Monuments to What?

Perhaps because I am  a white Virginian of a certain age, or perhaps because I am just a little dense, I’ve come late to an understanding of why Confederate statues in prominent civic spaces must go. No, I am not a Lost Cause type, although I confess that my first name comes indirectly from a great-grandfather born in Virginia during the Civil War and named after Robert E. Lee. Still, in spite of that historical burden, I have never gazed upon a Rebel flag with anything but unease and the belief that its disappearance from public display cannot come too  soon.

But the monuments seemed different. I somehow conflated the memorials that represented the grief of widows and mothers for those lost in the war with the heroic statuary of  Confederate leaders. Thanks in part to Wayne Curtis’s piece in this issue on the removal in May of the Lee statue from a circle in New Orleans, I understand now that these statues are not inspired by grief but are instead expressions of times long after the war had ended. The statues do not represent the communities in which they were raised but the sliver of those communities with the power to commission and pay for them.

My reluctance to see such statues removed was also tied up with a sense of history and of the need to preserve our built environment, a worry that there is something Stalinist in the effort to erase historical figures. In this, too, I was wrong. History is constantly being erased, whether we like it or not, and the things we build are constantly being replaced. The question is not whether this will happen but whether we will remember or preserve the right things. As Curtis points out in his article, it is easy for some of us to see these statues as “virtually invisible,” as having “lost their power to inspire and incite long ago,”  like “rock formations, part of an inert landscape.” But for many people, especially the descendants of those who were not only left out of the original decision to erect the statues but also were the people whom the statues were meant to intimidate, these monuments never became invisible.

Neither, as events in Charlottesville in August made clear,  did the  statues ever lose their power to incite another group of people, people who have understood all along their real meaning. Yes, we lost a war, these statues say, but however futile our cause, as white people we are at least better than you. They were monuments to white supremacy then, and they are monuments to white supremacy now. That alone is sufficient reason to take them down.

People in New Orleans were asking, Curtis writes, Where will this end? I went to a university named for two generals, one of them Robert E. Lee. Should his name go? I have no idea where this will end, but I know where it should begin.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up