Themes in American History: Capitalism, Slavery, Democracy

The Civil War and Civil War Memory in Modern America

In recent years, the Civil War Era and its legacies have once again emerged as contentious topics in the United States. From the Confederate flags incorporated into the flags of several southern states, to monuments honoring famous generals or anonymous soldiers, to battlefields and other historic sites, memories of the Civil War are all around us, whether we are aware of them or not. As cities, states, universities, and other municipalities and institutions have removed or made alterations to a number of historic sites and symbols—sometimes in response to calls by historians or racial justice advocates—they have often faced a backlash from those who view these sites and symbols as part of their “heritage,” or see removing them as an attempt to erase our history.

As historians have pointed out, however, one of the problems with the “destroying history” argument is that most of the nation’s Civil War monuments and memorials were not created during, or even near the time of the war itself, but years or decades later. As the chart below shows, the vast majority of monuments to the Confederacy, as well as schools named for Confederate figures, were created in the first two decades of the 20th century (there was another spike in the mid-1960s, which coincided with the centennial of the war but also with the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement). The memorialization of the war during this period was strongly influenced by the mythology of the “Lost Cause,” which argued that the war had not really been fought over slavery, but was a heroic but doomed effort on the part of the South to free itself from the domination and “tyranny” of the North. Promoted by defeated Confederates like former president and vice-president Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, in popular early films like Birth of a Nation, and by some historians, the “Lost Cause” gained widespread acceptance in both North and South in the post-Reconstruction period as a means of reconstituting the nation and putting the divisive war years in the past. By the mid 20th century, the “Lost Cause” mythology was widely reiterated in school curricula and textbooks.

Source: Southern Poverty Law Center

More disturbingly, perhaps, Confederate flags and other symbols of the “Lost Cause” have long been adopted by segregationists and white supremacists, neo-Confederates, anti-government and pro-gun activists, and other groups on the political right. Meanwhile, Civil War era monuments and memorials have been staging grounds for heated, sometimes violent political conflicts. For the last several years, on July 4th, the Gettysburg National Memorial has become the site of demonstrators, often heavily armed, protesting perceived threats from Antifa and other left-wing groups. The ostensible purpose of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, which aimed to bring together white supremacists, militia groups, and figures associated with the “alt right” was to defend a Confederate monument in a public park that the city council had recently voted to remove. Heather Heyer, a young counter-demonstrator, was killed by a man belonging to a neo-Nazi organization. Confederate flags were in abundant display both in Charlottesville and at the attempted insurrection at the Capitol building on Jan. 6th, 2021.

Historians have responded to these controversies in a number of ways. Eric Foner has called for monuments to be removed selectively, with new monuments erected to lesser-known Black figures like John M. Langston; while James Oakes has suggested that Confederate monuments be relegated to a specific site or museum, as the Russian government did with statues of Soviet leaders after the fall of the Soviet Union. On occasion, protesters have taken matters into their own hands, destroying the statues of a Confederate soldier on the grounds of the University of North Carolina and a notorious slave trader in Bristol, England. More recently, Scott Hancock, Gregory Downs, Kate Masur, and Hillary Green led a nationwide effort to challenge the narratives at Civil War sites with “more history,” calling for a “day of action” in which historians and others would intervene at Civil War sites with signs and other creative efforts aimed at offering more historically grounded interpretations (Downs and Masur were also instrumental in realizing the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park in Beaufort, SC, the first national park site dedicated to the history of Reconstruction).

Do these efforts go far enough in challenging the false narratives of the Civil War Era that seem to be fueling a resurgence of white nationalism? Should more monuments be removed, despite the potential for backlash by certain groups? If so, who should get to decide? Whose history is “our” history, anyway?