Monday, May 26, 2008

Confederate Monumental Landscape: Literate Sources

The style and form of the Confederate monuments at Gettysburg speak eloquently to their role in advancing the mythology of the Lost Cause. Yet, many historians are uncomfortable with arguments that derive wholly from material evidence, preferring to privilege the words that people say and write over the objects that they design and build. Although words are not necessarily more reliable than other types of evidence, historians have built a profession around the study and interpretation of written records and are more likely to accept an argument based in material culture if it can be buttressed by evidence from other, more familiar, types of documents.

Luckily, in the case of the Confederate monuments at Gettysburg, two types of written records can testify to the meaning of the sculptural imagery: inscriptions and dedicatory addresses. Both types of sources offer explicit evidence that the monuments are meant to contribute to the neo-Confederate history that argues that Confederate soldiers were personally honorable and patriotic, that the Confederate cause was doomed but nonetheless worthy, and that the Civil War was not primarily about slavery.

The most accessible written sources dealing with the Confederate monuments’ meanings are their inscriptions. Unlike the inscriptions on Union regimental monuments, which are generally limited to descriptions of the regiment’s part in the battle and a brief summary of its service record (place of muster, date of discharge, etc.), many Confederate monuments’ inscriptions address the causes and meaning of the war. The South Carolina monument, erected during the centennial of the battle in July of 1963, employs the language of the Lost Cause to assure observers that South Carolinians fought for states’ rights, not slavery:
Other Confederate monuments agree that the Southern cause was noble and righteous, untainted by the problematic legacy of slavery. Few are as blunt as Mississippi’s, which declares, “ON THIS GROUND OUR BRAVE SIRES FOUGHT FOR THEIR RIGHTEOUS CAUSE,” but many employ vague references to the “cause” without elaborating on its specific tenets. According to their state monuments, North Carolina’s soldiers “DISPLAYED HEROISM UNSURPASSED, SACRIFICING ALL IN SUPPORT OF THEIR CAUSE,” and Floridians “FOUGHT WITH COURAGE AND DEVOTION FOR THE IDEALS IN WHICH THEY BELIEVED.” The implicit argument is that modern visitors should not probe the underlying logic of Confederate beliefs; all that matters is that brave men can ennoble any cause by suffering for it.

The inscriptions of the Confederate state monuments often attempt to define Confederates and their cause as the quintessence of American courage. Some, like Florida’s, cast Confederate soldiers as model Americans who, “BY THEIR NOBLE EXAMPLE OF BRAVERY AND ENDURANCE, . . . ENABLE US TO MEET WITH CONFIDENCE ANY SACRIFICE WHICH CONFRONTS US AS AMERICANS.”

The Americans who can draw strength from Confederate soldiers’ example are undoubtedly white Americans. When the Arkansas monument declares that, “THE GRATEFUL PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ARKANSAS ERECT THIS MEMORIAL AS AN EXPRESSION OF THEIR PRIDE IN THE [CONFEDERATE] OFFICERS AND MEN,” there can be little doubt that the “grateful people” do not include most black residents of Arkansas. Erected in the summer of 1966, while Civil Rights activists marched across the South and anti-war protesters gathered in Washington, D.C., the Arkansas monument took a definite position on who constituted the true “people of the state of Arkansas”: those who were grateful for the sacrifices of Confederate soldiers.

Other inscriptions impart epic significance to Confederate soldiers’ experiences at Gettysburg. The Georgia state monument’s enigmatic epitaph may seem strange to 21st-century visitors, but would be easily recognized by any classicist:
A similar poem, sometimes known as the Epitaph of Simonides, is carved on the stone that marks the spot where the last of the three hundred Spartans fell at Thermopylae in 480 BCE: “Stranger, go tell the Spartans that here we lie obedient to their laws.” The Georgia monument argues that, like the immortal three hundred, the Georgian soldiers fought reluctantly but ferociously for an obscure cause. While the cause no longer matters, the soldiers’ unquestioning performance of their solemn duty places them in the company of history’s most venerable heroes.

This association with ancient and epic deeds was an important theme for both Union and Confederate commemorations because it allowed Americans to “raise their own sense of individual and national identity.” In the years following the battle, veterans of Gettysburg drew analogies to Waterloo, Balaclava, and Thermopylae in their memoirs, declaring, “[Gettysburg] will rank with the most celebrated battles of the world” (Desjardin, 47). The monumental landscape has perpetuated Gettysburg’s legendary status in the national imagination.

In addition to the inscriptions on the Confederate monuments, their dedicatory ceremonies and addresses were devoted to promoting the mythology of the Lost Cause and the narrative of reconciliation. While most of the dedication addresses take the valor of the common soldier as their main theme, common subtexts include the persecution of the South by the North, the futility of attempting to explain the war’s causes, and the renewed strength of a reunited America. When slavery is mentioned at all, it is described as a positive good, and when emancipation is addressed, it is portrayed as a weapon wielded by a sanctimonious North against an innocent South.

