In New York, a church removed the plaque from a tree planted on its grounds by Robert E. Lee. That same day in far-off San Diego, the bronze dedication to Jefferson Davis was stripped from the highway which bears his name. Forgiveness and historical perspective are lately in very short supply
They swung into hushed action in early morning a few months ago, just before 1.30 a.m. on Monday, April 24. A large contingent of New Orleans police barricaded off Iberville Street and Canal Place, temporary lighting was set up, and police snipers were stationed on a parking garage and other buildings with a clear view overlooking the Battle of Liberty Place monument.
Then trucks and equipment from the demolition company arrived. On each vehicle the firm’s name and logo were concealed by masking tape and cardboard, while workers had been issued with bulletproof vests, yellow helmets and bandanas which they tied across their faces to prevent identification. A cherry-picker was carefully moved into place, with a tarpaulin positioned to obstruct view of actual work, then, at about 3.00 a.m. a couple of workmen, armed with grinders, started removing the top section of the obelisk.
This essay appears in the December edition of Quadrant.
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Once that first section had been levered away then dropped on a flatbed truck, at 3.15 a.m., the New Orleans mayor’s office issued a press statement formally announcing that the Battle of Liberty Place monument was being removed, and that another three divisive public statues—of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, of General Robert E. Lee, and of General P.G.T. Beauregard—would likewise be going in weeks to come. The statement explained that private funding from unnamed sources was paying for the work, and that “details about future statue removals will not be provided to the public” for safety reasons. The city mayor, Mitch Landrieu, emphasised that the removal “sends a clear and unequivocal message” about New Orleans’s focus on celebrating “our diversity, inclusion and tolerance”. He went on:
Relocating these Confederate monuments is not about taking something away from someone else. This is not about politics, blame or retaliation. This is not a naive quest to solve all our problems at once. This is about showing the whole world that we as a city and as a people are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile—and most importantly—choose a better future.
The Jefferson Davis statue was whisked away on May 11, followed six days later by the equestrian statue of General Beauregard. The Robert E. Lee memorial looked like a tougher proposition. Modelled on Nelson’s Column in London, the general’s statue surveyed New Orleans from atop a sixty-foot column rising from a twelve-foot earth mound in a traffic island. The media confidently predicted a delay before complex work could occur. But only two days later the city council and police moved in a lightning operation, with a crane swinging the bronze figure free of its column on May 19.
It can be baffling for Australians to fathom present efforts in America seemingly to purge certain cities and towns of Civil War-related memorials. Why are statues being removed? Is art being censored? Are unpalatable aspects of history now to be erased? Various academics and artists here worry the trend resembles political correctness taken to extremes. Matters are not clarified by a sensationalist media which has reported contentious removals without explaining the deeper history of these memorials; because most have been the symbolic focus of bitter troubles festering in their communities for generations.
Take the Battle of Liberty Place monument in New Orleans. This commemorated an attempted armed coup in 1874 by a renegade group, the Democratic White League, which was seething at the result of Louisiana’s post-Civil War elections. Comprising former Confederate soldiers, League members deemed the elections invalid because blacks had been allowed to vote and stand as candidates.
So on September 19, 1874, the 5000-strong League rode en masse into New Orleans intending to unseat the state governor, William Kellogg, and his black lieutenant-governor, Caesar Antoine, both Republicans. In a pitched fire-fight on Canal Place, the League easily defeated the outnumbered city police and state militia, who sustained over 100 casualties. The League then occupied the state house, armoury and several nearby buildings, intent on taking control of the state and installing a white Democrat leadership. But after three days they fled the city when news broke that a sizable force of federal troops was on its way.
The monument, an obelisk which commemorates the League’s action, was erected near the centre of town on Canal Street in 1891. Far from their violently trying to overthrow democracy, the memorial claimed the renegades had been defending “liberty” and their cowardly attack on police was a “battle”. It was installed by the Democrat mayor, Joseph Shakspeare, and his all-white city council. In 1932 under another Democrat mayor, Thomas Walmsley, further triumphal inscriptions were added to the monument claiming the bloody uprising had affirmed “white supremacy” by seeking to restrict Louisiana elections to white voters and candidates.
