Confederate statues and what they mean

A history professor once commented that rarely do the defeated erect statues to their defeats. On a personal level, do you display mementos of your failures — of your divorce, or bankruptcy, or dropping out of high school or college, or the time you got arrested when you were a teen?

If you think back to major defeats, do the French commemorate the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo? How about the disastrous defeat of the British at Gallipoli during World War I? The Turks might have set up a monument to their victory, but not the British.

Do the Germans commemorate and honor their defeats in World War I and World War II with statues? For them these wars are a badge of shame that Germans avoided talking much about for more than a generation.

While Americans commemorate both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, it is not to point our victories. Instead it is to mourn the dead. Contrasted with the enormous monument to our victory in World War II in Washington D.C., those two war memorials pale in size and scope. There is a reason for that.

People don’t like to remember their defeats. Why, then, are there more than 1,500 statues to Confederate leaders scattered throughout the South on public property, with even a few in the North?

Interestingly, these Confederate statues were not erected immediately after the war. Most were set up on public property during the era of Jim Crow — legalized segregation of the races in two different eras: around 1915-1920 and in the 1950s and 1960s, according to an article titled, “Most Confederate Monuments weren’t Built Until the Era of Jim Crow” by Caroline Hallemann in an August 15, 2017 in “Town and Country”.

During the period 1915-20 Americans were reeling from the death and destruction wrought by World War I. After the war, many Americans turned inward, trying to keep out immigrants with new anti-immigration laws. During this period the KKK experienced a major resurgence, and the lynchings of blacks increased.

The second period for Confederate statue building took place during the 1950s and 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement.

It seems these statues have been constructed, not to honor America’s fallen soldiers of the Civil War, but to commemorate and remind both whites and blacks of segregation, and the times in our history when black rights were violently resisted by Southerners. They were erected to commemorate white supremacy.

There was a historical revisionist movement that arose in the South after the Civil War in 1865. It was called, “The Cult of the Lost Cause”. The goal of this group was to rewrite history to separate the Civil War from the issue of slavery.

That’s why there are so many statues of Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, according to an article called, “Why Are Hundreds of Confederate Statues Still Standing?” by David A. Love in “The Grio”. The goal was to shift the focus from slavery as the major cause of the war to the struggle of the South to succeed against overwhelming odds. These are noble goals for all humans, but not when the truth about the evils of slavery was obscured in the process.

According to an article in “USA Today”, thirty-five Confederate statues have been erected since 2000 in North Carolina. African-Americans understand the symbolism of these statues because they represent white supremacy and Jim Crow. No wonder they want to destroy them 152 years after the end of the Civil War. No wonder many whites object to their destruction for the same reasons.

War statues are set up to commemorate victories, not losses. These Confederate monuments are meant to show that, while the South lost the Civil War, their hearts and attitudes were neither changed nor defeated in the process. For many in this nation, the war over race is still continuing. The new battlefield is whether statues will remain or be removed.