As calls to remove Confederate monuments across the country increase, some defend the statues as true representations of the past. Yet, Confederate statues present a simplified view of both Southern history and U.S. history. Southern history cannot be represented through Confederate soldiers, and neither the South nor the nation was ever as unified as many like to think.
Most Confederate monuments in the South were put up in the period between 1890 and 1920, to symbolize the end of Reconstruction and the ascendance of white supremacy. They kept appearing as Jim Crow persisted in the 20th century. And they appeared all over the United States, not just in Southern states. White leaders in Southern states were not the only ones to embrace Jim Crow; it was a national phenomenon, despite widespread resistance.
Some see a heritage of bravery and honor in those images. Others see a traitorous rebellion against the United States, fought to preserve slavery and white supremacy.
Either way, though, such images help define the Confederacy as “the South,” an association all too apparent in our terminology: We still say that during the Civil War, Southerners (not Confederates) seceded and fought for the South (not the Confederacy). In fact, the Civil War was a conflict between the Confederacy and the United States, not one between the South and the North.
The South did not exist as “the South” until the creation of the Confederacy. It was a diverse region, with a long and complicated history. And during the Civil War, not all Confederates were Southerners and not all Southerners were Confederates.
Black Southerners provide the most obvious example. Barred from participating in politics, enslaved African-Americans could not register their opinions about secession, let alone slavery, at the ballot box. But they made their opinions clear in their actions.
Enslaved African-Americans risked their lives to flee to occupied territory, not just to escape slavery but to assist in the fight against the Confederacy. Ultimately, thousands of African-American recruits from Southern states fought in the United States Army. Many more assisted the Union Army as civilians.
Not all white Southerners supported the Confederacy either, although they opposed it for different reasons than those of enslaved African-Americans. States in the Deep South voted to secede after the election of Abraham Lincoln. But voters in the Upper South were less enthusiastic about leaving the United States and did not agree to secede until after Lincoln issued a call for troops to put down the rebellion of Deep South states.
Many of these voters, who were all white men, supported slavery, but thought remaining within the United States was the best way to preserve the institution. Other voters opposed the war as the product of the outsized political influence of a few wealthy slaveholders: It was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. Dissension persisted within the South, producing horrific violence that some historians have called an inner Civil War.
More than 100,000 Southern white Unionists fought for the U.S. Army, against the Confederacy. There was at least one Union battalion from every Confederate state except South Carolina.
Confederates were not a unified group either. Confederate leaders sparred with each other throughout the conflict. Division went so deep that some governors openly opposed the policies of the Confederate government. Meanwhile, dissension among soldiers inspired the Confederate Army’s staggering desertion rate.
Confederate sympathizers, moreover, did not just live in the states that seceded from the United States. They lived in states that remained in the Union as well. Their influence was powerful and pervasive, evident in elections during the Civil War and the Lincoln administration’s policies.
Lincoln used his war powers to silence dissent within the United States, even as he held out hope that slaveholders would return to the United States. As a result, slavery was not abolished until ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865, after the war’s end.
The Civil War was about conflict within the Confederacy and within the United States. But statues of Confederate soldiers erase those conflicts by portraying the South as united behind the Confederacy.
In fact, the South was as conflicted in the Civil War era as it is now. So was the rest of the United States. And that is why the Confederate statues and their portrayals of false unity are so misleading and dangerous.
The white supremacy groups gathered in Charlottesville because the South can represent a past in which white superiority was uncontested. Even people who do not support white supremacy find solace in the idea of “Southern heritage,” because the phrase suggests a past free from the conflicts of the present.
In truth, there is no place in the American past free from conflict, particularly conflicts about racial inequality. Those conflicts have existed since the nation’s founding, when the Declaration of Independence spoke of equality, despite the reality of inequality — racial, economic and gender.
That paradox — promises of equality in the face of stark inequalities, epitomized by a Southern slaveholder, Thomas Jefferson — is at the heart of our nation’s heritage. It is a complex heritage, flawed and inspirational all at the same time, just like Jefferson. Yet that is our nation’s true history, and the source of our true heroes. It deserves authentic memorials, not marble statues of soldiers who sought to break our nation apart.
Laura Edwards is Peabody Family Professor of History at Duke University. Her books include “A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Nation of Rights” and “Scarlett Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: Southern Women in the Civil War Era.”
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