The first attempt to get rid of the incendiary monument occurred after it was dismantled and temporarily removed due to roadworks in 1965. Opposition to its return was strong. Besides members of the black community, those of Italian descent had always loathed the racist edifice (members of the White League led a mob that lynched nine Italians in 1891). In a climate of Civil Rights it had also become an embarrassment to Democrats by gesturing to an era when their party had very different values. But, flouting community objections, the New Orleans city council re-erected it in 1970.
The obelisk then became a flashpoint for political unrest. It was regularly vandalised. Civil Rights protests were periodically held by it, while the Ku Klux Klan and similar extremists used it as a rallying point. So a plaque, distancing the city council from the racism of the past, was set before the monument’s base in 1974. Two years later the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People petitioned for the monument’s removal. The city council didn’t shift ground.
Change looked like it would occur when, more than a century after the Civil War, New Orleans elected its first black mayor, Ernest “Dutch” Morial. He tried to remove the Battle of Liberty Place monument in 1981. But he was blocked by the city council. In the ensuing public uproar, the council agreed to remove the 1932 inscription which claimed “white supremacy”.
The monument was placed in storage during major roadworks in 1989. Pulling behind another black mayor, Sidney Barthelemy, the city council now agreed the obelisk violated a nuisance ordinance. A community debate followed during which it looked as if the monument would not be re-installed. However, the forces of reaction prevailed, and the obelisk went up again, this time in a less prominent site some distance away off Iberville Street between a garage and a flood wall. Part of the original inscription was also obliterated, and the sober message added: “A conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future.”
Nevertheless, the monument continued to draw political turmoil. It was still a magnet for vandalism and continual anti-racist graffiti. And white supremacists—who declared it a symbol of “white pride”—again tried to use it for rallies. Then, in early 2012, graffiti protesting against the shootings of blacks by police was daubed on the obelisk, as well as prominent statues of Jefferson Davis and General Beauregard elsewhere in New Orleans. The graffiti was cleaned off several times, but kept returning.
Invoking the nuisance ordinance in mid-2015, the present mayor, Mitch Landrieu, announced he would remove the troublesome memorial, along with statues of Lee, Davis and Beauregard. This prompted assorted law-makers in the state capital, Baton Rouge, to try legislative means to block the city, culminating in the matter going before a three-judge panel at the 5th Circuit of the US Court of Appeals earlier this year. Along with bills filed during the 2017 state session to halt any removal, the Lieutenant-Governor, Billy Nungesser, even asked the White House to intervene. In this he seemingly went against the Governor, John Bel Edwards, who told the Times-Picayune that any decision on its monuments rested with New Orleans, and no one else.
It wasn’t a clean contest, for opposition to the memorials’ removal turned positively venomous. Death threats were made against contractors who put in bids. Thuggery and arson occurred. Few were surprised when the firm initially awarded the job pulled out in 2016: the owner’s $200,000 car had been set on fire and destroyed.
After years of delay, the Battle of Liberty Place monument was finally removed last April.
Public war memorials are community symbols. They always have been. Whether we are speaking of bronze plaques, statues of uniformed soldiers, parklands bearing names of battlefields or generals, even—in the case of rural Australia—special rows of trees flanking a main street, memorials are established as enduring proclamations of cherished values. This is why with the passage of time some will take on religious-like associations, as the historian Ken Inglis explored in Sacred Places, his thoughtful 1998 book on Australia’s outdoor war memorials. Communities can have a deep attachment to them which should not be dismissed as mere sentiment. Moral beliefs will be at stake.
We saw a display of this a decade back when bureaucrats tried to meddle with a country memorial in Victoria for trifling reasons. The authority responsible for highways announced it would remove several dozen elms in the famed Avenue of Honour at Bacchus Marsh. A traffic interchange for the bypass circling the town was being modified. So the trees, each planted in memory of a local volunteer who had died in the Great War, and each with its individual plaque, were for the chop. The media erupted, the RSL went berserk, tearful children held signs at Anzac Day ceremonies. The road planners were inflexible, and the rumpus got worse, culminating in parliamentary backbiting. The trees got a reprieve.
