice of examples is highly flawed, as the American colonists were seceding precisely because they felt they did not have representation in Britain’s Parliament, and the Scottish referendum in 2014 was conceived and executed as part of the democratic process of the United Kingdom.

    In conclusion, you defend these monuments as reminders that if government pushes too hard, citizens will push back. This cannot be applied in any way to the Confederacy. The Confederacy was a rebellion of people who held their own racial superiority and ownership of other humans so dear that, when their inflated and undemocratic stranglehold on the government failed, they resorted to open insurrection rather than abide by the principles of democracy. To memorialize the Confederacy for this is to memorialize a child for throwing a tantrum after his friends outvoted him on the playground.

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