No mere morality play: Why we need Confederate memorials now more than ever
29 September 2015 – Ashley Luskey
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of posts addressing recent debates over Confederate memory and symbolism in the wake of the shooting of nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina.
In the wake of the June 17 shooting tragedy in Charleston, SC, numerous cities, institutions, politicians, and members of the general public have engaged in an array of important discussions about Confederate imagery and iconography. These discussions have illuminated for a large segment of the public the integral link between slavery and the coming of the Civil War and have prompted important conversations about the evolutionary meanings and appropriations of Confederate symbolism since the war. They have also resulted in necessary revisions of public displays of the Confederate flag, most notably the removal of the flag from the South Carolina state capitol grounds. However, these discussions have also produced a wave of interest in the wholesale destruction of Confederate memorial landscapes, including the removal of century-old Confederate monuments, plaques, and artwork.
Numerous historians, such as Jill Ogline Titus, Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle, and Gordon Rhea, have smartly delineated the differences between Confederate flags and historical, memorial landscapes. I strongly support these historians’ findings, and am in favor of the proposed creation of “counter-monuments” to slaves, African American abolitionists, United States Colored Troops, and Civil Rights activists which, I feel, would conform to the best practices of sharing authority, community engagement, and both activist and cathartic civic dialogue upon which our field has long prided itself. However, I worry that St. Paul’s Church, in Richmond, Virginia, might be contemplating the removal of its own memorial landscape in its discussions about the future of its Confederate memorial Tiffany-stained glass windows. Although the congregation’s discussions to this point are far from conclusive, I believe the importance of these discussions to the overarching debate about Confederate iconography bears address here.
Installed in 1898–the height of the Lost Cause era–these windows are a powerful reflection of a critical time in our nation’s history in which North and South sought to forever bury prior sectional tensions through the whitewashing of the war: removing the issue of slavery from discussions about the war, celebrating the martial glories and bravery exhibited by Civil War soldiers north and south, and uniting the sections over a shared vision of a future nation rooted in white supremacist culture. While this narrative and its palpable present-day legacies understandably anger and disturb many Americans, and most notably African Americans, it is essential that we remember how it came about and how it derived both its culturally seductive influences and its staying power so that we understand some of the roots of contemporary racial discord and so that we might be able to ease such tensions in the future.
Throughout the Civil War, the Confederacy regularly employed religious rhetoric both to justify secession, sacrifice, and mass bloodshed and to garner political and moral support from its constituency for continued dedication to the prosecution of the war effort. One of the most vocal and most influential southern churches that promulgated the intertwining of religion and Confederate politics was none other than Richmond’s St. Paul’s Church–often referred to as the “Church of the Confederacy” for its large contingent of leading Confederate politicians and generals who worshiped among its congregation, including most notably Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.
From the pulpit of St. Paul’s, Reverend Charles Minnegerode, the church’s war-time minister, preached the necessity of religious purity and sacrifice to the Confederate cause to ensure the South’s ultimate victory as “God’s chosen people,” and regularly enforced Jefferson Davis’s numerous calls for days of Thanksgiving and prayer. War-time weddings and funerals at the church for some of the Confederacy’s most revered icons, such as General George Pickett and General John Pegram, reinforced the church as a vital space in which the sacred and the secular intertwined to reinforce the backbone of the Confederate war effort. Appropriately, it was at St. Paul’s that Jefferson Davis received the fateful telegram about the fall of Petersburg on April 2, 1865, that ultimately led to the evacuation of the capital and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9.
That St. Paul’s later chose to install the Tiffany windows honoring the church’s leading Confederate congregants–and tied each of those congregants to a biblical character or scene that the wardens felt corresponded to the congregants’ heroic actions during the war or tragic treatment in the wake of the war–reinforced the popular mythology of the Lost Cause. The postwar union of religion and memory politics and that union’s vital role in perpetuating the myths of the Lost Cause era helped to ensure the endurance of Lost Cause rhetoric, as well as the social and political legacies of racism and historical revisionism that such rhetoric was designed to create.
The windows were, then, admittedly a shameless whitewashing of the past. However, to remove them would be a whitewashing not only of our history but also of our collective memory. We must confront that history and its attenuating, seductive influences that continue to shape our historical memory as a nation, and we must do so everyday. And while some might argue that such confrontation and discussions could easily, and should rightfully, take place within the context of classrooms or museums where such stained glass might be neatly and more “safely” tucked away behind exhibit cases with contextualizing text panels surrounding it, do we not lose an enormous amount of context in separating the memorial object from its original location? Furthermore, as historian Aleia Brown has questioned, would these memorial objects even receive adequate interrogation and reinterpretation in many current museums? Shouldn’t we examine and be forced to think about the power of place and the choices involved in the careful placement of memorial objects such as these within their original spatial contexts in order to understand their full meaning, both at the time of their placement and in the one-hundred-plus years since? Why not add contextualizing panels to the windows themselves–or, in this instance, revised brochures, which St. Paul’s docents already distribute to visitors and interested members of the congregation–that better explain the history and complicated, contested symbolism of the windows?
To remove the St. Paul’s Confederate memorial windows and plaques is to remove a valuable part of Richmond’s memorial landscape and an educational tool that is now more essential than ever to prompting necessary civic dialogue and social progress in contemporary society. Additionally, to remove these windows is to lend credence to the dangerous fallacy that history is a mere morality play and that any history which we do not find agreeable or in-line with our contemporary morals must be erased from the landscape. If we truly wish to practice sensitivity to contemporary social and political issues such as racism, we should be confronting and discussing all of our history–including that of the Lost Cause–more, not less, and in the symbolically powerful public spaces in which that history was originally made and its memory promulgated.
~ Ashley Luskey, Ph.D., is an instructor of history at West Virginia University and an independent historical consultant.