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Confederate Monuments: Rebranding the South

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The Civil War didn’t end in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. General Robert E Lee abandoned the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia and fought his last battle in Appomattox. The hot portion of the Civil War ended that day, April 9,1865. The Cold portion of the Civil War persists to this day.

Neo Nazis and white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend under the auspices of protesting the removal of a statue honoring the aforementioned Gen. Lee. There has been a movement afoot to remove monuments to the Confederacy, but up until now the movement had not been able to generate enough of a ground swell to really effect change. However, the hatred and enmity on display last weekend gave many a front row seat to the true purpose behind these monuments, branding the South as the last bastion of white supremacy.

Branding is about imprinting an idea in the minds of consumers. For example the apple company has made their products synonymous with progress, sleekness, and exclusivity. When you think Chanel or Mont Blanc, you think luxury. Similarly, the goal of Confederate monuments and statues is to make you think “heritage” as opposed to treason, oppression, and racism. There are more than 1,000 monuments to the Confederacy spread across the country. Some of these statues are in far flung locales that had little to nothing to do with the Civil War. States like Washington, Massachusetts, and the Dakotas have statues honoring men who fought against the union. Branding. The names of Confederate Generals and officials are plastered on schools, street signs, government buildings, and in public spaces.

This rebranding of the Confederacy is based in an ideology called the “Lost Cause Myth”. The myth recasts the Civil War as a battle over state’s rights and an honorable struggle to preserve the southern way of life. The myth downplays the role of slavery in the conflict as secondary and non essential. Historians say that the “Lost Cause Myth” is one of three visions of the South that emerged during the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War.

In his book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, historian David Blight writes, “Three visions of Civil War memory appeared during Reconstruction: the reconciliationist vision, which was rooted in coping with the death and devastation the war had brought; the white supremacist vision, which included terror and violence; and the emancipationist vision, which sought full freedom, citizenship and Constitutional equality  for African Americans.”

The rebranding of the Civil War as a noble struggle for self determination grew rapidly during the Jim Crow era. Reconstruction produced the Reconstruction Amendments, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments which abolished slavery, address citizenship rights and equal protections under the law, and prohibits discrimination in voting rights of citizens on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Reconstruction ended in 1870. By the time Jim Crow came along, the South had had time to come make to grips with the reorganization of American society and how they would reassert dominance in the region and sow the seeds of revisionist history and white supremacist ideology we saw bloom in Charlottesville. There’s more to this than stone and mortar. The building up of the Nation’s Confederate Memorial Infrastructure is a form of psychological warfare.

When a monument to General Lee or Stonewall Jackson pops up in a state like Washington, the presumption is that the city or municipality where the edifice lives holds great respect for the Confederacy and decided to memorialize that respect in the form of a statue or a naming ceremony at the local high school. The reality is a lot less romantic and a lot more pragmatic. Groups like The United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans bill themselves as heritage groups. Their stated goals are to commemorate Confederate soldiers and pass on a mythic interpretation of the Civil War. Branding.

Their efforts also involve an educational aspect that seeks to embed in the next generation a “proper respect for and pride in the glorious war history.” This is according to Kristina DuRocher, author of Raising Racist Children: The Socialization of White Children in the Jim Crow South. According to DuRocher, “Like the KKK’s children’s groups, the UDC utilized the Children of the Confederacy to impart to the rising generations their own white-supremacist vision of the future.” Branding.

So the efforts to remove Confederate monuments is actually a massive effort to rebrand the South in particular and the country as a whole. While there are statues that can be pulled down, uprooted, or moved, there are others that are engrained in the landscape of the country. Between 1916 and 1972 sculptors created three huge bas-relief images of Lee, Davis and Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson on the side of Stone Mountain, an 80-story-high rock outcropping in Atlanta’s eastern suburbs. There are 35 and 75 foot obelisk memorializing the Confederacy in Fairview, Kentucky and Asheville, North Carolina respectively. There are also hundreds of private monuments, museums and memorials spread throughout the country. Collectively these edifices are referred to as the Nation’s Confederate Memorial Infrastructure. It’s a profitable industry and well supported in various parts of the country.

The opinion of most historians and experts is that it is virtually impossible to remove all remnants of the Confederacy. In other words the branding efforts of the UDC and the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other groups worked. You can hear the success of their endeavor in the words of the current president. He has lamented the bringing down of these monuments as a loss of beauty in the country and an attempt at rewriting history. Heritage over Supremacy. Branding.

In the end, this issue is layered and intertwined with the ideas of free expression and liberty. When is a statue not just a statue? When it’s a symbol. America has always been big in iconography, so it is no wonder that the sons and daughters of defeated slave owners and traitors would use imagery to rebrand their history and extremist ideology. Efforts to undo this decades long endeavor to rebrand the Confederacy and white supremacy will be a hard slog forward, but when we look at the issue in context, it is a more than worthy cause.  Confederate Monuments are weapons in an ongoing Cold War between secessionist and the mainstream.



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