Saturday, May 24, 2008

Confederate Monumental Landscape: Argument

On a clear June day in 1917, Confederate veteran Leigh Robinson looked out across the fields of Gettysburg and addressed over 2,000 of his fellow veterans, government officials, and interested onlookers. They had gathered together to dedicate a new monument to the Virginians who fought on that field in 1863, the first of many monuments that would commemorate the valor of men from each of the eleven Confederate states. For over two hours, Robinson spoke on a wide range of topics, from the Constitution to the life of Robert E. Lee to the works of Plutarch. At every turn, Robinson defended the Confederate soldiers and their cause against imagined aspersions cast against them:
There is a voice which says: All this heroism was “ghastly error;” heroism for a cause which was intrinsically false — false to the rights of man. They who so speak think all too lightly of a cause hallowed by such sacrifice. In memorials, like the present, is felt the refutation of the charge. There are things too high, too deep, too appealing to the genuine grace of sympathy, for memory to be other than a shrine (source).
For Robinson, as for millions of Americans who visit the Virginia monument every year, the Confederate memorial landscape at Gettysburg affirmed a belief that the Confederate cause was worthy because it was consecrated with the blood of courageous men. Over the course of the twentieth century, Southern states, memorial societies, and Civil War enthusiasts erected over a dozen additional monuments to Confederate valor at Gettysburg, enshrining the mythology of the Lost Cause at America’s most famous and most visited Civil War site.

Unlike the Union monuments at Gettysburg, which often commemorate a single regiment or individual, nearly all of the Confederate monuments are dedicated to the men of an entire state. Only four individual Confederate regiments have their own monuments at Gettysburg, and only one of those was erected prior to 1985.* Each of the eleven ex-Confederate states erected a monument at Gettysburg between 1917 and 1982, and several border states, including Kentucky and Maryland, dedicated their monuments to both Union and Confederate soldiers. These thirteen monuments, along with the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument and a handful of other, smaller markers, form a monumental landscape that is distinct from its Union counterpart in style, intention, and physical placement.

Whereas the Union monumental landscape was a project of the nineteenth century directed mostly by veterans, the Confederate landscape is a twentieth-century creation. By the time the Virginia monument was erected in 1917, few Confederate veterans were alive to attend its dedication, and fewer still survived until the second state monument was dedicated by North Carolina in 1929. While Union monuments on the field marked the position of Northern regiments, the monuments erected by the grandsons and granddaughters of the Confederacy were more concerned with shaping the memory and controlling the meaning of their ancestors’ actions. In their style and form, the Confederate monuments tell a tale of heroic valor, desperate suffering, and unsurpassed glory. In inscriptions and dedication speeches, the builders of these monuments made their intention to support a pro-Confederate history of the battle and of the war explicit. In their placement at Gettysburg, the monuments stand as “sentinels of stone,” protecting and promulgating the mythology of the Lost Cause.

“[T]he Lost Cause was expressly a rationalization, a cover-up,” writes historian Alan T. Nolan in his essay, “The Anatomy of the Myth.” In the years following the Civil War, Confederate veterans and their sympathizers attempted to justify the Confederacy’s actions by rewriting the history of the war. This revision involved several key tenets, including idealizing Southern soldiers as “heroic, indefatigable, gallant, and law-abiding,” vilifying the North as meddlesome, heartless, and immoral, and trivializing the role of slavery as a cause for sectional conflict. By the early twentieth century, the mythology of the Lost Cause had come to dominate the nation’s memory of the Civil War. In movies, children’s stories, and academic histories, Confederates were portrayed as chivalric defenders of a noble, but doomed, way of life.

Equally important is the narrative of reconciliation, which holds that the resolution of the military conflict put to rest all of the concerns that had originally sparked the war and that reunification reaffirmed the bonds that tied white, Christian, native-born Americans to one another and to their nation.

The Confederate monuments at Gettysburg support the claims of the Lost Cause mythology by presenting heroic, slave-free images of Confederate soldiers to the battlefield’s millions of visitors. Although most professional historians now recognize the Lost Cause as an egregious distortion of nineteenth-century history, the story presented by the Confederate monumental landscape continues to influence the public’s memory of the Civil War.

*The 2nd Maryland Volunteer Infantry (C.S.A.) erected a small granite monument on Culp’s Hill in 1886. Monuments honoring the 26th and 43rd North Carolina Infantry regiments were dedicated in 1985 and a monument to the 11th Mississippi went up in 2000. For more info on monuments, check out Virtual Gettysburg, which has a wonderful, free, searchable database (with pictures!).

No comments: