Most Confederate monuments in the U.S. were not erected by the Civil War generation to honor their dead. Instead, they were built almost two generations later. What was the cause of this “Monument Fever” that bloomed in the early 1900s, long after the end of the war?
Few Confederate monuments appeared in the South in the years following the war because of the poverty that the war had brought and the reluctance of southerners to put up statues honoring Confederate heroes while federal troops were still stationed in their states.
Southerners of the late 1860s were more concerned with their personal losses, tending the graves of loved ones and struggling to put their own lives back together. In time, though, the economy revived and more southerners could afford monuments that recalled the Confederate dead and their cause.
In 1894, Caroline Meriwether Goodlett and Anna Davenport Raines founded what would become the United Daughters of the Confederacy. They wanted a group that would tell of the Confederacy’s “glorious fight” and keep the memory of its soldiers alive. The UDC denied that it promoted white supremacy, but it strongly supported the memory of the original Ku Klux Klan and actively supported its revival. As late as 2018, the Daughters’ website declared “slaves for the most part, were faithful and devoted. Most slaves were usually ready and willing to serve their masters.”
Eighteen-ninety-four was a year where the reassuring past seemed to be fading away. The country was in a deep recession. Organized labor was staging strikes in major industries. Disruptive technology, in the form of the telephone, was heralding unexpected change. The Civil War was falling out of living memory; many of its famous veterans had already died. Older southerners were concerned the next generation would only know of the war what they learned from the unsympathetic accounts in northern schoolbooks.
The United Daughters wanted to preserve a history that centered on “The Lost Cause”: an interpretation of the war that gave a nobility to the Confederacy’s cause and its defeat.
The Cause involved far more than defending the property rights of slave holders. The South, it asserted, was defending its culture against the North’s influence — a defense of Christianity, social order, and states’ rights.
The Lost Cause emphasized the stories of noble, chivalrous warriors — the type of people who belong on a pedestal. It presented the antebellum South as a land of gracious, cultured living. And it opposed anything that would upset the traditional racial, political, and industrial status quo. It also kindled resentment against the North over what had been lost in the war.
But the narrative of the Lost Cause omits, minimizes, or mis-remembers the most troubling aspects of the war. Professor of History of the Civil War at the University of Virginia Caroline E. Janney calls the Lost Cause as “an important example of public memory, one in which nostalgia for the Confederate past is accompanied by a collective forgetting of the horrors of slavery.”
Henry Louis Gates describes the Lost Cause as “a brilliantly executed propaganda campaign that successfully changed the narrative of the cause of the Civil War from freeing the slaves to preserving states’ rights and a people’s noble way of life.”
The Lost Cause, and the appeal to southerners’ pride, proved successful to the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Between 1900 and 1917, membership grew from 17,000 to 100,000. The Daughters sought to raise awareness of the Lost Cause and to preserve southern virtues by choosing textbooks for schools that best represented their version of the Civil War. But their chief focus was on the construction of Confederate monuments.
In 1907, Goodlett told the United Daughters that, in hindsight, she’d envisioned something for the organization beyond raising statues and funding memorials. She had waited for “the monument fever to abate” so the organization could take on a more important goal. The greatest monument the Daughters could build in the South, she added, “would be an educated motherhood.” But the year that Goodlett made her comments, monument fever was an all-time high and wouldn’t slow for another decade.
Today, about 700 monuments honoring the Confederacy, its soldiers and its statesmen, can be found in 31 states and D.C., though the Confederacy only incorporated 11 states. Given when almost all were built, they are not so much memorials of the 1860s as tributes of the twentieth century to honor a version of southern history that’s goal was to, as Mayor Landrieu put it, “rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.”
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