The ongoing conflict over the removal of Confederate statues in New Orleans, Charlottesville, and elsewhere has provoked a great deal of soul-searching about Civil War monuments. Sadly, most of the debate is anchored in an analysis that freights these bronze statues with the racial politics of our own time—rather than considering the motives of those who raised Confederate monuments in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, during the great period of Civil War memorialization. Were the intentions of those who erected Confederate monuments repugnant, as some now argue? That’s not as simple a question as we might think.
The “lost cause,” the Confederate battle flag, and other Confederate ideas and symbols were adopted as tokens of white supremacy during the desegregation era. The Confederate battle flag, a potent symbol of racism since the mid-twentieth century, had hardly been used at all for such purposes before World War II, when the Klan started using it. The ugly actions of the segregationists and their repurposing of Confederate symbols have connected the two in a way that is now difficult to escape. It’s tempting to view these symbols as having been proxies for racist intentions from the beginning.
But the men and women who raised the monuments were not primarily thinking about how to assert their racial views. This is in part thanks to the lamentable fact that the subordination of blacks was taken for granted in the late nineteenth century—no need to buttress it in bronze. What sentiments, then, animated the statue erectors? Romantic ones, in a word.
There is, in fact, a striking difference between our worldview and the Romanticism that permeated the nineteenth century. It therefore takes an effort of historical imagination to put ourselves into the shoes of the statue erectors, and understand them as complex human beings. Romanticism prizes sincerity of purpose, especially against greater odds. A leading voice from the generation that served in the Civil War was Oliver Wendell Holmes. In his Memorial Day address of 1884, he expressed the Romantic point of view toward the war:
We believed that it was most desirable that the North should win; we believed in the principle that the Union is indissoluble; we, or many of us at least, also believed that the conflict was inevitable, and that slavery had lasted long enough. But we equally believed that those who stood against us held just as sacred convictions that were the opposite of ours, and we respected them as every man with a heart must respect those who give all for their belief.
Holmes had definite moral views, but his sensibilities about war required magnanimity toward enemies, which included admiration for their bravery, the purity of their motives, and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for a cause. There was, moreover, a brotherhood of sorts among veterans, for they shared a common experience of walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
The great age of Civil War commemoration came as men like Holmes aged. In that time, Romanticism made lost causes into things of beauty. Isaiah Berlin has this to say about the Romantics: “You would have found that they believed that minorities were more holy than majorities, that failure was nobler than success, which had something shoddy and something vulgar about it.” We look upon the Southern cause with moral horror, for its purpose was to preserve slavery. A Romantic can be anti-slavery, but to him the “lost cause” is sublime, tragic, and heartbreaking, which is why the Alamo was not memorialized as a shameful defeat. We fail in our responsibility to history when we do not permit ourselves to see Civil War memorials from a Romantic point of view, and when we fail to recognize the phrase “lost cause” as a shorthand for a morally complex, tragic understanding of the South’s defeat.
In her book This Republic of Suffering, Drew Gilpin Faust notes the massive and shocking death tolls on the battlefields of the Civil War: “At war’s end this shared suffering would override persisting differences about the meanings of race, citizenship, and nationhood to establish sacrifice and its memorialization as the ground on which North and South would ultimately reunite. Even in our own time this fundamentally elegiac understanding of the Civil War retains a powerful hold.”
Faust’s choice of the word “elegiac” is accurate and perceptive. At times the elegiac element of Civil War memorials becomes explicit, as in the inscription on the Georgia monument raised at Winchester, VA, in 1884, during the War’s twentieth anniversary—the same year in which the Lee statue in New Orleans was raised. The inscription transposes Simonides’s famous elegy on the Spartans at Thermopylae into terms that fit the Civil War:
Go, stranger, and tell it
In Georgia, that we died here
In obedience to her laws.
The great flood of monuments, Union and Confederate, came in the 1880s and 1890s. A brief glance through Huntington’s Guide to Gettysburg Battlefield Monuments reveals that the majority of Union monuments rose between 1885, the twentieth anniversary of the war’s end, and 1893, the thirtieth anniversary of the battle, though Confederate representation at Gettysburg was virtually nonexistent until Virginia raised the first Confederate state monument, featuring Robert E. Lee, in 1917.
Even today a visit to the Gettysburg battlefield elicits awe and heartbreak, which the hundreds of monuments there are meant to evoke and express. For the Civil War cohort—the veterans, and their spouses and children—this battle, like the war itself, was, as Lincoln put it in 1865, “fundamental and astounding.”
This feeling lasted longer in the South, and for reasons far deeper in the human heart than the evil of racism. Those who survived tried to find a way to express their anger over young lives violently annihilated, and, given the South’s total defeat, lives annihilated for nothing. If they had been fighting for slavery, that had been eliminated; if for states’ rights, the Union was stronger than ever; if to protect their hearths and homes, those had been captured or destroyed. But their Romantic sensibility allowed them to discern a terrible beauty in the bravery, self-sacrifice, and excellence with which their men had fought. As a nation, we’re the better for striving to overcome Jim Crow; but as a nation, we’re the poorer when we fail to recognize the complicated motives of those who, though vanquished, set about to memorialize that beauty with statues and monuments.
Gregory S. Bucher, formerly professor of classical and Near Eastern studies at Creighton University, lives in Arlington, Virginia.