Not all memorials escape official meddlers, as occurred in Melbourne in the mid-1990s. After the Great War, the trustees of that grand old Swanston Street building which housed the State Library, History and Science Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria installed on the forecourt two life-size bronze statues standing watch. Many Melburnians will recall them. To the left was Wipers, a vigilant soldier from the trenches standing guard; to the right was The Driver, a navy sailor alert as he steered a ship’s wheel.
They were sculpted by the distinguished artist Charles Jagger, who had himself served at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. These paired statues were positioned as symbolic protectors of the library, museums and gallery—that is, of civilisation. The forecourt paths were set so visitors had to pass one or other of these vigilant figures. Jagger designed major war memorials in Britain, and Melbourne was fortunate to get the ensemble. Its whole point was to convey that those who served in the AIF had defended civilisation. It was an internationally significant artistic tableau.
However, this carefully arranged and deeply symbolic memorial was discarded two decades ago when the building underwent refurbishment. The government had ambitions for the state library, including a busy café out front. This central city war memorial was in the way, indeed the government declared it badly located. So the statues were carted to distant parkland, then foolishly placed back-to-back like giant bookends. There they now stand under a poplar tree, demoted to a decorative feature, no longer guarding anything.
The differences between Australia’s military monuments and American Civil War memorials are not limited to subject matter. Our monuments point to conflicts in which this nation was largely united against other countries. However, Civil War memorials recall events within a nation divided against itself: neighbour could fight neighbour, entire families sometimes split.
Australian monuments mostly gesture to political and social realities that have been historically laid to rest; it’s a long time since Prussia was regarded as a military aggressor and threat to world peace. In contrast, Civil War monuments involve racial tensions that still play an active role in American society. This is why the writer Robert Lowell struck such a chord in 1960 when he recited at a Boston arts festival his newly composed poem “For the Union Dead”. Its subject was a relief sculpture on Boston Common which is dedicated to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. This memorial depicts the soldiers departing Boston to fight the Confederacy.
Beginning with the Latin inscription, “they gave everything to serve the Republic”, Lowell’s poem on this statue was a moving reflection on how—as southern segregation ruptured the nation—a vulgar materialism had replaced New England’s former virtuous ideals. Fixated with property development, cars, television, and above all money, modern Boston is portrayed as being shamed by these neglected Yankee memorials:
On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards …
Of course, cities and towns will be motivated to erect monuments for a variety of reasons. Most Australian war memorials appeared within a few years of hostilities ending, and often constituted a formal act of mourning. They laid the conflict to rest, with the larger edifices and buildings being official shrines. But in America most Civil War memorials went up decades after the last bugles sounded, being erected over the period 1895 to 1929 after Southern state economies had recovered. And if some were earnest expressions of mourning, certain Confederate monuments did aim to stir bitterness in their communities, nurturing resentment against the victors. Conflict had not been resolved.
The Battle of Liberty Place monument is a firm example of this. It was erected twenty years after war’s end as a provocation. The mayor and city council were taunting local Republicans and those who supported black rights. These taunts escalated in 1932 with the new inscription added to the memorial. The Confederacy may have lost the Civil War, but those who ran New Orleans signalled their belligerent adherence to Jim Crow values. No wonder this obelisk has long headed a list of Southern memorials that human rights activists wanted removed. The Battle of Liberty Place monument was designed to cause trouble, which it manifestly has succeeded in doing.
There is also an emerging pattern in America for staid memorials—usually statues of civic leaders or famed generals—to be used by Southern recusants to stir trouble. Eleanor Harvey of the Smithsonian Art Museum has identified a worrying trend where far-Right opportunists select a plain yet prominent public sculpture then talk it up as expressing toxic sentiments. This was seen with the statue of Robert E. Lee at Charlottesville, Virginia. “If white nationalists and neo-Nazis are now claiming this as part of their heritage,” she warned, “they have essentially co-opted those images and those statues beyond any capacity to neutralize them again.’ Dr Harvey herself has a personal stake in preventing sculptures being twisted into modern symbols of hate:
I’m from Virginia—everyone in my family background fought on the side of the Confederacy. I take from my family history the obligation to think about what my beliefs are, what country I want to live in. That certainly doesn’t mean I disavow my ancestors, but I feel no obligation to justify what they did.
