I’m encouraged by the current debate on Confederate monuments and memorials. It’s a conversation that is long overdue. Listen to the debate, and you’ll likely hear “tearing down Confederate monuments is erasing history.” I appreciate concern for the past, but this argument is incorrect. Confederate monuments do not communicate detailed history because that isn’t their purpose.
Instead, Confederate monuments seek to present a version of Civil War and Reconstruction history, a version known as the Lost Cause. Ultimately, the Lost Cause seeks to glorify the Confederacy and turn a Confederate loss on the battlefield into a moral victory. The Lost Cause teaches that the Confederates did not secede to preserve slavery, but rather to protect states’ rights; that Confederates were not traitors to the United States; that slaves were content during slavery; and that white Southerners unanimously supported the Confederacy. This is mythology, folks, not history.
Any factual history carved on a Confederate monument is usually the most basic of facts: name and dates, for example. Detailed, well-researched and accurate accounts of the past are not found on monuments but in history texts written by historians, whose job is to research, contextualize, and interpret the past.
Monuments may not communicate detailed accounts of the past, but they do glorify and valorize a person or idea. By erecting a monument in a public space, we are holding that person or idea up to be publicly respected and admired. We also make heroes of the people that monuments exalt. When considering the monuments in our communities, we must ask ourselves, “Is this person or idea worthy of public respect and glory?” An honest consideration of history, free of Lost Cause fantasies, should lead us to say that Confederates are not worthy of public reverence.