Historian Kevin M. Levin roots out the origins of Confederate monuments and explains why they're so hard to remove

Kevin M. Levin is an award-winning historian and educator, and author of “Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War's Most Persistent Myth.” Mr. Levin is currently in the process of coediting a collection of primary sources about Confederate monuments and where they came from. I spoke with Mr. Levin after collecting questions for him from congressional staff on Cloakroom.

Generally, where, when, and why were Confederate statues erected?

Confederate monuments went up in different phases. The first push came immediately after the Civil War to commemorate the fallen. These monuments were erected mainly in cemeteries, commemorating the dead in local places. Naming the dead is the priority in the post war period, where the citizen soldier becomes important, and it’s the first time in US history that the individual soldiers are named and singled out in remembrance. Remember, so many of these regiments were raised locally, and if this regiment was caught in the wrong place and the wrong time, like at Antietam or Gettysburg, most of the men of these towns may have been killed, and these monuments would be the only memorial the community had of them.

Many of the monuments being debated today were erected in the second phase of Confederate monuments, from the 1880’s through the 1930’s, and this is the first time the monuments moved from cemeteries to more public spaces: public squares, judiciary squares, town centers, and public parks. No longer memorializing the individual fallen by name, these monuments broaden the focus to celebrate the Confederacy as a whole and to commemorate the cause of the rebellion as a whole. This period is really important because this is the rise of the Jim Crow era.

These second phase monuments are put up at a time when only white southerners have the right to voice their political preferences. Vast majorities of African Americans are disenfranchised, and aren’t allowed to vote for frivolous legal reasons. This is the age of legalized segregation.

The monuments erected during this time overwhelmingly reflect the memory of white people. They ignore the issues of slavery during the war, and they ignore the obvious point that the Confederacy was fighting to maintain slavery and white supremacy. They erase the history of Black southerners. They ignore the fact that Black people fought against the Confederacy.

Moreover, many places where these monuments were erected have populations that are more than 50% Black. Many communities where these artifacts are placed, like Richmond, Va, don’t reflect the majority of the population. What’s often lost in the mix is that they never did from day one. They never reflected the history of the community as a whole. When we’re talking about most of these monuments, we are really talking about artifacts of the Jim Crow era.

The third and final push for Confederate monuments came later in the 20th century during the Civil Rights era, which corresponds to the massive resistance to civil rights reforms. This is the period where many schools are named after Confederate generals. In response to Brown v the Board of Education, many new schools for white kids in 1955, 1956, and 1957 are named after Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

What role do you believe these monuments play in the creation and maintenance of our historical memory, and is there a line between acknowledging this history and celebrating it?

Confederate monuments play a crucial role in many of these communities. In many places they dominate their local public places. In court house squares, this would have been a place where residents of the community vote and where they went to seek justice. So to have to walk to a court house square and walk by a monument of a Confederate era soldier, what message does it send to a white person compared to a Black person? Whose history is given legitimacy? Who's made to feel like a second class citizen as opposed to a full member of society?

These monuments don’t just maintain or reinforce a historical memory. This memory then shades into political control. If you have no history, if Blacks never wanted to be free, if they didn’t fight against the Confederacy, and they were fine with the status quo, then they never have to be acknowledged as first class citizens. So history and politics intersect when it comes to these monuments, and also maintain a white unity, to remind them what their ancestors fought for and what they continued to fight for through the 20th century and into today.

I think there is a crucial distinction between history and celebration. History is the critical analysis of the past through the available historical record. Historians ask questions, interrogate sources, and interpret events. History is constantly being revised. We learn more, uncover new evidence, and revise interpretations.

People will often say by taking down a monument you are erasing history.  Monuments are intended to be timeless. They attempt to say something about the values of a people, and who we take ourselves to be as a community, a state, and a nation. However monument building is not engaging in history, and that’s often a distinction people run roughshod over.

What is the appropriate process for local, state, and federal government to consider removal of Confederate statues or monuments?

I think we have to be sensitive to local communities. Different communities will bring different kinds of resources to the debate. We can start at this point: communities should have the right to make these decisions. Right now a number of Republican-controlled states have passed laws that prevent the removal of these statues, classifying them as war monuments, and banning removal.

