Over the last few years, there has been vigorous public debate over the (non-)removal of what have been broadly cast as “Confederate monuments.” Those in favor of keeping the monuments sometimes see them as part of a Southern legacy that should not be forgotten—the “heritage” argument. Other supporters, including John Daniel Davidson, political editor of The Federalist, and history professors Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts in an article in The Atlantic, see them as reminders of past struggles that require attention.
Those in favor of removing the monuments, however, view them as symbols of a racist society and a segregated past that must be physically dismantled as a sign of progress. Or, as former FBI Director James Comey expressed in a Washington Post op-ed, “…the statues were put up by white people, beginning in the 1890s, to remind black people that, despite all that nonsense of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, as well as the so-called Reconstruction, we are back, and you are back down.”
Memorializing the “Lost Cause”
Regardless of the position taken on their present preservation, scholars, journalists, and commentators agree that these monuments were a product of efforts in the 1890s-1920s to help memorialize the so-called “Lost Cause.” Adherents of the “Lost Cause” worldview saw the fight of the South during the Civil War as just and heroic, and believed that the struggle was one to preserve Southern life and states’ rights during the “War Between the States”.
This message was pushed heavily by Confederate-focused organizations such as the United Confederate Veterans (UCV), the largest organization of Southern veterans, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), and, most critically, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC)—which to this day works to keep the monuments in place, as noted in an article by The Guardian. Working on their own, with each other, and with local groups and governments, these organizations played an active role in erecting, designing, and maintaining monuments in cities and towns across the postbellum South.
Though much has been said about the historical meaning and symbolism of these monuments (see, for example, Catherine Clinton’s Confederate Statues and Memorialization or Karen L. Cox’s Dixie’s Daughters), scholarship has not been as focused on how these efforts at memorialization by the UCV, SCV, and UDC relate to what other organizations were doing in this era- and why they devoted such significant time, energy, and financial resources to these monuments.
Mobilizing around Death
Our new research in the journal Interest Groups & Advocacy suggests that these efforts at monument building were extensions of a broader practice common among membership associations of the postbellum era, namely the use of death as a means to mobilize people to join and then remain as members of organizations.
Specifically, death can be used as a ritual (providing burial services for deceased members), as presentation (organizational symbols and mottos used in cemeteries and on headstones and grave markers), and as memorialization (such as the designation of specific days to remember deceased members). The use of these practices was widespread throughout the United States—evidence documents their use in fraternal orders, farmers’ organizations, and women’s associations, just to name a few.
In the broader context of the era, it is not hard to imagine how building monuments became part of these Confederate organizations’ efforts to attract and retain members. Monuments to the dead can be seen as both a form of presentation, since some were placed in cemeteries, and more clearly as an effort at memorialization, where these visual displays served as constant reminders of those who passed away. Under this logic, moreover, it is not surprising then that the “Lost Cause” viewpoint became popular at a time when the veterans of the Civil War were aging and dying off—and as Jim Crow laws were spreading throughout the South.
Memorialization as Interest Group Strategy
To Southerners raised to believe that the Confederacy and the war were essential parts of their identity, the passing of veterans was a critical moment of loss, and memorialization was needed. And, to do this, organizing was necessary, starting with the veterans themselves in the UCV in 1889, followed by the UDC in 1894 and the SCV in 1896.
The UCV worked to get more aid and support for veterans, and these related associations were focused on supporting them and their legacy. The process of building monuments became a centerpiece of groups’ efforts, especially the UDC, because it encapsulated all of the skills necessary for an association (and by extension, a cause and an identity) to survive: fund-raising, lobbying government officials, and cooperation to make the erection of a monument a true memorial event. This can be seen in the image on this postcard, from the dedication of a Confederate monument in 1910 in Laurens, Laurens County, South Carolina. This monument was supported by members of the public but built with the help of the UDC. Ultimately, these associations’ interpretations and their means of preservation of Southern history spread throughout the region.
Thus, we argue that scholars and the public alike need to consider these monuments not only as symbols of a “Lost Cause,” but as integral parts of organizations’ efforts at building social capital in the Golden Age of voluntary associations in America. Even as these monuments shine light on what some see as the dark side of organizing in the United States—creating community through associations that reinforced undemocratic practices (in this case segregation)—they may also be scholars’ best archival evidence of the organization and strength of these associations. This evidence is particularly important for Southern associations, as the region is often thought to have lagged behind the Northeast and the Midwest in civic and political organizing during this era.
In short, Confederate monuments play a significant social, cultural, and political role in the region—hence the vigorous debates concerning whether to keep them, and how to contextualize them for the public, or remove them, and what to do after they are removed. Regardless of whether one views them as symbols of heritage, hate, or history, these monuments remind us of how Confederate-based associations kept their members active and engaged—an extension of a broader practice common among voluntary membership associations to use death to attract and keep members during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Breed, Allen G. 2018. “ ‘The Lost Cause’: The Women’s Group Fighting for Confederate Monuments.” The Guardian, August 10th, 2018. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/aug/10/united-daughters-of-the-confederacy-statues-lawsuit.
Clinton, Catherine. 2019. Confederate Statues and Monuments. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press.
Comey, James. 2019. “Take Down the Confederate Statues Now.” Washington Post, February 7th, 2019. Available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/blackface-is-a-tool-of-white-oppression-there-are-many-moer-towering-over-us/2019/02/07/4ea303b6-2b11-11e9-984d-9b8fba003e81_story.html.
Cox, Karen L. 2003. Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.
Davidson, John Daniel. “Why Would Should Keep the Confederate Monuments Right Where They Are.” The Federalist, August 18th, 2017. Available at https://thefederalist.com/2017/08/18/in-defense-of-the-monuments/.
Kytle, Ethan J., and Blain Roberts. 2015. “Take Down the Confederate Flags, but Not the Monuments.” The Atlantic, June 25th, 2015. Available at https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/-confederate-monuments-flags-south-carolina/396836/.