Megan Kate Nelson, a historian, author and cultural critic, discussed the relevance of Confederate monuments in society during a talk in the Ecumenical Center on Tuesday, Oct. 24.
The talk was the fourth annual Phi Alpha Theta lecture, hosted by the history department.
Nelson posed three questions to the audience: “What do these monuments honor? Do they belong in our public places? Why should you care?”
She said there are many Confederate monuments in the South, but they are also in the North and West. A memorial for Confederate prisoners of war was erected in Fort Warren on George’s Island in 1963.
“Racism is everywhere,” said Nelson. “These are not Southern problems. These are American problems.”
She said the monuments were erected “because the South lost.” The South created its own narrative about the Civil War – they said they fought for a “just cause,” which was a fight for states’ rights and the right to secede, said Nelson. The narrative was known as “The Lost Cause,” and the war was labelled “The War of Northern Oppression.”
Nelson said the monuments were built in response to black freedom, and along with monuments the South created black codes and Jim Crow Laws, and imposed poll taxes and voter intimidation. She said they also created racial violence and tension with groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
The first monuments were built between 1861 and 1865, and were built by soldiers on battlefields to “honor their lost brothers.” Following the war, groups like the Ladies Memorial Association built monuments in cemeteries.
Nelson said the first public monuments weren’t erected until the 1890s – by this time, “reconstruction had ended. U.S. troops had withdrawn from the South, and so groups started to come together … to raise money for different kinds of monuments.”
Groups like the United Daughters of Confederates (UDC) and the Sons of Confederate Veterans built the statues and monuments in public spaces.
“This was the turn from private space to the public space,” said Nelson.
Alexis Gomez, a senior, asked Nelson, “Why don’t we raise our children to understand slavery?” Gomez said he never learned anything about slavery in grade school and only learned about the Civil War in high school, and that it wasn’t until his sophomore year of college that he learned what actually happened.
Nelson said slavery was “a brutal system. And it’s hard to understand it if you’re 7 years old – you barely understand what’s happening in the world anyways.”
She asked, “When is a good time to introduce something that is so dark and terrible and awful and involves unbelievable violence?” She added many educators first introduce it during high school U.S. history classes, and that slavery is “erased in all Southern textbooks” due to the UDC – so not everyone is even learning about it.
“They wrote textbooks and got entire school systems to adopt them – and [the textbooks] basically said, ‘The War Between the States was a war for states’ rights.’ Are you kidding me?” said Nelson.
She spoke about the variety of Confederate monuments – the “Silent Sentinels,” the “Angels of the Confederacy,” the monuments that honored military commanders, and the ones that honored Confederate officials.
Nelson said, “All the monuments obscure the involvement of slavery … because the South didn’t see the war as a fight for slavery. They’d rationalized it as a fight for states’ rights.” She said they also obscured the soldiers’ treason.
The “Silent Sentinels” honor the common soldier, and were a representation of duty, valor and military service being a common good. The “Angels of the Confederacy” are a monument to Confederate women – they were the “purity of the Confederate cause” and showed the “support of the war on the home front.”
Nelson said the monument to the Southern white women obscured the fact many women were anti-war. “They either protested or covertly did not support it, by trying to convince their men to come home.”
The monuments that honored military commanders often depicted Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, and represented “bravery and honor in battle. But they don’t show that these men often had poor military decision-making and were also committing treason.”
Jefferson Davis was the most popular choice for monuments honoring Confederate officials, said Nelson. They were the political vision of the Confederacy and represented the legitimacy of the Confederate States of America, but “obscured slavery as the ideological and economic cornerstone of the Confederacy.”
Nelson said that some states are passing laws to prevent monuments from being removed, while others have already undergone the process of removing them, using Lexington, Kentucky’s removal of the John C. Breckinridge statue as an example.
She also shared two of her ideas on what should be done with Confederate memorials – “The Ozymandias Project” and artistic upcycling.
“The Ozymandias Project,” which is Nelson’s favorite, includes giving the monuments to local citizens to destroy and then leaving the rubble as a “monument to racism and to protest against it.
“They’ll sit there in rubble and ruin – and we’ll know exactly what they mean,” said Nelson.
The less violent option, Nelson said, would be artistic upcycling, where the monuments are given to artists, “ideally African-American artists,” and the artists would use the materials however they wanted to create new artworks in that space.
“Then we’d have a real monument that shows what we want in our culture,” said Nelson. “This is what we could use these monuments for, and reframe them, and really create a public landscape that speaks more to what we want to be as a nation.”