Few dedication speeches doubt that both Union and Confederate soldiers fought valiantly at Gettysburg or that the field is an important site for commemorating national unity. “The people of New York, of Pennsylvania, of Virginia and of North Carolina can now regard the field of Gettysburg as a joint and precious heritage,” declared former North Carolina Governor Angus McClean at the dedication of his state’s monument in 1929, “for it was here, that in the fiery furnace of war was fused into a new metal, the amalgam which symbolizes our American character and destiny.” Governor Henry Carter Stuart of Virginia agreed at his state’s dedication, telling the assembled crowd,
Out of the memories of this heroic struggle, out of the fiery ordeal which tested to the uttermost the mettle of the men North and South – aye, even out of the blood that was shed on this and many other fields, has come our life and strength as a nation; our unity in heart and purpose, our supreme devotion to the flag of a reunited country, which today floats above us.
The importance of reconciliation was so strong that some dedicatory addresses went so far as to insist that “the memory of this great battle awakens no feelings of anger within the heart of any one.” When the Virginia memorial was unveiled in 1917, the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee was draped in an enormous American flag.*

One of the reasons that Confederate memorialists accepted Gettysburg as an acceptable site for honoring bravery on both sides is that virtually all of the combatants were white. While several black regiments had been mustered into the Union army before July of 1863, most were stationed in the South, and none saw action at Gettysburg. Because the Union troops at Gettysburg were less racially diverse than they were at later battles, monuments on that field could be interpreted as memorials to an exclusively white conception of American virtue.

Oliver Max Gardner, governor of North Carolina, believed that monuments should be dedicated by and for whites, and made his views plain during the dedication of his state’s monument in 1929:
We rejoice today that the bitterness engendered by that terrible struggle between the North and South has been forgotten, but North Carolina can never forget that in obedience to her command 40,000 of her bravest and best young men marched to their death, and reverence for the quality of soul which sustained the men of both sides who fought in this struggle is a part of the common heritage of our race and is imperishable.
By focusing relentlessly on military valor and the political reunification of the country, Confederate monument-builders removed their structures from any context that acknowledged the causes of the war and the unresolved questions of freedom and equality that continued to plague the nation. After all, if the Civil War were nothing other than a military conflict, its problems were resolved as soon as the fighting stopped. By eschewing any mention of slavery in their speeches, Confederate memorialists erased both the troubling idea that the South might have been in the wrong and the messy reality of African-Americans’ continuing struggle against violent oppression.

Though most orators chose to sidestep the issue of slavery altogether, one took on the topic with gusto. Leigh Robinson, a veteran of the Richmond Howitzers, devoted a considerable portion of his 15,000-word speech at the Virginia memorial’s dedication to an explanation of slavery and exoneration of the South. In Robinson’s view, all of the moral culpability for slavery rested with the New England merchants who transported slaves from Africa:
The noble way for one race to conquer another is by the development of higher modes of existence in that other. So the South conquered the Africans, shipped by Old England and by New England. Southern slavery will hold up the noblest melioration of an inferior race, of which history can take note — the government of a race incapable of self-government, for a greater benefit to the governed than to the governors . . . The white man by his works had said to the black man at his back: "Brought to me by others as you have been, it is my part to afford the discipline, which, of yourselves, you are unable to acquire. The universe abandons you. I will protect and direct." Southern master gave to Southern slave more than slave gave to master; and the slave realized it. Better basis for the uplift of inadequacy can no man lay than is laid in this. This slavery was the school to redeem from the sloth of centuries. A continent of mortal idleness had been exchanged for a continent of vital work. The constraint of discipline was a first step from the degeneration of indiscipline. From "the hell of the unfit" the negro had been lifted and put in the way of fitness. Freedom, which merely means freedom from work, is freedom to rot--not a thing for which to shed blood or tears. It is the way to parity with the beast. The graduation of lower into higher order is not the work of a day.
In this version of history, the war was “the crucifixion of Virginia by New England, with the approbation of Old England, for the sin of slavery.” Robinson draws multiple analogies between the South and a suffering Christ, including his affirmation of reverence for “the cause we served, which pierced with wounds for us is sacred; and crowned with thorns for us is holy.” It is impossible to say how many of Robinson’s audience of 2,000 agreed with his characterization of their “peculiar institution,” but news reports of their “mighty round of applause” and periods of “deep reverence” during the hours-long ceremony suggest that they did not object.*

The dedications of Confederate monuments were national events and boasted impressive guest lists. In 1973, Mississippi Senator James Eastland, president pro-tempore of the senate, delivered the dedicatory address for the Mississippi monument at a ceremony that was also attended by four of Mississippi’s five congressmen, the state’s lieutenant governor, and the United States Army Band.** In 1933, Justice Hugo Black, then a senator from Alabama, delivered the address at the unveiling of his state’s monument at Gettysburg. Many Confederate monuments were dedicated by governors of states, and their unveilings attended by high-ranking federal officials. William Ingraham, the Assistant Secretary of War, took the time to travel to Gettysburg for the dedication of the Virginia memorial on June 8, 1917, the very day that General Pershing and the first American troops arrived in Europe to fight World War I.***

In many ways, the inscriptions and dedication speeches are superfluous in the presence of the sculptures that they describe. A visitor to the Maryland monument does not need to be told that the men atop its plinth are “brothers again” because the imagery is so ingenuous. Still, it is wise to muster all available evidence to expose the subtle manipulation of pro-Confederate ideology, and there can be little doubt about the goals of monument builders who proclaim that “The South did not desert the Union, the Union deserted the South.”**** In the words that they carved on their monuments’ bases and spoke at their unveilings, Confederate memorialists made their veneration of the Lost Cause explicit.

*Source: “Virginia Shaft is Dedicated,” Adams County News, June 9, 1917, A1 (subscription).
**Source: “Sen. Eastland to Dedicate New Mississippi Memorial Here on Friday,” Gettysburg Times, October 18, 1973, A1, A5. The congressmen present were G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery, Jamie L. Whitten, David Bowen, and William “Thad” Cochran. Montgomery is erroneously identified as a senator in the article. As of 2008, Cochran is serving as the senior senator from Mississippi.
***That's ok. Secretary of War Baker probably had it totally under control.
****Leigh Robinson again. Charming man.

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