Cities across the state of Virginia are poised to gain control over the Confederate monuments in their respective jurisdictions, which would allow them to "remove, relocate, contextualize, cover or alter" those memorials as they see fit.
Current law allows localities to erect monuments but requires that they receive permission from the state to take those same statues down. Virginia's House and Senate last week passed similar pieces of legislation that would resolve that dissonance. If the final bill is approved by both chambers, cities will be able to decide for themselves whether to keep or remove those statues, if they allot at least 30 days for the monument to be claimed by any "museum, historical society, government, or military battlefield."
Confederate statues have long been a touchy subject for those in the South, who often say their attachment to such memorials is deeply rooted in a desire to preserve history. I grew up not far from Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy and the site of last week's vote. The boulevard stretches through the heart of the city and is built around a series of equestrian memorials that venerate the Confederacy's leaders. They were staples, as were rumblings that those blocks of stone should never be tampered with.
Though all eyes have been on Virginia's statues since Charlottesville's deadly white nationalist rally in August of 2017, pleas to preserve the past are in no way unique to the legislative halls in Richmond. "In my opinion, rewriting history is a fool's errand, and those trying to rewrite history unfortunately are likely taking a first step toward repeating it," wrote North Carolina state Sen. Phil Berger (R–26) in September of 2017, echoing the sentiments I often heard growing up.
Berger is correct. Rewriting history is a fool's errand, and that's precisely why Confederate monuments should come down.
As Reason's Ron Bailey notes, it is "plain historical fact" that the majority of such memorials were put in place decades after the Civil War reached its conclusion, with most of them erected between 1900-1930. The construction and dedication of those memorials coincided with the era of Jim Crow, which established a racial caste system and relegated black people to the bottom of it. In that vein, many such statues had far more to do with asserting white superiority and intimidating African-Americans than honoring erstwhile military leaders.
Take the much-contested monuments in Charlottesville. The Unite the Right gathering, where white supremacists stormed the town with tiki torches and chants of "Jews will not replace us," was inspired by the City Council's attempt to remove its monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. That statue was erected in 1924, almost 60 years after Civil War soldiers squared off for the last time. Also in Charlottesville is a memorial to Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson, which the council has similarly attempted to remove. That monument was erected in 1921.
The timeline is a common one for Confederate statues, as were the contemporaneous motivations. "For example," Bailey wrote in 2017, "the monument to Confederate President Jefferson Davis that was just taken down in New Orleans was dedicated in 1911 during a 'Whites Only' ceremony featuring a living Stars and Bars formation that sang 'Dixie.'"
Over in Charlottesville, the Ku Klux Klan commemorated the May 21 unveiling of Lee's statue with a public cross burning on May 16 and a two-hour parade on May 18 attended by "thousands," according to archives from The Daily Progress, the Charlottesville newspaper that's been publishing since 1892. The throngs of people "equaled those usually seen here to witness the parade of the large circuses," the paper wrote. "The march of the white-robed figures was impressive, and directed attention to the presence of the organization in the community."
That Confederate monuments were erected as a result of the era's racial animus is hardly a matter of dispute, although that was spelled out with varying degrees of explicitness. For instance, at the 1913 dedication of "Silent Sam," the now-toppled Confederate monument that once stood at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, industrialist Julian Carr praised Confederates for fighting to preserve white supremacy. "One hundred yards from where we stand," he noted, "less than 90 days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench, until her skirts hung in shreds."
But to focus entirely on race fails to tell the entire story. A narrow view glosses over another historical wrong—one that lawmakers like Berger should be eager to set straight.
The war memorials were a reminder to young people that they must "keep the record of Confederate heroism free from the stain of calumny," said Rev. Henry W. Battle at Charlottesville's Lee unveiling, invoking the myth of the Lost Cause. That narrative, which achieved particular popularity in the decades before World War I and again during the Civil Rights movement, attempted to subvert history by reframing the South's battle cry as a defense of heritage and states' rights.
Historians have widely rejected the Lost Cause portrayal as a fiction, because it is. While a debate over state independence contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War, the specific issue at stake was more complex: Southerners wanted to be able to travel anywhere with their slaves, even as the North increasingly clamped down on that practice. Masters sojourning to New York, for example, may have wanted to bring a cadre of slaves along with them, and they balked at the idea that their Northern neighbors should prevent them from doing so.
The Lost Cause revisionist history still exists today and distracts from the actual, indisputable cause of the Civil War: slavery.
Berger and other southern legislators worried about rewriting the past should remember the words of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens from an 1861 speech delivered shortly before the Civil War began: "The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization," he said. "This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution."