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How White Women Are Responsible for the Confederate Monuments We Have Today

Because their interests were seen as apolitical, white women in the South were able to advance an insidious, racist agenda long after the Civil War had ended.

Bethy Squires

Bethy Squires

Photo via Getty Images

After Dylann Roof's 2015 attack on a Charleston, South Carolina, church, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified 1503 public monuments, markers, or other remembrances to the Confederacy across the country. This number includes schools and buildings named after Confederate soldiers, the soon-to-be-renamed Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway and streets named for Confederate generals, and 718 monuments. In February of this year, the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, voted to remove their monument to Robert E. Lee, which served as the focal point for Jason Kessler's "Unite the Right" rally in August. Proponents of the monuments claim they represent heritage, not hate. "We must know the past to understand our present and prepare for a better future," reads the "About Us" section for the Friends of C'ville Monuments group.

But Confederate monuments were always a tool of white supremacy—that is their history. Long after the Confederacy's demise, Southerners—and, more specifically, white women—used statues, textbooks, and public ceremonies to prop up its legacy. Many of these memorials were put up by Ladies Memorial Associations around the same time that Jim Crow laws were passed in the South—the same groups that edited history textbooks to include a more favorable treatment of the Confederacy. These women wielded race and class privilege to rewrite history.

Read more: Mount Rushmore's Extremely Racist History

In the wake of the Civil War, soldiers' bodies were scattered all over the newly re-American South. Reports came into Washington that Union soldiers' graves were being robbed and desecrated. The corpses at Shiloh were left to be eaten by local hogs. Recovering and interring Union bodies became one of the first projects to take place in America on a national scale. "The program's extensiveness, its cost, its location in national rather than state government, and its connection with the most personal dimensions of individual's lives all would have been unimaginable," writes Drew Gilpin Faust in Wars Within a War, "before the war created its legions of dead, a constituency of the slain and their mourners, who would change the very definition of the nation and its obligations."

Left out of this redefined nation were the Confederate soldiers, who remained in their unmarked graves after the primarily African American soldiers tasked with identifying and reburying the dead had departed. Southern ladies—a loaded word in the South, denoting not just gender but race (white) and class (wealthy)—took it upon themselves to rebury Confederate soldiers. Local Ladies Memorial Associations (LMAs) sprang up all over the South. Often a continuation of the ladies groups that formed to outfit and support Confederate soldiers, LMAs began forming almost as soon as Lee surrendered. These associations were considered largely apolitical, as they were run by that most apolitical of creatures: ladies. Women could not hold dangerous opinions, because women could not hold opinions of their own. In actuality, LMAs preserved a sense of Confederate identity and all that entailed: a resistance to industrialization, white supremacy, and a belief in hyper-traditional gender roles. Because their actions were seen as inherently apolitical and inoffensive, ladies could assert themselves in opposition to the North in ways their husbands could not.

Ladies Associations were also the largest proponents of the Lost Cause narrative, the assertion that the South had seceded, heroically, to preserve states' rights and not slavery. In his book, The Culture of Defeat, historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch likens the Lost Cause to the Christ myth, and the fall of the Confederacy to the Crucifixion. LMAs used this comparison as well. In a letter from the Ladies Association for the Fitting Up of Stonewall Jackson Cemetery, association head Fanny Downing wrote, "Let us remember that we belong to the sex which was last at the cross, first at the grave." Rather than accept defeat and move forward, Southerners recast themselves as saintly victims of a culturally inferior but materially superior horde. Believers in the Lost Cause felt that the South had lost gallantly, and honoring the Confederate dead would preserve their values for future generations. Richmond's Hollywood Memorial Association, one of the first LMAs to come into existence in 1866, wrote that they wanted their cemetery to be a "Mecca" for Southerners: "Let our children grow up, to foster it—making this sacred Spot, more and more attractive, each succeeding year, worthy of being the deposit of our hearts' love, honour and gratitude!" By 1885, 94 Confederate monuments had been constructed across the South.

In 1894, several LMAs jointed together to form the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), a hereditary organization in the style of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The UDC still exists, and continues to work towards its goal of telling the "truthful" history of the Civil War. It was the UDC that gave Vanderbilt University the money to build "Confederate Memorial Hall," then sued when the college changed its name. The UDC gave money to states across the country in an attempt to make a "Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway" that would span the United States (and match a planned "Lincoln Highway"). It was also the UDC who spearheaded the construction of the 90-foot Stone Mountain memorial to three Confederate generals.

In the 1920s, the UDC was also closely involved with "the region's burgeoning public school systems," according to Purdue University historian Caroline Janney. UDC women were often highly respected members of Southern society, and had influence over what textbooks came into their schools. UDC historian Mildred Lewis Rutherford ran the Lucy Cobb Institute in Athens, Georgia—a school named after her cousin—and wrote 29 books and pamphlets with names like "The South Must Have Her Rightful Place in History." They were widely read, and Rutherford organized the UDC to fund schools. She also believed slaves were happy servants, was ardently against women's suffrage, and often spoke publicly at pro-Confederacy events in full Southern belle LARP.

Other UDC members, like Rebecca Latimer Felton, urged the education of rural girls, as they would be "future mothers of the white race." As champions of education, UDC members had the power to censor textbooks to fit their specific criteria. "The UDC insisted that any texts used must conform to the tenets of the Lost Cause," writes Janney in the Encyclopedia Virginia, "secession was preempted by a constitutional dispute; Confederate soldiers fought admirably and honorably against insurmountable odds; and the South fought for self-government, not slavery." Children taught with these textbooks in the 20s and 30s grew into the violent segregationists of the 50s and 60s.

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One of the most audacious monuments ever attempted by the UDC was to be in honor of "faithful slave mammies," and was actually approved by the Senate in 1923. One suggestion for the statue was to depict a seated black woman breastfeeding a white baby, next to a "Fountain of Truth." It would have sat next to a monument to Union general Philip Sheridan. The memorial plan was eventually scrapped because of organized protest, primarily by black women.

Rather than accept defeat, Confederate women immediately began rewriting history to suit their outlook. The Old South was transformed into a bucolic paradise where men were men, women didn't have to work, and slaves were happy. The mental gymnastics are truly staggering. An article in UDC Magazine (the official magazine of the United Daughters of the Confederacy) claimed that the Middle Passage wasn't so bad, because "the sixteen inches of deck space allotted each slave is not all that smaller than the eighteen inches the Royal Navy allowed for each sailor's hammock and the slaves rapidly had more room due the much higher death rate." That article was published in 1989.

The rhetoric of white supremacy hasn't changed much since 1865. Racists still claim they are preserving a dying way of life against outside forces of change. In the 1800s it was carpetbaggers; today it's immigrants. White women still take action to support their white husbands—back then they built obelisks; today they vote for Trump. But even racist textbooks can't change the fact that the South lost the Civil War, and that there is no monument to faithful slave mammies on the National Mall. If racist statues are America's heritage, then so is the successful organizing of black women against those statues.