The current controversy over Confederate markers and symbols has come to Columbia, in the form of the “Confederate rock” which sat in the center of the University of Missouri campus when I was an undergraduate, was quietly and unceremoniously whisked out of sight during an earlier period of racial turmoil, and wound up a few years later on the lawn of the Boone County Courthouse. Now a petition is circulating to have the rock removed.
I completely support the idea of removing the Confederate battle flag from state monuments and public areas; the flag was appropriated by racist groups in the 1950s and 1960s to become an unmistakable symbol of hatred and intimidation. (For proof, check out this image of the flag’s use during the 1957 Arkansas desegregation battle.) But the monuments and other commemorations present a more complicated issue.
Descendants of Confederate veterans defend the monuments, statues, and other such emblems as non-racist commemorations of their ancestors’ valor and sacrifice. And there is no doubt that many thousands of soldiers for the Confederacy fought for their side while having little or no sympathy for the institution of slavery. But even so, the cause of the war was slavery. The claim of “states’ rights” being the cause of the war is unpersuasive; if anything, the Southern states were angered by states in the Northeast exercising their rights by refusing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Any doubt that slavery was not the principal cause of the war can be dispelled by reading Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone” speech, considered to be the “Confederate Declaration of Independence.”
So how to commemorate brave men who fought for an evil cause? Especially in states that participated in the rebellion? The plaque on the Confederate Rock seems bland enough: “To honor the valor and patriotism of Confederate veterans of Boone County.” But what’s patriotic about declaring war on your own country? Especially when the cause of that rebellion was the stated desire to maintain millions of Americans in subjugation? Is this something to be honored or embarrassed about?
The post-Civil War years in Missouri were characterized in Aaron Astor’s book Rebels on the Border as a time of “retroactive secession,” in which the state’s mixed association with the Confederacy was reinterpreted to reinforce ideas of white supremacy and white cultural superiority that had been unexamined on both sides during the war itself, but which then came under attack because of rising black political assertiveness. The erection of monuments does not happen free of a political context, and those monuments carry that stain today.
Confederate monuments are not like other war memorials, which commemorate occasions of national solidarity and effort. On battlefields and in cemeteries, the monuments appropriately recognize human sacrifice and bravery; on the courthouse lawn, they inappropriately fix a time of national agony as something uncomplicatedly worthy of honor. The rock belongs in a cemetery, not a place of public business.