A Boom in Confederate Monuments, on Private Land
By SABRINA TAVERNISE
AUGUST 30, 2017
GEORGETOWN, Del. — One of the proudest moments of Robert Eldreth’s life was erecting a Confederate monument on a patch of grass behind the Georgetown Historical Society in 2007. It was the first monument to Delawareans who had served the Confederacy, and the fact that it came 142 years after the end of the war hardly mattered.
“It’s a lesson in history,” said Mr. Eldreth, who led the group that put it up. “It’s about our roots and the sacrifices that those citizens here in Delaware made. To me that’s so honorable.”
But amid the furor over Confederate monuments, touched off by the violence in Charlottesville, Va., two weeks ago, an unexpected reality has largely been overshadowed: While old monuments erected in bygone eras are coming down, new ones continue to go up.
In Crenshaw County, Ala., a new monument to “unknown Confederate soldiers” was unveiled on Sunday in a private park. In the small East Texas town of Orange, a giant concrete ring of 13 columns, representing the states the Confederacy claimed as its own, is going up on private land at the intersection of Interstate 10 and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. In North Carolina, a bronze statue of the Confederate general Joseph Johnston was installed at the Bentonville battlefield in 2010.
“There has been a Civil War memorial boom going on over the last 20 years,” said W. Fitzhugh Brundage, the chairman of the history department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At least 36 have gone up in North Carolina alone since 2000, he said, as many as were put up between 1940 and 1990. Of those, 20 are to Confederates and four are to Union forces. The rest memorialize the war in general, including one dedicated in 2012 to Civil War horses.
But if the memorials of yesteryear were put in busy public squares, today’s are mostly appearing far from the bustle of daily life on plots of private land, or on battlefield sites, Professor Brundage said. It is a sign that while most Americans may oppose the tearing down of old monuments, the building of new ones is no longer finding acceptance in broader society, something even proponents of the monuments acknowledge.
“As far as on public property, I don’t think you’ll see any go up,” said Jimmy Hill, the commander of the Alabama division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. More will go up, he said, but on private property.
But that doesn’t mean all are modest.
The original plans for the memorial in East Texas, considered the largest Confederate monument built in a century, called for benches, scores of Confederate flags, a walkway lined with flagpoles, landscaping and fencing. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, which sponsored the project, estimated the total cost of the memorial at $60,000 in 2011. The region of Texas where the memorial sits has a long history of racial tensions. The small town of Vidor has never fully shaken its reputation as a Ku Klux Klan stronghold.
Stephen Brint Carlton, Orange County’s chief executive, said there was nothing that county officials could do about the memorial because it sits on private land.
“People do have a right to freedom of speech,” said Mr. Carlton, a Republican who is the county judge, the county’s top elected official. But, he added, “it’s not setting the image I would like for Orange County.”
The battle over Civil War memory is as old as the war itself. But in this era of deep ideological divide it has taken on forms of modern partisan warfare.
At its root it is a power struggle over who has the right to decide how history is remembered. It is painful because it involves competing narratives for the Civil War, the most traumatic event the nation has ever experienced, and one that is still, to some extent, unprocessed.
“Ultimately this is about competing stories, and who gets to tell them,” said David Blight, a Civil War historian at Yale University. “The Civil War is always there, waiting to explode in our faces when we least expect it. That’s what’s happening right now. We are having a new extended racial reckoning.”
The monument in Delaware stands by itself at the back of a tiny open-air museum operated by the Georgetown Historical Society, barely visible from the road behind a red one-room schoolhouse. A local branch of the Sons of Confederate Veterans erected it. The group, together with its counterpart, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, has been putting up monuments since the end of the 19th century.
It has over 850 local chapters, known as camps, and each one is “pretty active in the preservation of monuments, beautification of graves and emplacing monuments,” said Michael L. Landree, executive director of the group. He said his camp in Tennessee has put up at least 10 monuments in the past decade, including one to Dr. Rufus Weaver, a Pennsylvania doctor who sent Confederate dead home from Gettysburg.
Mr. Eldreth, 50, a municipal utility worker, noted bitterly that no one seemed to mind when they erected the monument — a short obelisk flanked by Confederate and Delaware flags with names inscribed on its base. Local political leaders even came to the opening. But after the events in Charlottesville, the N.A.A.C.P. called for its removal. When it emerged that the land it sits on is private, part of the Marvel Museum, a personal collection of antique carriages, blacksmith tools and telephones, the N.A.A.C.P. asked the state to cut funding to the Historical Society instead. A spokesman for the governor said he would support the cut if the monument and the Confederate flag stayed.
The statue simply honors Delawareans who helped the Confederacy, Mr. Eldreth said, like Washington Vickers, who went to fight with the South and later became one of Delaware’s first lifeguards.
Mr. Eldreth understands how black people might take offense at a Confederate symbol like the flag. He said racists like those in the Ku Klux Klan — and white supremacists who came to Charlottesville — have hijacked it. He said he wants to restore its true meaning: a symbol of resistance by ordinary people from the South who stood up to the rapacious North. Slavery, he said, had nothing to do with it.
“My family was dirt-poor sharecroppers from North Carolina who didn’t own slaves and weren’t fighting to keep them,” he said over dinner on Tuesday. “They were fighting for fairness. What they believed in was states’ rights.”
But most historians say the view that the Civil War was not fought over slavery is clearly off base. Many say it has its roots, at least in part, in postwar writings by Alexander Stephens, the former vice president and intellectual leader of the Confederate States, who was trying to reframe the Southern rebellion as legal and justified.
William Price, the former head of North Carolina’s division of archives and history, noted that it was Mr. Stephens who said slavery was the “cornerstone of the Confederacy,” in a speech in 1861. But he had changed his tune by 1867, playing down slavery and emphasizing states’ rights. He coined the term “war between the states” that is still used by many Southerners in place of “Civil War.”
“He was a smart enough politician and lawyer and lover of the South to change the direction of his argument,” Dr. Price said. “People talk about rights, to maintain our institutions, our way of life. But what was that right? It was the right to own slaves.”
But the war’s aftermath was complicated. And while the current debate focuses on the sins of the South, the North lost the political will to finish Reconstruction, abandoning its commitment to blacks’ constitutional rights and turning away when the South began imposing racial segregation, said Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University.
Mr. Eldreth likes to point out that the legislature in his home state, Delaware, which stayed in the Union and prefers to remember itself that way (a large bronze statue of Alfred Torbert, a Union general and Delawarean, was erected in Milford in 2008), repeatedly opposed banning slavery. It did not ratify the 13th Amendment until 1901, long after most Confederate states.
As for the monuments, someone’s racist is another’s relative.
“If someone keeps stealing your grandfather’s tombstone, what would you do?” said Jeffrey Plummer, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans from Delaware. “Put it back, right? That’s how we feel.”