Blogs > Jim Loewen > What Does Rockville, Maryland's Confederate Monument Tell Us About the Civil War? About the Nadir? About the Present?

Jul 19, 2015 8:13 am


What Does Rockville, Maryland's Confederate Monument Tell Us About the Civil War? About the Nadir? About the Present?

tags: slavery, racism, Confederate flag



Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me.”


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            In 1913, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) put a soldier on a pedestal in front of the Montgomery County courthouse in Rockville. Today this monument has something to teach us about three eras: what it's about, when it went up, and our present day (when, hopefully, it will come down).

            Historical monuments play at least two roles in society. They may prompt us to remember the past, maybe even to learn more about our history. They can also distort our knowledge of the past and warp our view of the world. This essay examines the roles played by Montgomery County's Confederate monument in each of these eras.

What Does Rockville's Confederate Monument Teach About the Civil War?

            This monument glorifies those who fought to keep African Americans in chains and many of whom, after Reconstruction, worked to put them back into second-class citizenship. It does not just memorialize the dead. It says that they were "our heroes," Montgomery County's heroes. It also tells us how to think about the Confederate cause: we are "to love the thin grey line."

            This was hardly the view of most residents of Montgomery County or adjoining Frederick County at the time. Neither county seceded, of course. While Maryland did send perhaps 24,000 men to the Confederate armed forces, it sent 63,000 to the U.S. army and navy. The Thin Grey Line came through Montgomery and Frederick counties at least three times, en route to Antietam in 1862, Gettysburg in 1863, and Washington in 1864. Lee's army expected to find recruits and help with food, clothing, and information. This did not happen, although the army did kidnap every African American it came upon, dragging them back into Virginia as slaves. In a further irony, on the courthouse grounds not far from the Confederate monument, a historical marker tells of J.E.B. Stuart’s 1863 raid nearby, in which he captured “as many as a hundred” African Americans and enslaved them, but they are invisible; the marker only mentions the capture of “150 U.S. wagons.”[1] During the first invasion, Maryland residents greeted Union soldiers "as liberators" when they came through on their way to Antietam, according to historian William F. Howard. During the last invasion, when Confederate cavalry leader Jubal Early came through, he demanded and got $300,000 from the leading merchants of Frederick, lest he burn their town, a sum equal to at least $5,000,000 today.[2]

            The phrase "thin grey line" alludes to part of the "Lost Cause" mythology about the Civil War: that the North won the war mainly or solely due to its numerical superiority. There is some truth to this claim: the U.S. Army outnumbered the Confederate Army about two to one. However, since the United States had to conquer and hold the seceding states to win, this "thinness" did not by itself determine the outcome. See my essay, "Appomattox:  Getting Even The Numbers Wrong,"[3] for a discussion of how the UDC overemphasized this same point at another historic site.

            Opponents of moving this monument cannot claim that doing so does violence to history or to our knowledge of the Civil War, since it says almost nothing about that war. On the contrary, this monument makes it harder for white residents of Montgomery County to emulate or even learn about their ancestors who enlisted in the Union army or worked for black rights after the War. No one seeing it at the Rockville Courthouse would imagine that Maryland sent more than 2½ times as many men to the U.S.A. as to the C.S.A. armed forces. No one reading its words would understand that the Confederate cause amounted to treason on behalf of slavery. This monument teaches us nothing about the Civil War except that Confederates should be honored as "our heroes."

            All Confederate monuments intrinsically imply that the Confederacy was a noble cause. Unfortunately, the cause was not noble. All of the secession documents that the Southern states issued as they left the Union state that their cause was slavery on behalf of white supremacy.[4] Therefore, even before people put up a monument like this one, they had to transform the Confederate cause into something more noble. This happened during the period known as the Nadir of Race Relations. "Nadir" means "low point."

What Does Rockville's Confederate Monument Teach About the Nadir of Race Relations?

            What can this monument teach us about when it went up? First, it is interesting that it went up in 1913. Why so late? Most United States monuments to Civil War dead went up between 1865 and 1890. Most Confederate monuments went up after 1890. Why?

            People usually put up monuments after they win, and the Confederates — we should say neo-Confederates because they were mostly a new generation by 1890 — won the Civil War in 1890. They won it in several ways. First, in that year they won what it was about: white supremacy. The state of Mississippi passed its new constitution. There had been nothing wrong with its 1868 constitution except that it let African Americans vote. In 1890, at their constitutional convention, white Mississippians were clear. As one delegate put it, "Let's tell the truth if it bursts the bottom of the Universe. We came here to exclude the Negro. Nothing short of this will answer." The key provision to do so was Section 244, requiring that voters must be able to give a "reasonable interpretation" of any section of the state constitution. White registrars would judge "reasonable." Other states across the South copied what came to be called "the Mississippi Plan," including Oklahoma by 1907.

