This is an article I planned to write weeks ago, but not knowing exactly how to approach it in only 700 words or so and still make sense led to putting it off several times.
As a historian and preservationist, I’ve wrestled with this issue for quite a while and argued with people on both sides of the aisle. However, it’s well past time to acknowledge that Confederate monuments are inherently un-American and in many cases deserve removal. (Some cases are different, and I’ll get to that momentarily.)
Anyone who has gone through West Virginia history knows that our statehood began with the Wheeling Conventions of 1861, two full years before we were officially a part of the Union. And while we were a slave-holding state, those conventions were dominated by abolitionists like Gordon Battelle and Francis Harrison Pierpont. We were, from that moment on, dedicated to a path of abolition and Union. Such is our state motto, written by abolitionist and Swiss immigrant Joseph H. Diss Debar. Montani Semper Liberi. Mountaineers are always free. Consider the irony that West Virginia is today a welcoming home of the Lost Cause mythology.
Yes, in 1863 well over half of the state was still Confederate territory. That’s true, especially here in Mason County where the Kanawha River was essentially the border. It’s history, and that story certainly belongs in our museums and history books. But is that history worth celebrating?
Important Confederates, like General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, were native sons of West Virginia, and West Virginia seemingly has more statues of him than we do of the founders of our state! Is that right, historically or morally? Is honoring a man who committed blatant treason to defend the institution of slavery morally right?
Now, before the argument begins over whether the Civil War was fought over slavery or states rights, let me provide a few quotes from the Secession Ordinances of several states.
From the Texas Secession Ordinance: “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”
Mississippi: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery— the greatest material interest of the world.”
Virginia: “..not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.”
And of course the final nail in the coffin, Vice-President Alexander Stephens “Cornerstone Speech” before the Confederate Congress. “Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Adding further insult to injury, well over 90% of Confederate monuments were dedicated during the Civil Rights Movements of the 1920s and 1950s. It’s clear, based on timing and location, that these monuments are less about honoring Confederate ancestors than pretending the horrors of slavery did not happen, less about honoring the dead than sending an oppressive message to the living. They are a part of the Jim Crow era of segregation and nothing less.
The sole exceptions are the monuments dedicated immediately after war’s end, in the 1860s and ‘70s during a time of intense nationwide grief, and of course those present on Civil War battlefields that are, essentially, very large outdoor museums. That is where these monuments belong, and Confederate relics in general, belong. Not in neighborhood parks or on capitol grounds, but in museums where they can be fully interpreted.
Finally, to wrap this article up, I’d like to address the frequent comparison I see on social media between Confederate monuments and concentration camps from the Nazi Holocaust. Monument supporters argue that their removal will lead to forgetting a horrible period in history, much like how Auschwitz reminds us “Never again.” Those comparisons are missing the point.
If we are comparing the horrors of chattel slavery to the horrors of the Holocaust, then the grand plantation houses are the concentration camps. Those manicured lawns are where thousands were enslaved and tortured, and coincidentally, where white segregationists erased virtually all references to slavery in an attempt to enforce the “benevolent slave master” myth. The slave masters, Confederate generals, etc. then are not the reminder of the horrors, they are the people that carried it out and fought a war to ensure its continuance. And nobody would dare defend statues of Hitler, Goering, or Himmler, at least, I would hope not.
This July 4th, I’d just ask that you think about what I’ve discussed here. Are those the memorials that we as a nation want to defend and support?
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.