Commemorating Slavery and Freedom and the Creation of the Lost Cause

Kirk Savage’s Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth Century America is a study of how the history of slavery and freedom was communicated publicly through monuments. He writes that his book “explores how that history of slavery and its violent end was told in public space–specifically in the sculptural monuments that increasingly came to dominate public space in nineteenth century America.” (3) Savage finds that themes of race, war, and monument were pivotal to the nation as it emerged from its long tradition of slavery, and all three reshaped Americans’ sense of nationhood. Public monuments were meant to embody resolution and unity, not conflict, and were the most conservative of commemorative forms because monuments are created to last forever. The main objective behind creating a public monument is to shape collective memory.

Prior to the Civil War, abolitionists used the imagery of slavery to promote their cause, specifically Wedgwood’s “Am I Not a Man and a Brother,” which became one of the most familiar images in antebellum America. Proslavery advocates could not visualize the institution because typical signs of oppression, like manacles and chains, had to be suppressed due to abolitionist associations. Rather, proslavery ideologues used images to represent the “terrors” of emancipation and created crude caricatures of African Americans. Following the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War two years later, Lincoln became the archetypal figure for emancipation. In virtually all projects to build monuments to Lincoln in the 1860s and 1870s, the theme of emancipation figured in the art in one form or another. Making Lincoln the primary agent of emancipation trivialized the role of slaves and African Americans in bringing about their emancipation and removed their agency. Most commonly, Lincoln was paired with a kneeling slave. The most significant example of this is the Freedmen’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln, which began immediately after his death and was completed in 1876. The Western Sanitary Commission commissioned Thomas Ball to do the work, and the unveiling in April of 1876 was the first time that African Americans had ever erected a monument to a great American, and the first time that African Americans had ever appeared in a national monument. Unfortunately, the monument represented the racism of the old world and the power relations of slavery. It featured a slave awkwardly kneeling under Lincoln, who looks as if he is either blessing the slave or asking him to rise. Despite its racism, the Ball statue became an icon of popular culture, and as late as the 1960s the monument remained featured in magazine articles about African American landmarks. A more successful representation of Lincoln was August Saint-Gaudens’s monument, which was a realistic portrayal of Lincoln standing before a chair of state, like he has just gotten up to give a speech, making the viewer Lincoln’s audience. The statute of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond was the embodiment of the culmination of the failure of Reconstruction and the redeeming of the South by white southerners and adherents to the Lost Cause. The South actively sought to erase slavery from its past and instead erected monuments that celebrated a slave society without acknowledging the immorality of the institution. Lee was seen as a military hero who was appealing to northerners and southerners alike. The monument dedication ceremony in 1890 brought whites of all classes together and the northern press responded favorably to the monument. In the last third of the nineteenth century, the common soldier became the most prolific figure in public sculpture. The modern soldier monument movement was meant to heal the nation but simultaneously rendered the figure of the black soldier unrepresentable, as black bodies were inextricably linked to the memory of slavery. Savage ends his work with an analysis of Saint-Gaudens’s relief featured in the Shaw Memorial on the Boston Common, which was a monument to Colonel Robert Shaw and the common soldiers who fought under him.

Similar to David Blight’s Race and Reunion, Savage emphasizes that in the years following the Civil War reconciliation between North and South was achieved at the expense of African Americans. Savage skillfully analyzes selected nineteenth century monuments in a digestible and fascinating way while emphasizing several important themes, including race, memorialization, slavery, emancipation, and gender. At times the reader was overwhelmed by the amount of detail provided about various competitions and monuments that never materialized, but ultimately his work is important in understanding the erasure of black bodies from public monuments in nineteenth century America.

