Unless you are totally new here, then you know that I value history. I love it. I have a degree in it. I live for it. Much of this blog is dedicated to history in one way or another. So…when I hear people crying “They are erasing history!” it should be an alarm bell to me, right? Totally. One-hundred percent. So what is making people cry out “They are erasing history”? Removal of Confederate monuments. Buckle up, because we are about to dig in deep.
Over the last few years, but more recently there has been a rise in the removal of statues of historical figures here in America, mostly Civil War Confederate statues. Removals have been done both voluntarily (sometimes due to pressure from protests and/or petitions) and by acts of vandalism. Many argue that the removal of the statues (regardless of their method) is erasing history. I am here to argue it does not and why Confederate statues are problematic.
Statues and monuments are a form of public history. They are an easy way for people to consume history. Statues of historic figures and memorials are ways for people to become aware and be reminded of persons, moments, and movements in history on a daily or casual basis. This is the thing many who are saying removal of statues is “erasing history,” are missing; history goes beyond statues and monuments. It’s in books. It’s in museums. It’s at historic locations. It’s in places that don’t even have plaques and statues. As children we learned about history in classrooms, reading books, and if we were lucky, going on field trips. Yes, statues are important to keeping history alive, but statues and monuments are items of honor. Statues celebrate. Statues glorify. Currently, we are questioning who is worthy of being honored, celebrated, and glorified? If you are a religious person ask yourself how many statues there are of Lucifer in churches? I can only think of one, and it’s in Belgium. Are there still statues of Hitler in Germany? What about King George III here in America? Does Benedict Arnold have a statue?
Germany has chosen to remove not only all statues of Hitler, but also the swastika from buildings. Plenty of historic locations pertaining to the Third Reich remain, however monuments of World War II in Germany are dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. Days after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the statue of King George III on the Bowling Green in lower Manhattan was toppled, and reportedly used to make musket balls. So one could even say building a new America involves toppling statues. Another figure of the American Revolution, Benedict Arnold, has hardly been forgotten. Being called “Benedict Arnold” is an instant insult to anyone who has done anything bordering on treason. Arnold’s only public honor is that of a small statue of a leg, erected on the site where Arnold fell, injuring his leg, during the Battle of Freeman’s Farm at Saratoga. Immediately following Saratoga, Arnold was indeed hailed as a hero in the American fight for independence. The statue, placed in 1887 by John Watts de Peyster, a Major General during the Civil War who studied the American Revolution, does not even mention Arnold by name, instead calling him “the most brilliant soldier.”
We all know who these key players are in these stories not because they have monuments (because, well, they don’t), but because we learn in so many other ways. We learn by reading, watching documentaries, visiting museums, and historic locations. In fact, all of these are far better places to learn because they expand and give further details than just a small plaque, additionally they give us better context. Keep that word in mind, context, because we are going to discuss it further in a bit.
Now, let’s talk about actually erasing history. Confederate monuments (among others) actually celebrate those who actively sought to erase history. Most of those who were a part of or supported the Confederacy, were people who owned enslaved persons and/or supported the institution of slavery. Often when enslaved Africans arrived on the shores of the US slave owners stripped the Black people of their original names, slave owners and those who supported slavery were guilty of killing Black people, and separating families at the auction block preventing family histories from being passed down. The fact is that for many Black people in the US, knowledge of their family history ends at slavery, unlike many White people, including myself, who can trace their family back to the Mayflower, and even into 400 AD in Europe. Enslaved Black people were brought to America naked, with no possessions. Many of us value jewelry and other trinkets passed down generation after generation, this becomes impossible past a certain point for many Black Americans. Furthermore, Black people from Africa were also placed along side those from a different region, who may have have different customs, and spoken a different language. This would continue onto plantations, where customs and languages would become lost.
While California may not have the Civil War ties of the American South, it does have the history of the Spanish Missions, and Father Junipero Serra, known as the “Father of Missions.” Serra has many statues not just within mission walls, but also publicly, and some have been toppled, and others are being removed voluntarily. Why? The Missions used slave labor from the Indigenous population, while also seeking to convert them to Christianity. Christianity has played an instrumental role in erasing history (including the American South), ultimately reducing the amount of Indigenous persons from passing down traditions. So, for many of the Indigenous community in California, Serra represents slavery, and a loss of history and culture.
Tearing down of statues, of those who were figures of oppression, is part of our own American history, and even an act done in other countries by Americans. As noted earlier, there was the toppling of the statue of King George III in 1776, but more recently, in 2003, during the Battle of Baghdad, the US Marines played an instrumental role in using one of their armored vehicles to topple the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, and no one in the United States cried out saying it was erasing history.
When looking at statues we must ask ourselves questions. When were these put up? Who put them up? If you’re curious about the Saddam one, it was erected to celebrate his birthday, so talk about an ego. With regards to Confederate monuments, few were actually put up immediately following the war. In fact there were always spikes in their building during critical shifts for civil rights. What that says is that they were put up to instill fear in the Black population, not to pay tribute or honor fallen Confederate soldiers. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, founded in 1894, funded many Confederate memorials, supported the Ku Klux Klan, and were instrumental in attempts to rewrite history, arguing states rights over slavery for the reason for the Civil War.
While some states of the Confederacy did mentioned states rights, slavery is much more heavily mentioned, with Georgia stating that there is a “political and social inequality of the African race,” Mississippi stating “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world,” and Texas saying that they are “maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery.” In fact many of these documents discussing the reasons of seceding refer to the North as “non-slave-holding” and themselves as “slave-holding” states. The Constitution of the Confederate States further decides how important slavery is by saying “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederate States said in his “Cornerstone” speech that “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
Some states have laws that prevent removal, in that case, we must consider adding context in the form of an additional plaque to such monuments and statues. This furthers the use of the monument as a teaching tool. Furthermore removal does not always mean destruction. Some of the Confederate monuments that are being removed are being considered for placement at Jim Crow museums because the statue’s presence is more part of Jim Crow history than it is Civil War history. It’s all about context. In the most basic sense, Confederate monuments are “participation trophies” for the losers of the Civil War and at the end of day, removal of statues is not erasing history.