The Future Of Confederate MonumentsHistorians in the News
tags: Civil War, Confederacy, National Parks, monuments, public history
If you knew nothing about the U.S. Civil War and traveled to Gettysburg National Military Park, you might be forgiven for believing the South won, based on a reading of the monuments alone.
The statue of Southern commander Robert E. Lee on horseback, which also serves as the monument to the fighting sons of his home state of Virginia, stands at 41 feet tall, including both statue and pedestal. It’s more than double the height of the similar equestrian statue of Union Gen. George Gordon Meade that sits across the field, despite the fact that Meade was the victor at Gettysburg, helping to turn the tide of the war.
Lee’s prominence at Gettysburg, along with the estimated 1,700 Confederate commemorative works that still stand across the United States, is now under scrutiny. In recent years, the nation’s racist history has been debated and confronted in a variety of ways, with Confederate names and symbols being removed from public squares, schools, and flagpoles across the South and elsewhere. And yet, the Confederate battle flag is still hoisted aloft and visible in places like the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and at the U.S. Capitol insurrection last month, not to mention on countless car bumpers, t-shirts, and gift shop tables.
Last summer, Democratic lawmakers in the fiscal 2021 spending package included language that would have required the National Park Service to remove Confederate monuments from all National Park System sites within six months. Although that language didn’t make it into the final bill, it’s likely to be reintroduced this year.
The proposal is raising a debate not only between those who support Confederate symbols and those who say they prop up a legacy of hate, but between those who say the Park Service needs more time to inventory and consider these works and those who say the Confederacy has been given time enough.
At issue, too, is the crusty legacy of the “Lost Cause,” the mythologizing of the Southern warriors that recast them as fighting not to support slavery but to maintain states’ rights (overlooking, of course, that those "rights" included enslaving other human beings). Most of the Confederate monuments erected on national parklands were placed there in the early 20th century, well after the war, during the height of Jim Crow segregation. They are not interpretive historical markers, opponents say, but symbols of white supremacy and oppression.
The National Park Service was a willing participant in this effort, allowing groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy to sponsor monuments on its battlefields that helped to elevate and equalize the losing side. Hence, the existence of the Lee monument at Gettysburg, erected in 1917, and the Robert E. Lee Memorial, as his former home in Arlington, Virginia, is designated — despite the fact that Lee was an often-brutal slaveowner who took up arms against his own government.
“This is not about erasing history or denying anyone’s heritage,” said U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, Democrat from Minnesota and a key advocate of the removal legislation, during a Congressional subcommittee debate last July. “This is about whether we’re willing to do the hard work needed to confront the truth of our history and to work to right past wrongs. In order to do that, it means ending the use of Confederate symbols which continue to be used today to intimidate and terrorize millions of our American citizens.”