False Dichotomies and Slippery Slopes in the Confederate Iconography Debate

A few days ago the New Orleans City Council voted to take down four Confederate monuments that honor two Confederate generals, the president of the Confederacy, and a postwar battle in Louisiana where a white supremacist group temporarily overthrew a democratically-elected state government in 1874. As with other high profile Confederate statues, monuments, memorials, and flags that have been altered or taken down over the past six months, the comments section of the internet reacted with uncontrolled vitriolic anger over the City Council’s decision. And much to my surprise a number of my National Park Service colleagues from all parts of the country took to our Facebook employees page to complain about this alleged erasure of history by the forces of “political correctness.” It was…an interesting conversation to say the least.

One of the questions that emerged in the course of this conversation and elsewhere can be summarized as “where do we stop?” If we’re so anxious to take down everything connected to these racist Confederate slaveholders, then what’s stopping us from getting rid of all public iconography connected to other controversial figures in American history such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson? It’s a fair question to ask, but I think it sets us on a slippery slope towards a false dichotomy between leaving up all public iconography or tearing down everything regardless of context. I’ve seen arguments for both. A few people in the aforementioned conversation–most likely out of anger and hyperbole rather than deep-seated conviction–suggested that taking down the NOLA Confederate monuments means we should now take down everything from the Washington Monument to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Conversely, there is a petition from the Civil War Trust floating around that calls for all Civil War war memorials and monuments to be preserved through federal legislation. The wording of this petition, however, opens a whole Pandora’s box of questions about what constitutes a Civil War memorial and whether or not all aspects of the Civil War are worth honoring. Neither one of these solutions is satisfying to me.

In a purely philosophical sense, the answer to “where do we stop?” is never. Revisionism is fundamental to history. Our commemorative landscape–just like our history books–will continue to change as long as we continue to uncover new documentary evidence, craft new interpretations of past events, and connect historical narratives to contemporary issues. There will never be a point in time when the possibility of a change to America’s commemorative landscape doesn’t exist. These changes are almost always not an act of “erasing history” so much as an act of reassessing prior understandings of an ever-evolving story.

A more practical answer to “where do we stop?” has to be determined by local communities and based on who and what they want to commemorate in a place of honor. There is simply no one-size-fits-all answer to the question.

That said, I have observed two frequently overlooked yet crucial distinctions in the Confederate iconography discussion that might expose us to some soft but useful boundaries to the “where do we stop?” question.

The first distinction relates to the location of the iconography in question. Jill Ogline Titus points out that there are Confederate monuments that “bear some imprimatur of state authority” based on their location at places of governance such as a state capitol or a government-run entity like a school, others that are more indirectly connected to state authority in places such as city parks or town squares, and still others that are on “historical ground” such as a Civil War battlefield. Most of the discussions I’ve observed about taking down or modifying Confederate iconography have focused on monuments and memorials in places of public governance because such a location implies that these symbols represent the values of the people in a given community. The same cannot be said about Confederate iconography on “historical ground” where something significant occurred; these symbols do not always imply a politicized connection to the values of local communities in a way that the naming of a school or a monument at a town square does. To use a non-Civil War example, there is a Soviet War Memorial in Berlin, Germany, at Treptower Park that commemorates the deaths of 5,000 Soviet soldiers who died in the Battle of Berlin towards the end of World War II. The memorial’s location implies that this is an important historical event that Berliners should remember and commemorate, but it does not suggest that the Soviet war effort or Josef Stalin’s brutal communist regime are connected to the values of German people today. It would be a very different situation, however, if a statue of Stalin was presently located at the Reichstag.

I’ve made a very fine distinction here, but it should reinforce that context matters and that a difference exists between a Confederate flag in front of the South Carolina State House and a Confederate flag on the grave of a Confederate soldier killed in battle; that a difference exists between a monument to Robert E. Lee in a New Orleans town square and a monument to Lee at the Gettysburg Battlefield.

