Bidding Adieu to Confederate Monuments in New Orleans

Jefferson-Davis
Jefferson Davis Monument, New Orleans.

In the wake of the human tragedy Charleston, South Carolina, where nine members of Emanuel AME Church were murdered by a white supremacist neo-Confederate, there has been a push in southern states to remove the symbols of the region’s Confederate past.  Until now, only battle flags have been targeted.

But recently, the city council in New Orleans voted to remove Confederate monuments from its urban landscape, including those to Gens. Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, as well as one to the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.  Council members accomplished this feat through an ordinance that defined these monuments as a public “nuisance.”

According to the ordinance:

They honor, praise, or foster ideologies which are in conflict with the requirements of equal protection for citizens as provided by the constitution and laws of the United States, the state, or the laws of the city and suggests the supremacy of one ethnic, religious, or racial group over another.

This angers Confederate sympathizers like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy who believe that such memorials honor their ancestors’ sacrifices.  It also makes some historians a little uneasy, as they worry about erasing history, arguing that even when that past is ugly it should remain as a reminder to never repeat that past.

Yet much of what the ordinance says is true.  Confederate monuments were erected in a moment of white supremacist backlash to black progress and were not simply memorials to honor ancestors.  They were that, but they were also powerful symbols of white rule serving notice to black citizens that they were, at best, second-class citizens.

Unveiling ceremonies, Jefferson Davis Monument in New Orleans, 1907.
Unveiling ceremonies, Jefferson Davis Monument in New Orleans, 1907.

When the Jefferson Davis Memorial in New Orleans was unveiled in 1907, it was attended by thousands of white citizens. The ceremony included over 500 children from the city’s white public schools who formed what were known as “living battle flags.”  These children, dressed in the colors that make up the flag, were then arranged on a stand so that they formed a Confederate battle flag.  In that formation, they sang “Dixie” and even “America.”

But make no mistake, the loyalty expressed by white southerners during this and similar ceremonies across the South were first and foremost to the former Confederacy.

Monuments and memorials are generally a reflection of the values of the generation that originally placed them there. In 1907, the Davis monument reflected the values of a generation of whites dedicated to the idea of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Indeed, during speeches given at unveiling ceremonies across the South, they said as much.

So how should we consider removing such monuments and memorials?

If landscapes are constantly evolving, can the removal of the Confederate monuments in New Orleans or elsewhere be understood as part of that evolution and a reflection of values of the current generation?

Others will see this as a historic preservation issue.  As most of us know, preservation is a difficult sell under the best of circumstances.  Some buildings get preserved, while others are razed in order to build something new in its place.

In this, I am reminded of a statement made by a curator at the National Museum of American History many years ago during one of my visits.  She discussed how the museum had previously exhibited women’s work in the 18th and 19th centuries by showcasing several spinning wheels of various sizes. She asked, rhetorically, “how many spinning wheels are needed to demonstrate that this was the kind of work most women did?”  Not an entire room full.

The same might be asked about the hundreds of Confederate monuments and memorials that are found across the southern landscape.

How many are needed to demonstrate that a generation of southern whites built monuments to the Confederate past?

 

 

 

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Me and Jeff Davis, Part VII: His Crown of Thorns

JD's crown and the Confederate Museum's story that the Pope made it.
JD’s crown of thorns

Nothing says “Christian martyr” like a crown of thorns, but did you know that Jefferson Davis had one, too?  He did.

Preparing my manuscript on the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) often took me to the Museum of the Confederacy (MOC) in Richmond. In one final trip to search for images with which to illustrate my book, I traveled there in the spring of 2002. At the time, the MOC was hosting a special exhibit of items on loan from the Confederate Memorial Hall Museum in New Orleans, which opened in 1891 and is one of the oldest history museums in the South.

I walked through the exhibit, observing objects from several of the South’s heroes (General P.G.T. Beauregard‘s uniform, for example) and then was stopped in my tracks by the relic of all Lost Cause relics. There before me under plexiglas was a crown of thorns. Without reading the exhibit copy, I instinctively knew it was for Jeff. And, yes, I was right. Here before me rested the ultimate symbol of his martyrdom—a crown of thorns. I could hardly believe my eyes. I saw (but would not touch) the locks of his hair, and now I found myself gazing on his crown of thorns.

The martyrdom of Jeff Davis began to take shape during his imprisonment at Fort Monroe in Va.
The martyrdom of Jeff Davis began to take shape during his imprisonment at Fort Monroe in Va.

The thorny wreath, according to the Confederate Museum that owns it, was “sent to Davis by Pope Pius IX in sympathy for Davis’ post war treatment by the U.S. government while a prisoner at Fortress Monroe.” That seemed like a sacrilegious thing for a pope to do, but the representatives of the museum have yet to waiver from their story. However, the researchers at the Museum of the Confederacy documented their version, which is that his wife Varina Davis made the crown. An inventory of items donated by Varina to the Confederate Museum in New Orleans confirms that she made the crown, but I’ve yet to find out why. (Kevin Levin offers the documentation on his Civil War Memory site.)

This object, this relic of the Lost Cause, makes quite a statement about Davis as a martyr, because not every martyr gets a crown of thorns. Did the white South believe so whole-heartedly that his sacrifices were Christ-like?