            Second, neo-Confederates got to rename the Civil War to the "War Between the States." Not one person called it that while it was going on, so this was a complete anachronism.

            They also now claimed that they had seceded for states' rights, not for slavery. This claim stands history on its head. Every document from 1860-61 explaining secession refers to slavery — its expansion, enhancement, and maintenance — as the chief cause. During the Nadir of Race Relations, however, that terrible period from 1890 to 1940 when race relations deteriorated and whites grew more and more racist, Northerners found it embarrassing to think about the cause they had abandoned. They had fought for something, after all. At first, they went to war to prevent the breakup of the United States. As the war ground on, it became a struggle to end slavery. As early as Antietam, Union soldiers were going into battle singing "Battle Cry of Freedom" and "John Brown's Body."

            During the Nadir, however, black freedom turned out to have been stillborn. What was going on in Maryland during the Nadir? Sundown towns formed — places that for decades were "all white" on purpose.[5] An entire county — Garrett, farthest west — expelled its black population. Other sundown towns in Maryland included Tilghman Island, Mount Rainier, and Greenbelt. In Montgomery County, sundown towns included Washington Grove and the four Chevy Chases. Cities like Silver Spring and Washington, D.C., grew more segregated residentially. Schools were segregated, of course, and became less equal in quality.[6]

            In 1892 Grover Cleveland won the Presidency with a campaign that derided Republicans as "nigger lovers." Four years later, the United States Supreme Court granted official approval to racial segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson. Around that time, racial segregation became required by custom if not law throughout the North. No longer were Americans "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," as Lincoln had said we were at Gettysburg.

            During those decades, our popular culture celebrated the antebellum plantation South, from minstrel shows to movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. Now the South and North came to be considered morally equal.

            During the Nadir of Race Relations, neo-Confederates also won the Civil War on the ground. White supremacists had the power to determine how the War would be remembered on the ground in Maryland. That's why Montgomery boasts no United States monuments, even though most of its young men fought on the Union side. We can be sure that at the dedication of the Rockville monument in 1913 the mood was celebratory. I suspect every speaker was white and the audience was overwhelmingly white as well.

            Thus the UDC's erection of this Confederate monument in Rockville signals a time and a way that the United States went astray as a nation. So this monument has something important to teach us about 1913. To the UDC and the SCV (Sons of Confederate Veterans), monuments were the continuation of the Civil War by other means. They knew that having a Confederate landscape makes it easier to have a Confederate mindset, even a Confederate heart.

What Does Rockville's Confederate Monument Teach About the Present?

            Monuments and markers also point to unresolved issues in a third era — our own. This Rockville monument shows the continuing power of neo-Confederates in Montgomery County right up to last month. Conversely, it shows the lack of power of African Americans as well as the lack of regard for their feelings or their history.

            But the key issue is not just African Americans. Confederate monuments make an impact on whites. They are meant to. "Do not forget to love the Thin Gray Line." Dylann Roof loved the Thin Gray Line. Dylann Roof shows what can happen when one loves the Thin Gray Line too much.

            Or, if Roof is too extreme an example, consider the Sigma Alpha Epsilon scandal just three months earlier. Its members love the Thin Gray Line less than Dylann Roof, so they merely display Confederate flags proudly in each chapter house and teach each other songs like

            There will never be a nigger in SAE.

            There will never be a nigger in SAE.

            You can hang him from a tree,

            But he'll never sign with me,

            And there'll never be a nigger in SAE.

Maryland boasts at least two chapters of SAE.

            Or consider White's Ferry, 23 miles west of Rockville. It too flies the Confederate flag and its ferry is named Jubal Early! Its owner thinks this is appropriate, because Early had a "rebellious, no surrender attitude.” It is certainly true that after the Civil War, Early never changed his attitude. He still defended slavery as appropriate for African Americans, since "The Creator of the Universe had stamped them, indelibly, with a different color and an inferior physical and mental organization." He was an early proponent of the "Lost Cause" mythology and helped organize the Southern Historical Society to spread its biased views. Perhaps this discussion about Montgomery County's Confederate monument will help change the thinking behind Montgomery County's only ferry operation.