The second distinction is that legacies of racism and slaveholding are not sufficient enough factors in explaining why Confederate iconography is under such scrutiny right now, although both play a significant part. If this conversation was purely focused on the merits of honoring racist slaveholders, then it would make sense to not only get rid of Confederate figures like Lee and Davis but also Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and even people like Ben Franklin and Ulysses S. Grant who are not always remembered as slaveholders. But that isn’t how the process has worked out for the most part, save for a few protests against Jefferson. Roger Taney and Woodrow Wilson seem to be in trouble too.

I contend that the Confederate iconography debate is as much about the merits of honoring secessionists who embraced the cause of disunion as much as it’s about honoring racist slaveholders. Slavery and racism are inescapable elements of early American history, but numerous controversial figures from that era will continue to be honored well into the future partly because they are not associated with the cause of disunion. I don’t see the Jefferson Memorial or the Washington Monument coming down any time soon, even though they honor slaveholders. It appears that for those who have been most vocal about changing the commemorative landscape of the Civil War, it’s the legacies of racism, slaveholding, and disunion sentiment that have fostered heightened scrutiny of some Confederate iconography. George Washington symbolizes patriotism and loyalty to the United States. He never led a war effort to destroy that Union.

I think there are better questions to ask about America’s commemorative landscape going forward. Rather than asking “where do we stop?” I would rather focus on having honest discussions that allow us to analyze different monuments, statues, and memorials on an individual basis and then ask, “how can we use changes in commemorative landscapes to foster new and better understandings of the past?”



24 thoughts on “False Dichotomies and Slippery Slopes in the Confederate Iconography Debate

  1. Great post, Nick. I agree completely. “Where do we stop?” is a foolish question, in my view. We stop when and if those with the political power to impose their will decide that we stop. And then, in the future, another group with the political power to impose their will can decide we start up again. Putting up the monuments was done through the naked exercise of political power, and they stay where they are or are removed through the naked exercise of political power. It’s up to the people in those areas, acting through their elected representatives, to determine what’s going to happen to the commemorative landscape in those areas.

    And you’re absolutely right that context matters.

    1. I agree, Al. We can be thankful that the political process nowadays will be more likely to include the voices of all people in the community, as opposed to when many of these statues went up during the era of Jim Crow.

  2. Thoughtful article Nick.

    I don’t know if anyone calling for the statues to be taken down is doing so just because of the disunion issue, but I do think that there has been tepid support for keeping them up in many places because they are seen by many whites as an embarrassing reminder of when their ancestors killed United States soldiers by the tens of thousands.

    I want to add that those who claim to support the continued presence of Confederate memorials have been the worst enemies of such monumentation. I have watched videos of the monument supporters and CBF supporters in their appeals for support and in their testimony at city council meetings. Showing up in Confederate uniforms, denouncing President Obama as a “Muslim”, and calling their opponents “black hoodlums” are unlikely to win allies.

    These folks don’t seem to realize how out of touch and racist they look to anyone who is not inside their personal bubble.

    The monuments were often erected in places where many people did not want them. The opinions of the African Americans living in these cities and towns was not consulted and the officials who were elected came to office without black votes. Now that black people can vote, how surprising is it that many of them want the monuments removed?

    The Civil War Trust has decided to take up this Lost Cause, calling on the Federal government to play a role in determining whether a village can remove a statue on its town square.

    Apparently they have nothing better to do.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Patrick.

      I agree that the monuments are not coming down or changing solely because of the disunionist sentiments those people and the Confederate cause valued, but I think it’s a crucial factor in addition to legacies of slaving holding and racism. I actually think an argument can be made that the honoring of disunion that some Confederate iconography highlights can partly explain their staying power and continued support in certain quarters. They are symbols of rebellion and aversion to the federal government. While some supporters will try to divorce disunion from slavery and racism, we know that such a distinction is impossible to make.

      I also agree that many things that have been said in this discussion have been uncalled for and at times racist. A Confederate flag demonstration here in St. Louis earlier this year flaunted a sign accusing President Obama of being a Muslin right next to a CBF, and numerous commenters in the NPS discussion called the people of New Orleans “dumbasses” and said things like “people are getting stupider and stupider these days.” That’s no way to build support for your goals or engage in civil discussion.