Events at Charlottesville over Friday, August 11, and Saturday, August 12, 2017, have forced the issue across the entire nation. Earlier in the year the city council had already resolved to change the name of Stonewall Jackson Park to Justice Park and Robert E. Lee Park to Emancipation Park, and it was hoped the removal of General Lee’s prominent statue would arrest a cycle of agitation and unrest. An attention-catching rally by the group Unite the Right was to occur, although the city was counting on it being a final big protest.
Friday night’s preliminary demonstration was an unsettling act of theatre recalling the terror of Jim Crow. Bearing flaming torches, an advance party from Unite the Right processed through the dark onto the campus of the University of Virginia. They wanted to gather beneath a famed statue of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. The preamble of that signal document might state “all men are created equal”, yet the white supremacists were intent on claiming Jefferson as their own. They were met by students and faculty members who had formed a silent human barrier around the bronze effigy. There was jostling and attempted intimidation. But the Sage of Monticello was not going to be given up.
It was a different story the next morning. Numbers had swelled as more muscle-flexing Unite the Right supporters arrived from distant parts in tandem with the customary throng of social justice warriors, libertarians and professional radicals who always stage an indignant counter-protest. A fine summer’s day was forecast. As the demonstration over the statue’s planned removal warmed up, a cordon of police in riot gear took position at the monument to ensure it wasn’t damaged before the Charlottesville city council could throw it away.
By late on Saturday afternoon the contested statue of General Robert E. Lee upon his horse, Traveler, was intact. However, while police were shielding the sculpture, fourteen people on both sides had been seriously injured in street fights, and another nineteen people were injured and one young woman killed when a youth from Unite the Right deliberately ran his car into a throng of counter-protesters. Caught on film by a television news crew, this wicked act prompted an outpouring of public concern across the republic, with a host of city councils promptly moving against Confederate memorials.
In Maryland that Monday, the Baltimore city council voted unanimously to remove four monuments during the week. Change had begun. The next day, Tuesday, the marker plaque for the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Highway was officially removed at St Petersburg, Florida; Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, renamed its Confederate Memorial Hall as plain “Memorial Hall”; while in Los Angeles a memorial was also removed for the soldiers and sailors buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery—this was due to an eruption of hostile complaints over the bronze plaque which, beneath a small relief flag, bore the prayer, “In memory of the soldiers of the Confederate States Army who have died or may die on the Pacific Coast. Lord God of hosts, be with us yet, lest we forget—lest we forget.”
That evening in Durham, North Carolina, eight people took it upon themselves to push over and vandalise the Confederate Soldiers Monument outside the Old County Courthouse. They were arrested and charged, although the memorial isn’t to be reinstated.
Things got busier on Wednesday. In Illinois, a prominent Chicago religious leader, James Dukes, angrily demanded the city rename its parks dedicated to presidents George Washington and Andrew Jackson, as well as removing a military statue of Washington. Both presidents had owned slaves: “I think we should be able to identify and decide who we declare heroes in our communities,” Pastor Dukes told CBS television. “In an African-American community it’s a slap in the face and it’s a disgrace for them to honour someone who was a slave owner.” He suggested one park be renamed in honour of Michael Jackson.
Across in Brooklyn, New York, the Episcopalian Church likewise symbolically cast a stone by taking the plaque from a tree planted by Robert E. Lee during the 1840s. Forgiveness was getting to be in short supply. The day continued with the San Diego city council in California removing the marker plaque from the Jefferson Davis Highway; while in Franklin, Ohio, council workers dealt with the city’s Confederate Memorial during the night. That same Wednesday night saw the four monuments in Baltimore carted off; they comprised a sculptural tableau of Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, as well as the Confederate Women’s Monument, the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument, and a statue of the Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney (who once wrote the majority opinion in a case ruling that black people had no claim to citizenship).
