University of North Carolina Press, 206 pages, $24
Confederate statues took a licking in 2020.
A massive likeness of Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederacy, was toppled by protesters in Richmond, Virginia, on June 10. Nine days later, in Washington, a crowd defaced and pulled down a statue of Confederate Gen. Albert Pike, then lit it on fire. And, in July, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to remove all statues of Confederate figures from the U.S. Capitol, including one of Gen. Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate army.
In all, almost 170 Confederate symbols across the country were torn down, removed, or renamed in 2020, according to a Southern Poverty Law Center report. Many of them were statues, but there were also plaques and fountains and public schools and roads. All but one of the removals or changes took place after George Floyd died in Minneapolis.
For many Black Americans — and many Americans of all backgrounds — these long-standing symbols of the Confederacy are ignoble and unhappy reminders of a breakaway nation that fought to keep slavery in place. To them, the statues were erected to intimidate and threaten, and their continued existence is an affront to freedom and justice.
For some defenders of the statues, they are simply historical markers that recognize the past and honor the sacrifice of soldiers. Other defenders, however, including neo-Confederate groups, embrace the statues as symbols of a Southern heritage that not only celebrated white-supremacist beliefs but fought to maintain them.
So, how did all of these statues come to be? And what should be done with them now?
In her essential new book, No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice, historian Karen Cox, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, tracks the origins and spread of the statues and clears up misconceptions about how these sculptures came to liberally pepper our landscape.
The statues did not spring up organically in towns and hamlets across the South after the Confederacy’s capitulation in the Civil War. Rather, Cox writes, they were part of a concerted effort led by the Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) to paint the South in a more favorable light and give succor to those who still believed in the racial superiority of Whites. That effort began years after the Civil War and continued through much of the 20th century.
Cox is a preeminent scholar of how the South has sought to reimagine and portray itself in the years since the Civil War.
“Leaders [of the UDC] established a wide-ranging agenda, but their fundamental mission was to shape the way future generations of white southerners remembered the Civil War, the Confederacy, and slavery, as well as to vindicate the men and women of the Confederate generation,” Cox writes. “Their efforts provided white southerners with a reason to take pride in Confederate heritage and to defend that heritage — including white supremacy — even in the face of a changing South.”
Commissioning the statues is how the UDC stamped its message throughout the South and helped foment belief in the Lost Cause, the revisionist notion that the South had been justified in the Civil War and that it had battled not to keep slavery but to preserve Southern heritage and states’ rights.
The Daughters acted, Cox writes, to perpetuate the values of the Confederacy long after the Civil War ended. “Confederate culture was meant to continue and be carried forth by future generations of white southerners. Monuments were very much a part of that vision.”
Drawing extensively from news accounts, speeches and historical documents, Cox tracks the evolution of Confederate statues from when they began flourishing after Reconstruction and continuing through the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and decades of Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation. It is a robust accounting that links spikes in statue building to periods when White Southerners perceived threats to their control over institutions and wanted to reassert their dominance.
The messages the statues delivered were not lost on anyone. Long after they were erected, the statues continued to “speak” to White and Black Southerners, Cox writes: “White southerners understood these monuments as symbols of defiance — against racial inclusion, federal intrusion, and challenges to the southern way of life. African Americans understood that the hundreds of Confederate monuments spread throughout the southern landscape in places of prominence, whether in town squares, on courthouse lawns, or on university campuses, stood as symbols of racial inequality.”
While the animus directed at the statues in the last decade has been pronounced, Cox offers numerous reminders that calls for Confederate statues to be removed aren’t a modern phenomenon.
But even as calls for their removal have increased, state legislatures have crafted laws making that ever more difficult. “The summer of 2020 did not spell the end of Confederate monuments in the South,” Cox writes. “Though several statues were removed, hundreds remained firmly in place, protected by police, local governments and state legislatures, self-appointed militias, and heritage laws.”
To read this book is to be reminded again that the history of Confederate statues is not ancient, nor even old. While the UDC is no longer commissioning Confederate memorials, other organizations and individuals have taken the baton. Cox notes that since 2000, 35 monuments honoring the Confederacy have been dedicated.