  3. It seems to me that confederate heritage types try to equate the removal of monuments with the removal of history when in fact that is not what is taking place. They would prefer that people ignore why those monuments were erected in the first place. I think this is going to backfire on them just like their waving the CBF around has done so far. Every time they speak, they reveal the fact that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

    When it comes to removing monuments like the Liberty Place one, we are talking about removing monuments to white supremacy. When we speak of Jefferson and Washington, we speak of men who were slaveholders and recognized the error of white supremacy even while they could not act upon it during their lifetimes. They also created this nation and began to grapple with the issues slavery created for them.

    They began to move the nation towards a removal of slavery over time while those who chose secession refused to do so. In no way, shape, or form are the secessionists anything close to what Washington and Jefferson were. What I like about this monument flap is that it opens an opportunity for people to learn. The problem is many people do not want to learn because doing so would shatter the belief structure they’ve built for themselves.

    They basically do not want their illusions shattered.

    1. Removing everything Confederate is not gonna change history. The cause of the war will still be “revenue” Lincoln will still have started the war and be a racist, Black men and women will still have supported the Confederacy and secession will still not be illegal.and you will still not be able to prove me wrong.

      1. You’re right, George. We can’t change history. But we can change our understanding of history and revise our previous understandings of it through a rigorous analysis of primary source documents and other available evidence. There will be some public iconography that will need to be removed or altered because it’s simply inaccurate and no longer worthy of a place of honor. Your comments about the cause of the war and so-called “black confederates” are grounded more in opinion and political belief than actual historical evidence. Seeing as though we’ve gone down this road before I think it’s pointless to debate these same topics again. I wish you and yours a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

        1. and you are gonna change “our understanding” by removing everything Confederate. What a capital idea, wish I would have thought of that. Maybe we can understand Lincoln’s a racism by removing the Lincoln Monument?

          Is “our understanding” supposed to be the same as your posters who openly display a hate for Confederate, yet try to pass themselves off as historians?

          Why did you remove my other civil posts? Are you afraid I will hurt the feeling of Mackey or some of these others who are lucky enough to fall under your protection?

          George Purvis
          Southern Heritage Advancement Preservation znd education

          1. I have the right to moderate my comments and remove comments that I deem as insulting of myself or others and ones that are irrelevant to the topic at hand. Your “civil posts” include insults towards myself and other bloggers and comments that are completely irrelevant to the conversation. I’ve deleted other comments directed towards you in the past, so I guess that means you’re “lucky” to receive my protection too. You need to stop it with all of this silliness, George. Good day.

        2. Nick,
          Sure you have the right to remove any post you want, civil or not, but then it just becomes a one sided lovefest Now since I have not insulted anyone please kindly repost my responses. Also tell me why I would insult you when you are letting me post? Show these insults please.

          Now truth be known I was deliberately insulting to Patrick just to see if you would let that post stand. I see it is still there cpuld it be because I also made the same poat at Cold Southern Steel??? https://coldsouthernsteel.wordpress.com/2015/12/22/protecting-al-mackey-and-jimmy-dick/

          Is that the action I am going to have to take in hopes my posts show up?

          You say you have protected me?? Maybe, maybe not, but rest assured I can protect myself. I did note one thing, you removed Jimmy Dicks name to a response I made but still left the response. That action is sort of telling don’t you think?

          No I do not need to stop nothing, as long as the likes of Mackey, Dick, Hall, Levin, and you continue to attack southern heritage, I will continue to defend with fact— and it is facts that really offends you folks.

          George Purvis
          Southern Heritage Advancement Preservation and Education

          1. You say you haven’t insulted anyone, and then admit that you intentionally aimed to insult Patrick Young “just to see if you would let that post stand.” Okay.

  4. I agree that “where does it stop?” is not a good question. What is better? I’m thinking something along the lines of … How do stewards act to ensure that the process of enacting community decisions is healthy, productive, and responsive to current needs?

  5. A more practical answer to “where do we stop?” has to be determined by local communities and based on who and what they want to commemorate in a place of honor. There is simply no one-size-fits-all answer to the question.


