California finally sweeps away most of its tributes to the Confederacy. What took so long?Roundup
tags: California, memorials, Confederacy, public history
Kevin Waite is an assistant professor of history at Durham University in Britain and author of the forthcoming book West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire.
Over the summer, California underwent a historical reckoning perhaps as comprehensive as any state in the nation. Activists toppled monuments to Confederates, to Spanish missionaries, even to Union generals. Now the process is drawing to a close in a rather unspectacular fashion — not because activists lack the initiative for further action, but because there are almost no monuments left to remove.
That California, a progressive state more than 1,500 miles from the nearest major Civil War theater, would sweep away tributes to dead Confederates seems self-evident. Yet this summer’s rash of monument removals was the culmination of a long-fought and hard-won battle.
Until recently, California housed far more Confederate monuments and place names than any state beyond the South. Other free states contained at most a small handful of rebel tributes, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s extensive database. California, in contrast, established more than a dozen such markers over the course of the 20th century.
Californians began fighting over the memory of the Civil War not long after Robert E. Lee surrendered the main rebel army in April 1865. The debate was especially intense in Los Angeles, home to a vocal base of secessionists.
“The Civil War continued to rage” in postbellum Los Angeles, according to Horace Bell, a Union veteran who returned to Southern California shortly after the conflict. When Bell passed by, fellow white Angelenos often spat: “The idea … of a Los Angeles man of your stamp fighting on the side of the Blacks!” According to his own estimates, Bell wound up in as many as 40 brawls for his wartime loyalties. And in 1882, L.A. went so far as to elect a former Confederate army captain as mayor.
Over the coming decades, thousands of white Southern migrants arrived in California. Although they represented a minority of the state’s overall population, they wielded outsized influence in the struggle over Civil War memory. They waged their campaigns through well-funded memorial associations, particularly the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
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