The Rise and Fall – and Rise – of Confederate Monuments

/ July 10, 2024

The Civil War ended 159 years ago this spring. Despite this long stretch of time, the monuments that arose memorializing the Confederacy and its leaders remain a contentious issue that continues to be debated today, including in the state of Washington.

The Confederate monument erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy at Lakeview Cemetery in 1926

Washington was not a state during the Civil War, and as part of the Oregon Territory it was located over 2,000 miles from the fighting. Yet it is home to several Confederate memorials and namesakes, including a large Confederate tribute in Seattle’s Lakeview Cemetery near Volunteer Park from 1926-2020.

A few other notable examples are Robert E. Lee Boulevard in Richland, Jefferson Davis Park in Richfield, and Mt. Pickett on Orcas Island, named for Confederate General George Pickett who served in the area in the 1850’s. The presence of these tributes, like those primarily in the South, have become the objects of heated debate and will likely play into the so-called culture wars that seem to dominate our political landscape come this November’s election.

More Than 700 Confederate Monuments in 31 States

According to a Southern Poverty Law Center count in 2016, over 700 Confederate monuments, memorials, and namesakes existed in public spaces in 31 states, ranging from Florida to Washington. The issues and arguments for and against keeping these tributes have a similar ring in all 31 states. For those who oppose their removal, the monuments serve to preserve a heritage; removing them is tantamount to “wiping away history”. For those supporting removal the monuments evoke the horrors of slavery and state-sanctioned white supremacy.

Monuments that paid tribute to the Confederacy and its leaders did not actually appear until well after the Civil War. The only commemorative markers that were visible soon after the war were the gravestones and other memorials to Confederate soldiers killed in the war. Only after Reconstruction, which guarded new citizenship rights and voting rights of (male) African Americans, gave way to Jim Crow, which violently took away those rights, were the monuments honoring Confederate leaders erected and celebrated throughout the South and beyond.

The vast majority of Confederate monuments were erected at the violent height of Jim Crow. 

Most of these tributes to the Confederacy were erected between the 1890’s and the 1960’s, almost book-ending the Jim Crow Era. Southern white women, most notably of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, are credited with creating a multitude of Confederate monuments as well as promulgating the “Lost Cause” myth across the country and across generations of Americans. It was its Seattle chapter that was responsible for the monument at Lakeview Cemetery. The Daughters of the Confederacy also dedicated a stretch of Highway 99 as a tribute to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, placing markers at each end of the stretch.

Impact of the Daughters of the Confederacy

In the South, the Daughters, as they were commonly called, also held sway over what was taught in Southern history classes. Following Reconstruction, as public education began to take root in the South, the Daughters were able to successfully ban books that mentioned slavery as the cause of the war and successfully lobby for texts with their romanticized version of the Civil War and the Lost Cause ideology. These efforts have had an effect on young Americans in the South. According to a 2018 survey of high school seniors, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that only eight percent of them identified slavery as the root cause of the Civil War.

Along with the rise in Confederate monuments was the promotion of the Lost Cause narrative of an agrarian society with an enslaved workforce that was better off in a Christian democracy than in “uncivilized” Africa. It was a land and a people whose way of life was continuously threatened by an encroaching federal government that ignored states’ rights. Leaders such as Lee, Davis, and Stonewall Jackson were deified as heroes, noble in their efforts to preserve the Southern way of life. For the spinners of this narrative, slavery was not the issue nor the cause of the war.

For those opposed to the Confederate monuments, slavery and white supremacy were at the heart of the Confederacy and the causes of the Civil War. For them, the standing of monuments in public places which glorify the Confederacy and lionize its leaders, is repugnant.

History sides with the latter view. All but one of the seceding states in their Declarations of Secession cited the election of Abraham Lincoln and the threat to slavery as their main reasons for separation. Virginia’s secession statement blamed the federal government’s “perversion of said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of Southern Slave-holding States”. Mississippi’s statement emphasized slavery’s importance: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery” which provided the labor to which “none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun”.

Had Lincoln, who publicly opposed slavery’s expansion into territory taken after the Mexican War, not been elected, secession would not have occurred. Seven states seceded before Lincoln was sworn in.

The vast majority of Confederate monuments were erected at the violent height of Jim Crow, starting soon after the Supreme Court sustained legal segregation in the 1896 Plessy v Ferguson case. Monument dedication continued to surge between 1920 – 1940 as civil rights groups strove to pass federal anti-lynching laws. A final wave of monuments glorifying the Confederacy took place immediately after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed segregation in public schools. In the backlash to the modern civil rights movement, 45 colleges and schools were named for Confederate leaders between 1945-1970.

Removal of Confederate Monuments

The movement to remove Confederate monuments from public spaces gained traction in the 21st century. The killing of nine Black worshipers by a young white supremacist at Emmanuel AME Church in South Carolina resulted in the long-debated removal of the Confederate Flag at South Carolina’s capitol. A march of right-wing youth in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue led to the death of a female bystander and more monuments coming down.

Still more Confederate monuments were removed after the 2020 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis led to worldwide protests. Legal efforts to remove the

Toppled monument shown on July 4, 2020 at Seattle’s Lakeview Cemetery.

Confederate tribute at Seattle’s Lakeview Cemetery changed nothing since the cemetery lies on private property. However, the monument had been vandalized several times in response to many of the above-mentioned events. In the summer of 2020, it was toppled and destroyed by a group of local activists. Robert E. Lee Elementary school in East Wenatchee changed its name to simply Lee, despite the Wenatchee school board hearing comments largely in favor of keeping the original name. All told, only a small fraction of these monuments has been removed throughout the country.

The backlash to the removal of Confederate monuments and to the Black Lives Matter movement is now focused on retaining the Confederate monuments that still exist. Or resurrecting those that have been removed. This past May the Shenandoah County School Board in Virginia voted 5-1 to restore the names of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee to two schools whose names had been changed during the summer of George Floyd. The 1959 school board meeting minutes confirmed that the name of Jackson was used as a push back to court-ordered integration that at the time was converging on the South.

May’s school board debates were raucous with cheers for each side that filled the room at times. Arguments were divisive, focusing on heritage and racist connotations. One Black student athlete spoke out that she would have to “represent a man that fought for my ancestors to be slaves.” A community member asked the board if it would “listen to the opinions of woke outsiders who have for the most part no ties to the land, the history, or culture of the country?” A few students also spoke in favor of “proudly being able to wear Stonewall Jackson’s name on their jerseys”.

Debate over Monuments Reflects Polarized Electorate

The debate over Confederate monuments is playing out politically on local and national levels. Ironically, it is today’s Republican Party, once the party of Lincoln and the scorn of the South, that is singing the heritage and history tunes; and the Democratic Party, once that of Davis, Lee, and Jackson, that is sympathetic to those calling for the removal of the monuments. In another ironic twist, Republican lawmakers in many southern states who fear that the removal of these monuments erases history, have passed laws limiting the teaching of history – at least as it pertains to slavery and its Jim Crow aftermath.

William Faulkner, who lived and wrote in the Jim Crow South, once wrote: “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”

Seems he was on to something. The highly polarizing issues of Confederate monuments will surely play out to an already polarized electorate this November. With geographic and cultural divides that are eerily similar to those in the 1860’s – 159 years after the Civil War.