            Confederate monuments and ideology make an impact on all too many of us. Residents of Montgomery County need to unlearn the myths they learned in school about secession and the Confederacy. I know they learned them because I have asked some 5,000 people across the United States, why did the Confederacy secede. In most audiences, 65% vote for states' rights! They sit open-mouthed as I read to them the key documents, showing them to be 180° wrong. The documents convince them, but millions more still believe the error, partly owing to our Confederate landscape.[7]

What needs to happen now.

            Even though monuments are written in stone, they are not permanent. Americans have forever been talking back to their landscape. On the whole, it is a healthy process. The history written on the American landscape was written by people, after all, and we the people have the power to take back the landscape and make it ours. Montgomery County and Rockville are to be congratulated for setting up this forum to begin this process here.

            We Americans share a common history that unites us. But we also share some more difficult events — a common history that divides us. These things too we must remember, for only then can we understand our divisions and work to reduce them. Monuments could help, except too often they suffer from the same forces that created the divisions in the first place. Certainly this Rockville monument was put up by the same people (or their descendants) who seceded on behalf of slavery in the first place.

            Our landscape has always been contested. Writing in 1999,[8] I noted that people were shooting historical markers full of holes in West Virginia, sawing a foot off a statue in New Mexico, and covering Columbus statues with red paint across the country. Since the Charleston murders, this tendency has only increased, with vandalism of Confederate monuments in North Carolina, Texas, and many other places. Rockville's Confederate monument will be contentious from here on. It will never be "safe" again.

            We have seen that this monument doesn't tell much history about the Civil War. It just tells us which side we should be on, in 1913. What should be done with it?

            Montgomery County needs to put this monument in a museum setting. A place at the Beall-Dawson House might work, so long as it was visible to visitors to the house, not to drivers going past. Then those who see it could learn from the label or marker that the historical society would put up, to explain what it teaches us about all three eras. Then the monument can at last play a positive role in educating everyone about the history of white supremacy in Montgomery County and in this country.

            Neo-Confederates may charge that removing this monument violates their "heritage." This emphasis on heritage, as historian Michael Kammen wrote, is "an impulse to remember what is attractive or flattering and to ignore all the rest."[9] Thus history and heritage are not the same; indeed, the two are often at odds. Neo-Confederates do not want to put the Confederacy into its proper historical context. They simply want to maintain its symbols as sites for homage in the present. By moving the monument, history gains, because Rockville can now tell more about the Confederate cause and the history of the monument itself. As well, the public can develop a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of history from the change on the landscape itself. The only heritage that we lose is the tradition of decades of honoring a repulsive cause. Losing this legacy is precisely the point.

            Has Montgomery County reached a point where African Americans have at least as much political and moral influence as neo-Confederates? To put this more broadly than a mere clash of interest groups, there is a reciprocal relationship between justice in the present and truth about the past. Has Montgomery County reached a level of justice in the present that it can now tell the truth about its past? This Confederate Monument can provide an effective tool for that telling — when it is moved to a museum and when its relationship to its three key eras is explained.

            We in 2015 can take back the landscape. The landscape does not belong only to the dead, but also to the living. Monuments are messages to the future, and the future does not belong to the neo-Confederates, but to Americans on the right side of history. We can no longer allow the "love the Thin Grey Line" message of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to stand.


  [1]David G. Smith, “Race and Retaliation,” in Peter Wallenstein and Bertram Wyatt-Brown, eds., Virginia’s Civil War (Charlottesville: U of VA Press, 2005), 137-38, 142.

    [2]William F. Howard, "Lee's Lost Orders," Civil War Quarterly, 9 (6/87), 27; Stephen E. Wilson, "Antietam — Death Knell of the Confederacy," ibid., 8; interview with cemetery manager, 5/99.

    [3]James W. Loewen, Lies Across America (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1999), 297-300.

    [4]See Loewen & co-editor, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2010), Chapter 2, for these documents.

    [5]I tell about them in my book, Sundown Towns (NY: New Press, 2004).

    [6]At least, this happened in Virginia and throughout the former Confederacy. I confess that I have not studied Maryland's black schools in the years 1865-1890, so I cannot say if they then deteriorated during the Nadir.

    [7]These results are even worse than an admittedly more professional recent Pew poll. It showed 51% of respondents who had an opinion thought the South seceded for states’ rights; another 10% thought states’ rights and slavery equally.

    [8] Lies Across America.

    [9] Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory (NY: Knopf, 1991), 626.

Copyright James Loewen




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