The debate over Confederate monuments rages on. You’ve heard the arguments. Were Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson traitors or patriots? Do these monuments stand as symbols of slavery or a constitutional cause?
The issue just became more complicated this month, when The Associated Press reported that the federal government spent nearly $3 million on security for eight Confederate cemeteries outside the former Confederacy. Congress has budgeted $1.6 million more this year. It comes after folks knocked the head off a statue in Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio, and threw paint on a monument in Springfield, Mo.
Wait, what? We are paying to protect the gravesites of people who took up arms against the U.S. government — and in defense of slavery, no less? Well, yes. They are, after all, federal properties managed by the Veterans Administration.
Confederate cemeteries, North or South, present an even more complicated problem than other monuments. We see burial grounds and cemeteries as places carrying out the sacred function of burying and commemorating the dead that articulate our collective memory (albeit a mediated one).
As soon as the Civil War ended, ladies’ memorial associations across the South began collecting the remains of Confederate dead to reinter in new or existing cemeteries. They understood that cemeteries and memory went hand in hand, and sought to deal with the loss of both lives and a cause that was inextricably linked to slavery. No wonder they called it the “Lost Cause.”
Northern cemeteries like Camp Chase or the North Alton Confederate Cemetery in Illinois usually collected the dead from hospitals or war prisoner camps. They were under federal control when they died, so the federal government took on the task of burying them.
Marking and commemorating the cause was different. Organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected statues and monuments in cemeteries that crafted an alternative history. While every state’s secession ordinances named protecting slavery as a cause for leaving the Union, these groups led the charge to write a different narrative in which the war was over states’ rights instead, making them patriots rather than traitors.
Cemeteries were key to this. Statues like the one damaged at Camp Chase or monuments like the one in nearby Alton were erected a generation after war, just like the Confederate monuments in cities, towns and cemeteries across the South. They stood to cast the dead as heroes in a glorious “lost cause.”
Monuments in cemeteries sanctified that message, and dedication speeches at many cemetery monuments said so. One speaker at the 1869 dedication of the Confederate lot at Oakdale Cemetery (Wilmington, N.C.) drew a sharp point that others later confirmed, noting, “Let the stranger, whoever he may be, that visits this sacred spot, go and proclaim it to all the world that these brave men lie here in obedience to the laws of North Carolina.” Six years later, one speaker dubbed the monument at Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis as a “sanctuary.” And so it went.
These statues and markers are not from the Civil War or even its era, but from the turn of the last century as part of a broader version of the Lost Cause narrative. The United Confederate Veterans commissioned the Confederate monument in Missouri’s Springfield National Cemetery in 1901. The statue at Camp Chase was proposed in 1904, and Alton’s four years later. The federal government did not place markers on the graves of Confederate veterans until after the turn of the century. These statues stand as statements by organizations that wanted to craft a new narrative of the war that ignored race and the institution of slavery.
So what do we do with these eight cemeteries and their monuments and statues? They are federal property, after all. And they stand for a cause that sought to endorse racial inequality. But here’s the thing: They force us as a nation to confront and discuss those messages and commemorations. And they compel us to decide about our values moving forward. All of us — you know, We the People.
Jeffrey Smith is professor of history at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, and author of “The Rural Cemetery Movement: Places of Paradox in Nineteenth-Century America.”