Confederate Statues

The recent events in Charlottesville, VA have sparked questions over racism and the right to free speech in the United States, questions that will be hotly debated for a long time to come.  But it can be easy to forget that the central cause of the entire conflict was disagreement about the fate of a giant statue of Robert E. Lee situated in the center of the city. This raises another important debate, on Confederate statues and their place in this country. This article will discuss why and when these Confederate statues were created, what they stand for, and finally whether they belong in the United States or not.

From 1861-1865, the Confederate States of America fought against United States of America in a war that killed more Americans than World War 1, World War 2, and the wars in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq did combined. It was the most destructive conflict in North American history. When it was over, the United States emerged victorious, the Confederacy was dissolved and its states were forced back into the Union.

In the years immediately following the end of the war, the South was both economically and morally crushed. So it makes sense that here is when the first confederate tributes were made. However, these were not grand monuments– they were memorials created for the Confederate soldiers who fought and died for their country. From 1865-1890, about 84 memorials were formed to honor these soldiers. This is very understandable, as the South lost close to 300,000 lives during the course of the war. Similar memorials appeared in the North during this time as well.

However, these monuments are not what is being debated today. It’s the ones that appear later on. From 1890-1980, the amount of Confederate monuments in America skyrocketed. These were not cemeteries or memorials, they were grand statues made to honor and even glorify the Confederate leaders. Not only that, but the vast majority of these statues were built during two specific time periods: 1900-1920 and 1955-1965. The ‘reconciliation’ of the North and the South took place during the first time period. As part of the reconciliation, the North was very lenient in letting the South to build special monuments honoring their Confederate leaders and symbols. But this was also a time where African-Americans in the South were getting disenfranchised by whites from their positions of power in the Reconstruction Era, with “black codes” and voting restrictions being enforced to limit their rights. This was also the start of the age of segregation, as the Plessy vs Ferguson Supreme Court case, which lead to the “separate but equal” doctrine, happened in 1896. One could argue that these monuments were created not just to honor Confederate leaders, but to intimidate African-Americans and remind them of their very recent past. This idea gains more traction when looking at the second time period, when the civil rights movement took place. The sudden spike of monuments being created during that time period eliminates doubt and makes it pretty clear that most Confederate statues were made to impose fear into the African-American community as they fought for their rights.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say these statues were made with no clear connection to African-Americans. Would a large statue of Stonewall Jackson built in the 1860s be acceptable? This is a much trickier question to answer.  Those who oppose the statues say that a society built off the backs of slaves should definitely not be glorified. While slavery was undoubtedly a terrible thing, this argument by itself has problems. Because while the North did not have slavery, they certainly did not treat African-Americans as equal citizens. In 1860, 19 out of 24 Northern states did not allow blacks to vote, and could not even give testimony in 10. The “Separate but equal” doctrine in 1894 was a supreme court decision, meaning segregation of schools and other institutions was legal everywhere. White riots happened in almost every major northern city. So blacks led freer lives in the North, but they were still marginalized and treated terribly. If the Confederacy is being held responsible for mistreating and exploiting blacks, shouldn’t the North be held responsible for this too, albeit to a lesser extent? But no one is discussing whether to take down Northern statues.

An argument against the statues that does not have a counter, however, is the fact that  Confederacy seceded from the rest of the United States and formed their own country. They were rebels to the United States. They are the ones who started the Civil War, and they lost. Their soldiers can (and should) be honored for their bravery and sacrifice, but why should the (slaveholding) leaders who left the United States and started this war be honored so grandly?  Finally, museums, history textbooks and more have documented and written extensively about the Civil War and the Confederacy. Removing statues from city squares will most definitely not erase our history.

In short, Confederate statues is very difficult topic to discuss, but the fact that  Confederate leaders were rebels to the United States, and that most were built well after the Civil War ended to intimidate African-Americans as they were fighting for their rights, makes a compelling case that large statues of Confederate leaders indeed do not belong in this country. The recent actions in Baltimore, Charlottesville, and other cities to remove Confederate symbols seems to indicate that our country seems to agree, even if our President doesn’t.


– Amit Rajesh

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