The Political Subtext of Confederate Memorials

Photo by Don McCullough | CC BY 2.0

North Carolina is home to more than 200 Civil War memorials, statues, and markers. One such statue, a towering bronze figure of a rifle-bearing Confederate soldier, nicknamed “Silent Sam,” erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1913, faces defiantly north on the upper quad of the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

The debate that has raged around Silent Sam for decades is a microcosm of the national debate about Confederate statuary.

Anti-racist activists say that UNC’s Silent Sam and other statues honoring Confederate soldiers uncritically memorialize the fight to preserve slavery and are symbols of post-Reconstruction resistance to racial equality. As such, they offend contemporary morals and should be relegated to museums or scrapped.

But if the only thing the statues memorialized was the defense of slavery, or if all they did was exalt white supremacy, they would have fewer defenders, and it would be easier to get rid of them.

What the statues also memorialize, even celebrate, are manhood and militarism. This is why statues honoring Confederate soldiers can be found not only in the South but in some Union states as well. It’s also why the statues have such staying power. They visually echo today’s insistent demand to “support the troops.”

Those who want to keep the statues in place are partly right when they say that the statues aren’t about slavery but about recognizing men who fought honorably to defend their…

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