Thursday’s city council meeting in Helena, Montana, agreed to remove their Confederate Memorial Fountain. It was pulled out the next day. Thursday also witnessed the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, order the removal from the town’s historic cemetery of signs indicating a section where over 100 Confederate soldiers are buried, all prisoners of war who died at nearby Camp Randall. The plaque giving their names is also going. Likewise a Confederate plaque came out at the liberal arts college, Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine; while another casting of the Justice Taney statue, this one before the Maryland State House at Annapolis, went that day, too. The Kansas City council in Missouri also agreed to pull out the United Daughters of the Confederacy Monument on Ward Parkway the next week; and in Lexington, Kentucky, the mayor Jim Gray pushed through council a motion to remove two Confederate statues at the courthouse: “Mayors are on the razor’s edge,” he told CBS news. “When you see the violence that we saw in Charlottesville, then you know that we must act.”
These escalating actions, and calls for removals of some presidential monuments, prompted a cautious tweet by President Trump’s office on Thursday:
Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson—who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!
Nevertheless, the removals went on. Friday saw a state historical marker taken away from outside the home where General Roswell Ripley was born in Worthington, Ohio. And the University of Texas decided to have statues of Generals Robert E. Lee and Albert Johnson, plus the Confederate postmaster John Reagan, removed from its Austin campus first thing the next week. They would be soon followed by a Confederate statue of the veteran George M. Jones at another liberal arts college, Randolph College, in Lynchburg, Virginia; as well as a portrait of Robert E. Lee prominently displayed in administration at the University of Georgia.
Saturday’s activities at Duke University in North Carolina included another statue removal of Robert E. Lee, this one ejected from the chapel. The following week saw escalating monument removals at a host of towns and universities dotted across the nation.
Outsiders looking on from Australia may wonder precisely what gives offence with some memorials. This is most pronounced with statues. How can a blunt effigy posed at attention on a standard stone plinth cause immense distress? Many statues of Confederate soldiers were mass produced. Besides, if there was one manufacturer in Kentucky, often townships below the Mason-Dixon Line would purchase monuments through catalogues from workshops in the industrial North. These uniformed figures are almost identical to Union soldier memorials found across small towns up north—according to the Smithsonian Museum, manufacturers merely changed the insignia on belt buckles to match Union or Confederate clients.
Commissioned artistic monuments tend to have originated in Northern studios. The divisive equestrian statue in Charlottesville was produced by Henry Shrady, a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee whose father had been a field surgeon in the Union army. The Lee sculpture was the final work of this respected artist who is renowned for massive public statues, including New York’s George Washington at Valley Forge (1906), Detroit’s General Alpheus Williams (1921), and—an astonishing achievement—the extensive multi-figure Ulysses S. Grant Memorial (1922) in Washington DC. Shrady died before the Robert E. Lee commission could be cast in bronze so final finishing was handled by Leo Lentelli, a proficient sculptor and respected studio teacher from the Art Students League, in those days the best art school in New York.
When people begin quarrelling over statues, sooner or later someone wants to find artistic faults. The current affairs journal the New Republic did just that a few hours after President Trump’s tweet. Taking the Oval Office to task over the phrase “our beautiful statues and monuments”, the culture staff writer Josephine Livingstone got stuck into the Charlottesville sculpture. She bungled the artist’s name, calling him “Shady” instead of Shrady:
The statue is the work of Henry Shady (1871–1922), who died before he could quite finish it off. The last bit was done by Leo Lentelli (1879–1961), an Italian immigrant. Shady himself learned sculpture by copying his own pets, along with animals in the zoo. He was quite good at doing horses, having dissected a few of them … The horse, Traveler, is certainly rather better formed than Lee himself. The whole sculpture is bronze, and thus nicely encased in a greenish patina that really classes the thing up. But look at Lee’s face. It looks made of plasticine. He seems to be all eyebrow and no skin. This is not a beautiful piece of public art. It is the cobbled-together work of two different craftsmen—one on the brink of death and the other not even American—and it is ugly.
