Why Confederate Monuments Were Erected

(June 19, 2018) The diagram below graphs the number of Confederate statues erected between 1870 and 1980. Since the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) compiled the data, they suggest the memorials were most frequently constructed during periods of blatant anti-black activities in the South. In short, they imply that racism was the chief motive for Confederate monument building. To the objective observer, however, the genuine explanations obviously fail to conform to the SPLC’s assumptions. 

The two most notable peaks of were 1900-1915 and 1957-1965.

As the graph indicates, the SPLC implies that the first wave was due to “lynchings, ‘Lost Cause Mythology,’ and a resurgent KKK.” But the facts don’t support their conclusion.

First, the KKK’s resurgence was in the 1920s, at least five-to-ten years after the first peak had already past. Moreover, Indiana had more Klan members during the 1920s than any other state, yet it is north of the Ohio River. Second, the number of lynchings was steadily declining during the 1900-1915 period. Third, a regionally popular Civil War interpretation that the South was fighting for a correct Constitutional principle and heroically lost only against overwhelming odds (Lost Cause Mythology) was was not concentrated in the 1900-1915 period. It remained a popular concept in the South until at least 1950.

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In reality, four factors that the SPLC failed to consider caused the first surge during the 1900-1915 interval. First, the old soldiers were dying and survivors wanted to honor their memories. A twenty-one year old who joined the Rebel army at the start of the war was sixty years old in 1900 and seventy-five in 1915. Second, 1911 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the war and 1915 was the fiftieth anniversary of its end. Third, post-war impoverished Southerners generally did not have enough money to erect memorials until the turn of the century. The region did not even recover to its level of pre-war economic activity until 1900. Fourth, until about 1895 Union veterans often opposed displays of Confederate iconography, an opinion they effectively promoted through their Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) lobbying organization.  The GAR was so powerful that it impelled the federal government to grant generous pensions to Union veterans, while excluding former Confederates. In 1893 Union veterans pensions totaled 40% of the entire federal budget and annual disbursements did not top-out unit 1921.

As for the second surge between 1957 and 1965, the SPLC dubiously attributes it to Southern resentment over public school integration and the 1960s civil rights movement. But it was more likely due to initiatives that memorialized the Civil War Centennial. The U. S. Post Office, for example, issued five commemorative postage stamps during the period. Similarly, the federally sponsored Centennial Civil War Commission issued a commemorative medal featuring reliefs of Grant and Lee on the obverse with opposing infantrymen peacefully depicted on the reverse.

Sources: Leonard J. Moore, Citizen Klansman: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-21; Ludwell Johnson, Division and Reunion; Jill Quadagno, The Transformation of Old Age Security; City University of New York, “Bar Graph of African American Lynchings: 1890-1929,” American Social History Project [https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1884]; William J. Cooper and Thomas Terrill, The American South: A History-Volume 2; William H. Giasson, Federal Military Pensions in the United States

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7 thoughts on “Why Confederate Monuments Were Erected

  1. Pingback: Who Lynched Silent Sam? | Civil War Chat

  2. Sean Michael Chick

    One issue is that monuments are not being taken on the individual level and reasons for the erection that do not conform to the push for removal are swept aside. Some were put up for strictly racist reasons. Others were not.

    Reply
    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      Among those “put up for strictly racist reasons” presumably you are including the the Liberty Place memorial, correct? Can you provide other examples?

      Reply
  3. Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    Focusing attention on Confederate monuments is an excellent way for the SPLC to raise money. Since few of the folks who are likely to contribute to the organization’s coffers are interested in a substantive study of the war or its aftermath, but would rather find windmills to tilt at so they can feel like they’ve “done something,” the SPLC has found a very effective means to tap into a whole lot of cash. And they’ve very good at what they do.

    Reply
  4. Bruce Bayless

    I agree! Good article! The SPLC is primarily a black lobbying group. Karen Cox has tried to link Confederate monuments to white supremacy and racism but there isn’t a good link in my opinion. She believes that was the primary reason the UDC erected them but that isn’t correct. I have a friend who teaches at the University of Texas at Arlington and I agree with him that these monuments are more about self sacrifice and other issues than they are about racism.

    Reply
    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      I don’t object to SPLC lobbying for justice on behalf of blacks, but I strongly object to their smearing of anyone who disagrees with their opinions as “racists” and advocates of “white supremacy.”

      Reply

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