I have no doubt that the early members of the UDC were on board with the “Davis as martyr” image, because it was in keeping with the stories written about women of the Confederate generation in the years following the Civil War.

Those “women of the sixties” were frequently compared to Mary and Martha of the Bible, “last at the cross and first at the grave.” Perhaps the UDC saw its role in preserving the image of Jeff Davis as similar in intent.

The crown of thorns, while made by Varina, served its purpose as the pièce de résistance in a much larger campaign by women to resurrect Davis’s image.

Check back for the final installment of Me and Jeff Davis: The Serial when I discuss the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library as well as the financial and political costs of the Lost Cause.

 

Me and Jeff Davis: The Serial

moijefferson-davis-portrait

This week, and for the next several weeks, Pop South will offer a serial called “Me and Jeff Davis,” based on an essay I wrote for fun but for which I never found the right publishing venue.  Now that I have a blog and we are still in the midst of the Civil War sesquicentennial, why not? What follows is Part 1.

As scholars we often develop a personal relationship with our work, feeling as if we know the people we study even though they have long since died. Early in my career, my research involved a study of the Lost Cause, more specifically, those women who helped to preserve it for generations—the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC).

UDCTN1900
UDC members in Jackson, Tennessee. 1900.

Through these women, and my fascination with the Confederate tradition in the New South, I became very familiar with Jefferson Davis, or “Jeff,” as I like to call him.

Lost Cause Jeff.
Lost Cause Jeff.

Jeff Davis of the Lost Cause was quite different from Jefferson Davis, one and only Confederate President. The postwar Davis is a man whose journey from despised loser to sacred martyr is the man I came to know through my research.

The UDC made sure of it, even if Davis had never participated in the resurrection of his own image, which he did. They built grand monuments to him in New Orleans and Richmond, and smaller places in between. His image is one of three Confederate leaders carved into Stone Mountain in Georgia. There’s even a highway named for him, compliments of these Daughters of the Confederacy.

And while Robert E. Lee may have been the South’s most beloved hero, Jefferson Davis was the Daughters’ “Man.” He symbolized the South in her loss, defending the cause of states’ rights and his, as well as the region’s, reputation. Moreover, for the devotees of the Lost Cause, especially women, he was THE martyr of a defeated southern nation.

In fact, he was often likened to Jesus Christ; just as Christianity’s martyr died for the sins of humanity, the South’s martyr—Jefferson Davis—was regarded as self-sacrificing, a man who went to prison and suffered in behalf of the entire region.

The Jefferson Davis Monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA, was a result of UDC fundraising efforts.
The Jefferson Davis Monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA, was a result of UDC fundraising efforts.

How did Davis’ reputation as a martyr play itself out in the South?

In fascinating, costly, and even bizarre ways. In fact, I often liken my own experience with Lost Cause Jeff as something like going to a sideshow at the annual fair—you don’t want to look, but you can’t help yourself. Indeed, from the first time I came to study the Lost Cause and the UDC, it was Jeff Davis who kept revealing himself to me, and not in the most conventional ways.

Return for Part 2 of Me and Jeff Davis: The Serial, entitled “Beauvoir, Catafalques, and Head Start.” Yes, you read that correctly.

 

Pop South Goes North to Clark University in Worcester, MA

New England didn't get the memo that it was the second day of Spring.
New England didn’t get the memo that it was the second day of Spring.

What a thrill it was to be asked to come North to discuss my scholarship with the wonderful people at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.  I was invited several months ago by Dr. Janette Greenwood of the History Department to speak with students and to deliver the annual Bland-Lee Lecture, which is supported by a generous donation from the Chester Bland family in honor of former history professor Dr. Dwight Lee.

My first talk was with students from two different classes, one on public history and one on collective memory and mass violence. We met in the Goddard Rare Book Room of the library, a room filled with beautiful volumes of books, perfect for a salon-like discussion. While there I talked with students about the work of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in preserving Confederate Memory in the era of the New South. Students asked terrific questions, many of which were based on their reading of my book Dixie’s Daughters.

Me with the great students I met at Clark University.
Me with the great students I met at Clark University.

Later in the day, after a very welcome plug by golocalworcester, I had the privilege of speaking before a crowd of close to 75 people about the northern origins of the romanticized South.  It was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to discuss my work with a northern audience, so I was pleased to hear their thoughts.

I began by asking those gathered (including Clark University President David Angel) if they had ever spent time in the South.  Many raised their hands, although I’m not sure how much time they had actually spent here. Then I asked, “how many of you have preconceived notions about the South?” A majority of the hands in the audience went up.  Then, I proceeded to illustrate the ways in which the North and northern purveyors of popular culture have been responsible for how we as a country perceive the South, including up to the present day. Afterward, I fielded questions for more than 30 minutes. To the point of exhaustion.  I realized that, to this day, northerners still don’t quite understand the South.  It is still regarded as a region of “others.” But to be fair, I imagine many southerners look askance at northerners as well.  And so it has been since we’ve been a nation.

Jennifer Fitzroy, a student from nearby Boston College, surprised me by attending the talk.
Jennifer Fitzroy, a student from nearby Boston College, surprised me by attending the talk.

One of the pleasant parts of my visit was the opportunity I had to speak with Clark students.  They were smart, engaged, community-minded, and all-around outstanding individuals.  All of them serve as reminders that a strong liberal arts education is an outstanding foundation upon which to build our future.