Adding to Savage’s chapter on the Robert E. Lee memorial in Richmond, Karen Cox, in Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, studies the creation of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and the role the organization played in shaping the culture of the New South. Cox argues that “women were longtime leaders in the movement to memorialize the Confederacy, commonly referred to as the ‘Lost Cause,’ and were active participants in debates over what would constitute a ‘new’ South.” (1) Additionally, the Daughters “raised the stakes of the Lost Cause by making it a movement about vindication…UDC members aspired to transform military defeat into a political and cultural victory, where states’ rights and white supremacy remained intact.” (1)

Women’s involvement in the Lost Cause began with the memorial activities of Ladies’ Memorial Associations (LMAs) that were formed immediately following the end of the Civil War. LMAs worked to disinter bodies of Confederate soldiers from mass graves on battlefields to individual graves in Confederate cemeteries, and by erecting monuments to Confederate dead. Under the guise of preserving the integrity and honor of their husbands and sons, elite southern white women were able to carve out a space for themselves in the public sphere while maintaining their status as “ladies.” In 1894, the UDC was founded with five primary responsibilities: memorial, historical, benevolent, education, and social. Coinciding with the rise of UDC was an increase in the number of Confederate monuments in urban areas of the South. The UDC was involved in the creation of three large-scale monuments: the Jefferson Davis monument in Richmond, the monument to Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery, and the monument to Confederate soldiers at the Shiloh battlefield. Monument unveiling ceremonies were important cultural and social ceremonies that included the entire white community. Children played a central role in these ceremonies–they pulled the cords that revealed the monuments, sung patriotic songs, and thirteen young girls were chosen to represent each state of the former Confederacy. Daughters saw children’s involvement in memorial unveiling ceremonies as a way to connect the past generation of Confederates with the generations that would carry on their legacy. Daughters were also celebrated at monument unveilings for being dutiful to the Confederate generation and maintaining the traditions of their gender. The benevolent activities of the Daughters fits into the larger pattern of southern progressivism and took two main forms: providing for aging and indigent veterans and widows by constructing soldiers’ homes and homes for needy Confederate women, and providing educational assistance to young men and women in the form of college scholarships. Another major activity of the UDC was to combat “wicked falsehoods.” Daughters believed that history was “biased” against the South, and worked to create and promote an “authentic” version of the history of the Civil War that would vindicate Confederate men, record the sacrifices of Confederate women, and exonerate the South. They wanted history to reflect the idea that the Civil War was fought to defend states rights, not slavery, and that Confederate soldiers were patriots and true defenders of the Constitution, not traitors. The UDC supported the movement to establish departments of archives and history in southern states, and UDC members acquired archival materials such as oral histories and items of material culture associated with the Confederacy and antebellum South. They were integral in establishing the Confederate Museum in Richmond and set up exhibits of their collected items in government-owned buildings. Daughters worked to record the role of southern white women during the war, and celebrated Confederate women for their work as nurses, making uniforms and flags, maintaining plantations, and working in munitions factories. Daughters also worked to educate children to uphold Confederate ideals and believed that white children could be “living monuments” to the Confederacy. The UDC removed “biased” textbooks from schools, placed Confederate flags and portraits of Confederate heroes in classrooms, worked with teachers to create lesson plans, and sponsored essay contests to encourage students to learn about the Confederacy. By the time World War I broke out, the UDC had made great strides in the South. Cox ends her work by arguing that national reconciliation had been achieved effectively on the South’s terms, specifically the Daughters’: the North accepted the Lost Cause narrative as fact, and reconciliation painted white southerners as patriots, not traitors.

Cox’s book is accessible and enjoyable to both scholars and non-academics, but her work is not without a few minor problems. She is repetitive and reiterates the same idea or concept many times over within chapters, which can be distracting to the reader. Her chapter on monument building would have been stronger had she included an analysis of the actual monuments themselves–which is the focus of Savage’s book–rather than focusing on the work it took to create them. The organization within that chapter could have been better as well. She mentions that the UDC was involved in the creation of the Lee monument and the monuments at ANC and Shiloh. She could have gone through each monument one by one, rather than flipping between Shiloh and Arlington. Additionally, I wanted more “meat”–I wanted to see more evidence for her arguments, specifically in the final chapter when she argues that the North accepted reconciliation on the South’s terms. Perhaps a scholar has already published work on this topic, but there should be a study of how the UDC’s activities in the 1860s through early twentieth century has affected Americans in the late twentieth century up through the present. Cox briefly covers this in her epilogue, but more work can be done to fully connect the dots.

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