The superior tone here, and its mocking inflections, are typical mannerisms of someone bluffing about visual art. You hear it affected by smart people who talk loudly in museums. Nothing penetrating or showing artistic proficiency is said.
Besides making a hash of Shrady’s name, Livingstone portrays his diligent study of animals as an amusing hobby. But life drawing, which is what he was doing, is the cornerstone of studio teaching. It’s inseparable from skill. Professional artists never cease drawing, and never cease observing.
Livingstone’s piece came illustrated with a close-up photograph of the statue’s face. This had been taken using a camera with telephoto lens, and therefore showed a level of high detail not visible to spectators standing below the work. So the writer’s dismissive comments about the sculptural modelling and finish are deeply misleading. Any work of art scrutinised using a telescope is bound to look coarse. That is what magnification does. Try it yourself sometime.
A cohesive variation on Shrady’s fine military sculptures of Generals Washington and Williams, the Charlottesville late piece certainly does not appear “cobbled together”. But Livingstone had an agenda in panning the sculpture. Having asked if removing such statues “will sap America’s public spaces of their beauty”, she seized upon the White House tweet as proof of presidential bad taste. “Dictators of many stripes have loved kitsch, from Kim Jong-Il to Vladimir Putin to Saddam Hussein to Turkmenbashi,” Livingstone continued, using Donald Trump’s tweet on statue removals to claim he “has an idea of beauty that is closer to Stalin’s than to the New York Times”.
This is far from those knowledgeable, engaging discussions of art and culture for which the New Republic was once respected. As for its brief remarks on the statue’s finishing sculptor, “an Italian immigrant” and “not even American”, besides the latter being untrue—Leo Lentelli took US citizenship—these sentiments seem worthy of the Italian-lynching Democratic White League.
American history is to be sanitised of the unpalatable bits. Besides wanting monuments pulled out, social justice warriors in some cities are demanding name changes to parklands, streets, highways, hospitals, schools, libraries, sports fields, universities, research institutes, public and campus buildings.
Civil War historians say this has been surreptitiously taking place for a dozen years. Some have anecdotes of neighbourhoods finding memorials disappearing overnight, or street names abruptly changed, without proper public consultation beforehand. The extreme aspects involve cemeteries, towns stripping them of signs and markers indicating where soldiers are buried. Councils may even withdraw permission for small annual remembrance services held in cemeteries for the Confederate dead. Families may not publicly pray for their forebears.
The broader issue has now come into the open partly because cities and larger towns are taking action against prominent edifices, partly because it couldn’t be hidden forever and everyday citizens are troubled. Anything which bears the name of an individual associated with the Confederacy, or who owned slaves, is fair game for condemnation, fury, protest, then erasure. It is as if the past is being airbrushed out, like those doctored Soviet photographs with gaps among the sepia figures where once posed men and women later condemned by the Communist Party.
There is an aspect of fanaticism to what is taking place. Social justice warriors shout down and bully those who object or question, angrily calling them neo-Nazis. It’s a brave individual who speaks out. Anything that may sound like disagreement is risky in an atmosphere of extreme political correctness. People are frightened to talk openly. Which is why, short of chiselling the relief figures off Georgia’s Stone Mountain, or renaming military bases such as Forts Benning, Bragg and Hood, the social justice warriors do appear to be getting what they demand.
The big question posed by all this is for what purpose memorials are removed? What do activists think they will achieve by erasing history? This was raised by Richard Marksbury, the former Dean of Tulane University, and a voice of considered moderation throughout the protracted New Orleans fracas. In interview with the New York Times on May 12, as monuments were being removed, he identified hostility to Confederate memorials as a misplaced means of venting anger over pressing issues:
It’s part of the social-economic problems we have in America and in our cities, whether it’s high unemployment among young people, and a lot of crime, and school systems that are broken. These are mostly young people, and this gives them some opportunity to protest [about] some aspect of the government. Deep down, I don’t think it has anything to do with the monuments because when these monuments are down, they’re going to migrate to another thing. The monuments are just symbolic … It’s a sad situation. This issue has brought more racial tension than anything I’ve seen or witnessed in the 44 years I’ve lived here, and I think most adults, black or white, living here would say the same thing … If anybody thinks it’s going to end when these monuments are down, they’re kidding themselves.