You have to acknowledge that these monument landscapes are not in fact timeless. Communities going back through world history have routinely revised their monument landscapes, and have routinely pulled monuments down, or through other means removed them. The American Revolution started with the pulling down of a monument to King George. We have a history of revising our monument landscapes.

Charlotte and Richmond are good examples of this. These are communities that sought public testimony and held public meetings for these monuments. Communities that give citizens a chance to voice their opinions is often very helpful because this is an issue about community identity and the values we as a community claim to believe in. We want our monuments to reflect those core values, which can take any number of shapes.

As cities and towns across the country decide what to do with the Confederate monuments in their own communities, what are some examples from the US or from other countries that we can look to as models for removing or re-contextualizing these statues?

Our best domestic case study is Richmond because Richmond, being in Virginia, has had to work around the restrictions of these state war monument laws, and has the most important Confederate monuments in the country. Richmond’s Monument Avenue includes statues J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Matthew Maury, and it’s located in a historically whites only neighborhood.

Over the last few decades what Richmond has done well is it has broadened its monument landscape. For instance, they added an Arthur Ashe statue and a statue of Lincoln and his son down by the James River. Most recently a statue was placed in Jackson ward to Maggie Walker, one of the most important Black business women in the country.

The ability to add statues, helps to acknowledge what a city’s monument landscape is omitting, to reflect other aspects of a community that have been left out, but I also think that as much credit as we give them for this, it didn’t quite work out in the end. Once those war monuments laws were changed to protect Confederate monuments, it became very clear that no addition to this landscape was going to satisfy people who didn’t want to look at the confederate monuments.

What is your position on statues being illegally pulled down by protesters?

On the one hand, I am troubled by the violence, and I worry because it is incredibly dangerous to pull them down. For instance in one city, a protester pulled down a statue, and it landed on his head. However, these war monument laws leave people with little option in many states. Especially right now, in the wake of the George Floyd killing and all the issues it has raised, we are seeing people across the country taking steps to address the issue on their own.

The statue issue is handled best in those places where a community is able to work through a legal process already in place. Charleston city council met to consider moving their statue of Calhoun, and resisted moving it.  People were growing frustrated, and given everything else happening , they saw the writing on the wall, and took steps to remove the statue. I prefer to see it done this way. It’s a strong symbol to see the city take control and remove the statues legally, instead of being removed by protesters, which may not be seen as reflecting the broader community.

This puts the burden on the community leaders to read their citizenry as close as possible and make those decisions in the moment. The failure to do so is what we are seeing play out.

Defenders of Confederate monuments suggest that to remove these statues is to erase history, since the statues potentially represent a way for us to learn from our past mistakes. However, if many of these statues were originally erected to commemorate and honor a political entity founded on white supremacy and the preservation of slavery, do you think it possible to reframe existing monuments without removing them despite their builders’ original intentions?

What people usually mean by reframing existing monuments is something along the lines of placing a historical marker or some kind of plaque, and I’ve been involved in attempts to do this. I am all for it, it makes perfect sense. The problem is it doesn’t solve the fundamental issue of the Confederate monument. What this is trying to do is to turn these sites, which were intended to celebrate the Confederate cause, into a classroom. A lot of public historians who push for these markers see it as a way of defusing the problem, and you can’t.

Take the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, for example. It was originally planned to be a centerpiece of a new neighborhood only open to white people in the city. For the people who want to remove it, that history only reinforces the argument for why it needs to go. They don’t need a history lesson. For the Confederate heritage types who want the statues to remain, they look at a historian like me trying to put an informative plaque on it as northeastern liberal academic hack trying to undercut their preferred narrative of the war. They think we are trying to tell them not to be proud of their Confederate ancestors.

So the problem of reframing them is that it almost never works. Many towns that put these plaques in place have, in recent weeks, voted to remove these monuments. Reframing plaques are a false compromise.  They attempt to do something that isn’t possible to do. A site of veneration cannot be turned into a classroom.

In 2018 students tore down the Silent Sam statue at UNC. The plan was for the school to create a brand new building to house the statue, where it could be properly contextualized, and students could study it and learn from it. The students however saw it as a temple for Confederate soldiers paid for by the school.

