Beyond Monuments: African Americans Contesting Civil War Memory

tags: Civil War, Confederacy, Confederate Monuments

Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders is a Phd Candidate in the History department at Rutgers University. Her dissertation project, “Confronting the Rebel Yell: How African Americans Created and Contested Civil War Memory, 1865-1965” examines how African American Civil War memory evolved in the century after the war's end. Follow her on Twitter @AshleighWrites.

As monuments to white supremacists, slavery-defenders, and Confederate leaders continue to be torn down by politicians or by the people’s force, the nation is again mired in a seemingly never-ending debate: how do we reckon with the memory of the Civil War? In his own proposal for a monument to Black Civil War soldiers in his 1887 book, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, historian and Civil War veteran George Washington Williams argued that “the surest way to teach national history is monumental marble and brass.” Williams understood the power of monuments as not just a testament to the continued oppression of African Americans and their erasure from Civil War memory, but also as a possible corrective, a means to uplift the race and “surely and safely elevate the Negro to a proud place in the history of the nation.” Monuments are imposing; they are physical manifestations of ideologies and collective memory and until recently in the United States, considered permanent. Numerous historians and commentators in the aftermath of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville pointed to the origins and meanings of Confederate monuments and the damage they did in whitewashing Civil War history and the Confederacy’s goals. Yet, we cannot really comprehend this moment unless we also understand African American Civil War memory.

African Americans worked from the end of the war to this current moment to consistently affirm and interpret the Civil War’s meaning for them.  Due to its power and influence, confronting the Lost Cause is a large part of this collective memory.  The Lost Cause movement includes the historical memories, myths, commemorative events, and invented traditions of many white Southerners that first took shape after the end of the Civil War. The Lost Cause was as much about upholding white supremacy as it was about commemorating the white Southern Civil War experience.  It is not incidental, for example, that the Keystone, a publication for Southern white clubwomen and members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) published stories of Confederate heroism alongside dedications to “faithful slaves” and praise for books like Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman.  White Civil War memory has long dominated conversations about how the war is remembered, even now when it involves anti-racist activism.  The idea that “both sides” should be celebrated and honored was largely an invention of white Southerners and Northerners in order to reunite the nation.  African American Civil War memory was sidelined in its service.  As a result, we know considerably less about the long tradition of Black anti-Lost Cause resistance that culminated with Bree Newsome snatching the Confederate flag down from the Statehouse grounds of South Carolina in 2015 and Takiyah Thompson toppling a Confederate monument in Durham, North Carolina on August 14 of this year.

On March 27, 1865 African Americans flooded the streets of Charleston, South Carolina to celebrate the coming end of the Civil War.  The result was a grand spectacle, with dozens of Black men marching while tied to a rope to symbolize those bound in chains while being sold down South. A hearse followed with the sign “Slavery is Dead. Who Owns Him? No one.  Sumter Dug His Grave on 13th April, 1861.” Behind the hearse, fifty Black women marched dressed in mourning clothes, but were laughing and happy. “John Brown’s Body” was a popular song among Black and white Union troops and was commonly sung in the various military parades across the South as Union troops marched in victory.  The school children marching in this parade focused on singing one verse in particular loudly: “We’ll hang Jeff Davis on a sour apple tree . . . As we Go Marching On.”

Three years later, African Americans were already warning about the dangers of the Lost Cause.  In 1868, a Christian Recorder article warned that “The adherents of the Lost Cause day by day, gathered hope by the example of Mr. Johnson, that what the North had won by the bayonet, they would insanely allow to be retaken by the ballot.” 1 African American historians wrote Civil War histories that emphasized the fight to preserve and expand slavery as the root cause of the conflict and highlighted the essential role African Americans played in the Union’s victory.  Protesting Confederate monuments was an integral part of this anti-Lost Cause activism. In 1890 when the monument to Robert E. Lee was unveiled on what is now known as Monument Avenue in Richmond, the Black press had harsh words for those who would venerate Lee or any other Confederate leader. John Mitchell Jr., the editor of the Richmond Planet noted that “The boxes (of the Lee Statue) were decorated with bunting and Confederate flags.  On every hand could be seen the ‘stars and bars.’ No where in all the procession was there a United States flag. The emblem of the union had been left behind.” 2 Likewise the Indianapolis World argued, “The rebel flag floated proudly in the breeze at Richmond, Va. In no other country would [this] be tolerated. ‘One flag and one country’ should be the mother and a severe penalty should been insisted upon any one who dared to unfurl that rag, emblematic of rebellion and crime.” 3

In South Carolina, a statue to John C. Calhoun, the South’s greatest defender of slavery, was erected in 1894.  Black clubwoman Mamie Garvin Fields detailed in her memoir how Black Charleston residents tried to deface the statue that “blacks took personally.” In 1923 when the UDC tried to mount a monument to the “faithful slave,” in Washington, DC, Mary Church Terrell and the National Association of Colored Women were on the front lines decrying it.  These were never just symbols to African Americans.  African Americans linked their safety and continued marginalized status in American society to the Lost Cause and their absence in American Civil War memory. Their activism extended past monuments to the Lost Cause’s reach throughout politics, history and popular culture. ...

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