Monday, January 31, 2011

Rebels in the National Statuary Hall Collection

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

A while back, a Twitter friend  @ZebulonPike1813 sent me a note expressing his concern over the placement of former Rebels in the National Statuary Hall and asked for my thoughts. Well - it has been a long time coming but here you go.

It seems that we have a few Rebel traitors on display. Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Joseph Wheeler all turned their backs on the United States and served the Confederacy and now they represent their states in the National Statuary Hall Collection. I am not surprised - there are those who claim that they have no place in this hall of honor. And you know what....maybe these people are right.

But here is where things get a little more complex. The reasons why these individuals are represented at a national shrine tell us quite a bit about the country's history. Davis, Lee, Wheeler (and other Rebs such as Wade Hampton) were all donated in the 1920s and 1930s - decades emblematic in some ways for a national commitment to reconciliation and unity. Now this doesn't mean the nation had forgotten the issues of the war years as some scholars might suggest, but at least a lot of state and national leaders wanted to project a spirit of harmony.

So I say leave them there - but understand how they got there. I am not in favor of removing any statue or monument depicting Confederates or their cause - simply because we can learn from them. The same goes for the naming of US military installations such as Forts Bragg and Hood - I do not believe that any new forts will be named for Rebels...but the ones that were came into being for a very specific reason: to promote national unity...for better or worse.

My suggestion is to look deeper into the meaning behind the statues instead of removing them - the timing of their placement and the event itself. Surely some folks had plenty to say when these monuments were installed.

I am quite sure that there will be some disagreement here and trust me...I am not in favor of promoting the celebration of Rebels who fought to preserve slavery. I am very concerned, however, in understanding why Americans commemorate the way they do...I seek the intentions - the actions - and the reactions...and then write it all down. Maybe I can get to the bottom of this whole reconciliation thing one of these days...stay tuned. I've got a book coming out on the subject.




  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Keith Harris, Zebulon Pike. Zebulon Pike said: RT @MKeithHarris: Rebels in the National Statuary Hall Collection [...]

  2. I agree - instead of whitewashing over the history, dig a little deeper and figure out who, what, and why. Help others to understand why those statues are there. I would say that teaches us more than just replacing the statues with new ones.

  3. Freelance HistorianJanuary 31, 2011 at 2:15 AM

    I think that these statues were chosen by the former Confederate states as an expression of the only heroes that they had at the time, in the most part. The Civil War was still in living memory in the 1920s, and in fact there was friction in World War I when the militias of Northern and Southern states were combined in the AEF (hence the "Rainbow Division" - named so for bringing together the different factions of America into one.)

    I think the choice of Lee, Davis, et al for the Rotunda was a statement from the still-devastated South, a symbol of defiance. Remember, the South at this time still had little to no industry, and was achingly poor. They really had nothing to look forward to, so looked backwards. This was also the heyday of the romanticism of the "Lost Cause" - Gone with the Wind, Hollywood movies depicting a sympathetic South, etc.

    The fact that the southern states were allowed to place those statues in the US Capitol speaks more to the strength of the Union than anything else. The choice of these "state heroes" was not in the spirit of reconciliation at all. It was defiance. Empty defiance. It was a shout to remind the rest of the nation how important they once were. I grew up poor in the Deep South, and this way of thought was deeply ingrained into the psyche of the people, even in the 60s and 70s.

    Even if some saw these statues as inflammatory (much like the sudden adoption of Confederate symbolism in state flags after the Civil Rights movement started in the 1960s,) there was no question that any state would ever mount another actual insurrection. The nation is strong enough and integrated enough as a people that such acts will never tear it apart again.

  4. Check out my follow-up post here- at Interpreting the Civil War...