Panel on Confederate monuments discusses removal, historical context

Professors of American History from UConn, Yale, BU, and UNC join together in a workshop panel speaking on the US memory of the Civil War. (Eric Wang/The Daily Campus)

David W. Blight, an American history professor at Yale University and one of three featured speakers at last night’s “Recasting the Confederacy: Monuments and Civil War Memory” event, brought up a relevant quote from poet Robert Penn Warren: “The Civil War lays around in the brush in America like unexploded grenades; sometimes we just step on one.”

This quote set the mood for the entire night, drawing attention to the explosive nature of the conflict between both sides in this debate.

Manisha Sinha, Draper Chair in American History at UConn, said conversations about Confederate monuments, such as last night’s, should be a national one. Sinha said after the events that happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, there was a sense of urgency to these conversations.

This conversation was “timely and essential, said UConn President Susan Herbst. The past heavily claims the present, she said.

Blight focused on the idea of monuments in general, asking why people put such emphasis on their monuments and why they have resonance. Blight compared the Confederate memorials to his personal favorite monument of the Civil War, the Shaw Memorial in Boston, contrasting Northern support for that monument with Confederate commemoration of their ancestors.

The next speaker was Nina Silber, a history professor at Boston University and President-elect of the Society of Civil War Historians, who focused on the representation of the Confederacy in popular media and memory. Silber discussed the harmful effects idolization of the Confederacy causes in the modern day.

“We’ve allowed a fantasy story about the Confederacy to pass off as history,” Silber said.

Silber discussed how the difficulties of the Great Depression created a general nostalgia for “better days” which became captured by revisionist epics like “Gone with the Wind,” where Confederates were described as shining knights who fought for honor. This tide of “Lost Cause” mythology created a surge in monuments to the Confederacy, which would be seen again during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-60s.

“A lot of the campus community wants to have these conversations,” Danielle Dumaine, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the history department who studies 20th century U.S. history, said of the discussion surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments.

“I personally am in favor of tearing them all down, and I welcome more radical solutions. I think the money involved…was something I never considered before,” Dumaine said.

A local solution Blight suggested was moving the statues into a museum. Other actions Blight suggested were a deliberative process that does not include taking the statues down overnight and learning more about the history of the statues.

The final speaker was W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a history professor at the University of North Carolina. Brundage focused on what he saw as the real purpose of the debate, which was not about history but instead over the use of public space.

Brundage suggested having guerrilla artists create statues such as the one of the young girl on Wall Street.

The most fascinating point that Brundage brought up concerned monument statistics in North Carolina. Of the 928 recorded monuments in the state, 233 commemorate the Civil War. Only 34 monuments commemorate African Americans in some way. This large disparity illustrates the attention given to those who fought on the side of slavery versus those who were its victims, or at least felt its long-lasting effects.

After the panel, Blight spoke about the issue of the winners versus losers mentality in the monument debate. Blight said monuments can be interpreted as hateful by some but not by others, using the example of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman supported the slaughter of the Native Americans, yet he is idolized because he was on the victorious side of the Civil War.

In the case of the Revolutionary War, there is no widespread controversy, meaning the monuments are uncontested. However, conflicts like the Gulf War and the ongoing Iraq War are far more unpopular with the public and commemorations to them would likely be met with some resistance, Blight said. This same logic applies to monuments dedicated to the Union and the Confederacy.

“You can wish all these monuments away, but you’ve got to go do it,” Blight said. “The harder question is how do we find the politics to take back control of situations then we can at least take responsibility on what [we can do] with these monuments.”

Blight suggested getting involved in a local movement surrounding the Confederate statues.

“If you wanted to get involved…get involved with some local or state level group that is trying to work against this,” Blight said.

There was no question between the speakers of the racism behind the Confederacy’s cause, but all offered nuanced ways to deal with its symbols and its legacy. In order to heal as a nation, these are the types of voices that must be heard. They all fervently believed historical education is key to moving forward on the issue of Confederate monuments. Without learning more about our history as a nation and discovering the truth behind our culture, misinformation spreads and ignorance reigns instead of unity and perspective.


Kim Nguyen is the associate managing editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at kimberly.nguyen@uconn.edu.

Evan Burns is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at evan.burns@uconn.edu.