This appears confirmed by the escalating “Black Lives Matter” campaign over police shootings. Graffitists have targeted Civil War monuments for their slogans, indeed many activists claim African-American deaths are linked with the memorials’ existence at a deep psychological level within society. But removing monuments won’t alter police behaviour.
Another theme strongly evident in August’s media reports of monument removals—besides an instant public outpouring against Unite the Right—is how those on the Left openly feel that in removing memorials they are striking a wounding blow against the Trump administration. Effigies of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are being used as whipping boys for the President.
On a conciliatory note, the Baltimore council is looking at reaching some form of balance over the four major memorials it has removed from city streets. Announcing its decision, the mayor, Catherine Pugh, said on Baltimore television the sculptures were neither going to be destroyed nor ditched in permanent storage: some would eventually be “rehomed in Maryland’s Confederate cemeteries”.
In this vein, Richard Marksbury insists that cities do need to rethink their monuments and help to set people thinking on the lessons of history. He heads a New Orleans volunteer group, “Monumental Task Committee”, which has lobbied to keep city monuments while making changes in presentation. They have pressed for a constructive approach, putting up explanatory signs at monuments to supply information on their historical and political context.
The committee also wants memorials of forgotten heroes and events added around the city to balance the historical and racial view. “I’m a cultural anthropologist,” Marksbury explained to the New York Times:
I was in the Peace Corps, I did my research overseas, and I helped two different peoples try to record and save their cultural heritage—so my whole life has been dedicated to trying to preserve cultural heritage, which means I don’t believe in tearing down anything.
A curious feature of the broader debate is how monuments to the Army of the Union, and to Abraham Lincoln, have escaped criticism. The victors were fond of slipping African-Americans into their war memorials; but there was a tacit racism in those times, even among those opposed to slavery. So it was accepted convention to place these dark figures in subordinate positions, often setting them visually on a level beneath white politicians or soldiers.
In instances like Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s fine relief on Boston Common, positions do seem to have matched reality. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the white officer commanding the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, did ride a horse at the parade and thereby sat above the black troops as they marched. Still, the sculptor signified a difference of human type by having the winged goddess Victory fly above Shaw, holding a laurel crown over his head.
The racial outlook of the period is particularly evident in depictions of Abraham Lincoln accompanied by slaves. Emancipated figures had to be kneeling in fawning gratitude to their liberator. Instructions to this effect were given to artists when commissioned to portray the deceased President, as the historian Kirk Savage revealed in his 1998 book Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War and Monument in Nineteenth Century America. It’s a puzzling state of affairs when cloyingly racial works of art stand in public today unscrutinised, unquestioned, unmeddled with, because they are dedicated to the Union cause.
A lack of agitation over such memorials suggests the social justice warriors are responding on a knee-jerk superficial level, and have no awareness of content and political meaning. Not only that, they evidently haven’t even read the standard works on Civil War monuments.
Instead of paying attention to what sculptures and monuments convey, activists fix on which people are honoured with public remembrance. If New Orleans is anything to go by, social justice warriors pass historical judgment solely on racial matters, ignoring all other positive contributions individuals made to their communities. Civic leaders, statesmen and other historic nation-builders are to be struck from public memory if they were connected with the Confederacy or slavery.
The New Orleans lobby group “Take ’em Down NOLA”, which has been co-ordinating agitation against Confederate monuments, lists another 128 memorials in the city it wants removed or renamed besides the four that went last April and May. One can see the point of taking away a piece like the Battle of Liberty Place monument. It was intended as a permanent racial provocation, and protesters had legitimate grievances.
But why many other memorials? On its website Take ’em Down NOLA declares that all forms of public memorial to those connected with slavery “psychologically terrorise us”. So it wants retitled several hospitals and schools that are named after their founders. The same goes for universities and creative arts schools named for philanthropists who funded their establishment. Going down their list, the group also wants to eject the statue of Jean-Baptiste le Bienville, the first territorial governor, who was appointed to the then French colony of New Orleans, because he allowed slavery to exist. For the same reason the name is to come off Claiborne Avenue, which honours the first elected governor, William Claiborne.