The difference in this case is that one of the dedication addresses delivered in 1913 by a former student, Julian Carr, surfaced. At one point in his address he asked the audience to go back in time in 1865 when he returned from the war. He said he saw a black woman insult a Southern lady on the street, which he saw as disrespectful. Carr then describes to the crowd how he ‘horse whipped this negro woman,’ connecting the end of slavery with the dedication of this new statue. Because this speech was so well known, the students simply were not interested in having it anywhere on campus.

So it comes back to local resources and the local environment. Some museums will take advantage to add these statues to their collections, but right now many museum doors are shut due to Covid-19, and those that do may not be interested in being on the front lines of this debate, properly contextualized or not.

Do you think that the same standards that are applied to Confederate statues should be applied to statues of other American leaders that owned slaves?

That’s for each individual to decide. The distinction to be had here is between founding fathers, who were slave holders, but created a nation that included a constitution with tools to begin the process of ending slavery. We don’t want to ignore they were slave holders, which plays a central role in the creation of the country and the constitution itself. We need to understand that there is a difference between them and the Confederate leaders who wanted to destroy the United States in order to create a slave holding nation based on white supremacy.

Not everyone involved in this debate on the streets is interested in that distinction right now, so it really depends on how you look at it. There is something quite disingenuous forming from conservative media right now just focusing on statues of Jefferson, Washington, etc. Tucker Carlson for instance is linking protests in the streets to wanting to tear down statues of the founding fathers, without bringing up that the vast majority coming down are Confederate monuments, and most are coming down legally, with only a small handful being pulled down by protesters.

Following the Civil War, when and why did groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and United Confederate Veterans begin to redefine the Civil War as a conflict fought primarily over states’ rights?

Without slavery there is no Civil Ware, there is no secession. There was no other subject leading up to the Civil War that divided regionally the way slavery did. At issue was whether slavery or free labor would expand into the western territories. The Confederacy was very clear about what they were fighting for, and rank-and-file soldiers absolutely knew this. 

In my most recent book, I discuss black labor in Confederate armies. If you take Robert E. Lee’s army in 1863 on the eve of the Gettysburg campaign, there were between 10 and 15 thousand slaves in this army,  and 75 thousand white men. Whether you owned zero slaves or one hundred slaves, you realized the importance of these slaves to the army and to the cause. Everything in the Confederacy was built on the backs of slave labor.

Once emancipation was signed in 1863, and the Union recruited black soldiers into the army, that changed the whole dynamic for the rank-and-file Confederate soldier.  When they meet black soldiers on the battlefield, they are confronted by their worst nightmares, and see an obvious threat to their way of life. To many of these men, it stiffened their resolve to fight on.

One last thing I’ll say is there’s the question in the Confederacy of if they should recruit their slaves as soldiers. It goes right through 1865. Many argued that if you make slaves soldiers, you undercut the cause you claim to be fighting for, and so the Confederacy never agrees to do this until the last few weeks of the war, at which point it’s much too late. There is no evidence that a single black Confederate soldier ever saw the battlefield.

What role do you think Congress can or should play in the ongoing debate over monuments and Civil War memory?

Easy. Congress can fund history education measures and programs.  One of the great history programs I cut my teeth on back in the early 2000s was the Teaching American History grant. I got to work with teachers from all over the country, and it was a program that worked, but it was defunded. Congress should do anything that funds history programs. If ever there was a point when we need it, this is it. If you really care about history, fund it. Education is crucial to understanding the march of freedom in this country.

Some people ask me why do I study African American history as white man, what do I have against the founding fathers? These stories are inspiring for me. It’s about how people conduct themselves, and how they never lose faith in this country. If you really claim to love freedom, then of course you’re going to study these stories and to write about them.

In “Searching for Black Confederates” you wrote about in the myth of enslaved African Americans that fought as soldiers in the Confederate Army. What is another persistent Civil War myth that you think deserves thorough debunking?

The civil war is part of a larger war of American imperialism. The war is part of a larger push west during the 19th century. What kind of country do we have from sea to shining sea? That question is in large part about displacing non-white peoples. It’s about this belief in Manifest Destiny, about cheap land for white farmers, spreading Christianity, and spreading democracy. A deep misunderstanding is where the war fits into the broader context of American history in the 19th century.