    Exactly so. Each community has to sort out for itself what (and even if) to change about its landscape. Some communities, for example, have changed the names of schools named for famous Confederates, while some others have considered the question, and decided not to change. Either way is fine; what’s important is that these discussions — vitriolic though they sometimes are — are finally happening now, out in the open. It’s way past time for that to happen.

      1. So then if it is a “Community” thing, why does Mackey, Dick, Levin, you and Hall have such an interest? Why do you folks have to agitate the situation with lies and mis-information when it is really NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!!!!!

        The answer is simple racism, bigotry and hate and ignorance.

        1. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you George Purvis and his “factual” comments that are “insult-free” and full of civility. Somehow in three sentences he manages to:

          1. Lump my views in with other Civil War bloggers without recognizing that I speak for me and me alone.

          2. Suggest that it’s wrong for me to have an interest in Civil War history or express an opinion on my own website, even going so far as to suggest that it’s none of my business (even though I’ve never called for the taking down of any Confederate iconography and have merely stated that members of local communities with this iconography will ultimately have to make the final decision).

          3. Accuse me and other bloggers of being “agitators” who lie and manipulate when in reality no valid proof exists for such ridiculous claims.

          4. Accuse me and other bloggers–once again without evidence–of demonstrating racism, bigotry, hate, and ignorance.

          This is crazy, George. Probably the saddest thing I have ever seen on this website. The machinations of a petulant man-child who can’t hold adult conversations with resorting to name-calling, false accusations, and insults. Give me a break.

        2. This is why I do not let George comment on my site anymore. He leaves a continual soiree of irrational comments which do pretty much everything you have highlighted. Then he rinses and repeats.

          Merry Christmas!

          1. Thanks, Rob! The above comment–which goes so far as to accuse me of “racism” (against white people, I think?)–is so ridiculous and absurd that I’ve decided to also ban him from commenting any further on this site, just like you’ve done. In a way, it’s a small Christmas gift to myself. Hope you’re having a great holiday!

  6. Engaging post. I am a member of a community with Confederate iconography which has battled for and against those symbols. It’s always an interesting journey when such matters as these come up – rarely are those movements self contained to the community either.

    1. Thanks, Rob. We have a Confederate monument here in St. Louis that has been a flashpoint of controversy for a while, but especially over the past few months since the Mayor suggested (before the Charleston shooting, by the way) that it was worth further discussing whether this monument deserved to remain in its location at a prominent city park. What will happen with the monument at this point is still up for discussion, but as you suggest, it’s something that’s now gone far beyond our community.

      1. The St. Louis monument’s removal is similar to other monuments and their removal. Community members ask for its removal. Historical facts are consulted and usually experts get involved. The community leaders call for an open forum and then the circus begins. People who are historical experts with an education in history give their statements which are then rejected by people who have no education in history.

        In fact, many of the protesters have no education beyond high school. They quote stuff that has been proven incorrect or as outright falsifications and get upset when those “facts” are proven wrong. Yet, they refuse to accept the actual facts. It is literally a mass case of willful ignorance. Then when the community decides to remove the monuments, those that oppose the choice of the community acting through democratic means seek to go to the courts to drag out the process.

        The whole thing results in an expensive circus in which the people who want to keep the monuments standing are revealed to be racists who pine for the good ol’ days of white supremacy. They talk about America this and that, yet support the idea of a monument erected by people who rejected American principles such as democracy.

        These people are often outsiders who just cannot accept the fact that the people of this country are rejecting the myths that make up the lost cause. Right now, we see them as a large minority, but I think that over time their numbers are going to continue to decrease significantly. The largest portion of them by far are older people, many who can remember the Centennial commemoration of the Civil War and that is the fiction they prefer. It also falls in with their modern political ideology which is most cases is influencing how they see the Civil War more than anything else.

        Right now these groups will put up a fight, but give it ten more years and that fight will be largely missing. Give it twenty more years and those monuments will be gone and we instructors will be teaching a new generation of students. One of the things we will teaching will be us recalling when some people believed the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery because they didn’t want to accept the truth about why the war was fought.

        Our students will be going, “What were those people thinking?”

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