A wide net is cast. Buildings named for Judah Touro, who set up and ran an early hospital, are disputed because slave owners grumbled he charged too much for their slaves’ medical treatment; and Touro’s father had been a slave trader. Then there is the park named for Benjamin Palmer, minister of the city’s First Presbyterian Church. It should be censured because he supported the Confederacy. Take ’em Down NOLA even wants the city’s First World War memorial removed, because it “segregates” the names of soldiers who died into white and black lists. Why not use common sense and adjust it to show one integrated list?
Much “historical” information circulated by Take ’em Down NOLA visibly resembles Chinese whispers, half-truths and slanted disinformation. Civic identities honoured with street and building names are called “brutal” and “cruel” with little explanation. If I am unfamiliar with most historical figures cited, I do know something of Charles de Gaulle, who has a New Orleans street named for him. Take ’em Down NOLA wants this street renamed because, it claims, the former French President was the “oppressor of Africans—Algerian Revolution and other states in North, West & Central Africa & Indochina (Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia)” (sic).
Actually, after de Gaulle assumed leadership of France in 1958, he developed a process of self-determination for all colonies. Algeria, which was administratively part of France, was a major focus. De Gaulle inherited the war from his predecessor, and he was expected to reimpose order in a worsening mess. He soon realised it was untenable, so, scaling down military action, he opened secret negotiations with the nationalists. He then held referendums (giving the vote to Arabs, including Arab women) which enabled Algeria to achieve representative government, then be given full independence. This is not the behaviour of an oppressor; which was confirmed by the right-wing extremists of the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète. Feeling France had been betrayed, they embarked on a terrorist campaign of shootings and bombings in metropolitan France and Algeria (on a single night in January 1962, Paris was rocked by eighteen explosions), culminating in attempted assassinations of the president. As for Indo-China, France had withdrawn from the region three years before de Gaulle came to office; besides, the peoples of Indochina are Asian, not African as Take ’em Down NOLA seems to think.
Richard Marksbury had a legitimate point when he told news media that all sides seriously need to study American history. Certain grievances about Confederate memorials are legitimate. Others are steeped in a shocking level of ignorance. And that’s the problem evident even at this distance. Far from being guided by Lincoln’s better angels in human nature, the recent behaviour of some self-appointed moral sentinels appears more inclined to attention-seeking, stirring trouble, unsettling communities, causing division, feigning distress, staging shouting matches, and not caring an iota for historical truth.
Dr Christopher Heathcote lives in Melbourne. His forebears were committed abolitionists. One American relative, Caleb Heathcote, is among the earliest individuals recorded as aiding and harbouring escaped slaves.
 Information on the first removal from reports in The Times-Picayune, online, 25 April, updated 29 April 2017.
 Robert Lowell, “For the Union Dead,” in J.Raban ed. Robert Lowell’s Poems: A Selection, Faber, London, 1974, p.96.
 Quoted in Rachel Brown, “Turned into Symbols of Hate’, National Geographic, online, 17 Aug. 2017.
 Quoted in Brown, “Turned into Symbols of Hate’, op.cit.
 see Annette Gordon-Reid, “Charlottesville: Why Jefferson Matters,” New York Review—Daily, online, 19 Aug. 2017.
 see Vegas Tenold, “Cops Dropped the Ball in Charlottesville’, New Republic, online, 17 Aug. 2017.
 Brown, “Turned into Symbols of Hate’, op.cit.
 Josephine Livingstone, “Trump, On Beauty’, New Republic, online, 18 Aug. 2017.
 Livingstone, “Trump, On Beauty’, op.cit.
 Quoted by Brigit Katz, “Baltimore Quietly Removes Four Confederate Monuments,” Baltimore Sun, online, 16 Aug. 2017.
 No author, “There are hundreds of White Supremacist symbols in New Orleans: Here are some examples’, Take “em Down Nola flier, downloaded.