After the church shooting in South Carolina, the old granite Confederate Memorial Fountain that had sat for a century in Hill Park became a flash point.
The monument described by its inscription as “a longing tribute to our Confederate soldiers’’ was really, one man said at a public meeting, honoring “traitors and rebels … not ‘fallen comrades.’ ’’ Some people wanted to remove it, some to rename it, some to leave it alone.
It was a debate like many that erupted almost two years ago — except it happened 2,000 miles west of Gettysburg and 200 miles south of the Canadian border, in Helena, Mont., a state that was not even a state during the Civil War.
Helena’s memorial fountain is one of at least 700 and possibly more than 1,000 Confederate monuments in 31 states — in public parks, courthouse squares and state capitols.
Many, including Helena’s, were created by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which was advancing the spurious idea that the South left the Union and fought the Civil War over states’ rights, not slavery.
Many Confederate monuments from this era have attracted national attention since a white gunman with a passion for the Confederate battle flag killed nine black members of a bible study group in Charleston.
New Orleans’ removal of four Confederate monuments from prominent locations spurred protests and threats against work crews. In Charlottesville, Va., a decision to move a Robert E. Lee statue from a park prompted a torch-light protest that evoked memories of the Ku Klux Klan.
Such monuments have been embraced or embellished by the right-wing neo-Confederate movement, which calls the Civil War “the War of Southern Independence"; advocates Confederate doctrines such as secession and legislative nullification; and longs for the day of white Christian cultural and political dominance.
Helena’s fountain is comparatively obscure. But it illustrates two surprising things about Confederate monuments:
They’re not only in the Deep South: Although the vast majority of these monuments are in former Confederate states, they are also in border states that fought with the Union (like Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia and Maryland); in Union states, including Massachusetts, Iowa and Pennsylvania; and states that in 1861 were mere territories, such as Montana, Arizona and Oklahoma.
Two-thirds of Kentuckians who fought in the Civil War did so for the Union. Today, however, the state is saturated with Confederate memorials. The Fairview birthplace of Confederate President Jefferson Davis is marked by a 35-story obelisk, one of the nation’s tallest.
They’re not just memorials to the fallen: Helena’s Confederate memorial was constructed more than 50 years after the end of the Civil War. Most of its counterparts also came decades, not years, after the war. Historians say that time lag reflects white Southerners’ focus not so much on remembering the dead as providing a justification for rolling back black civil rights, which had advanced during post-Civil War Reconstruction.
This historical revisionism in support of a system of segregation known as Jim Crow was not restricted to the South; it stretched across a nation more concerned with national unity in the face of foreign threats than with black rights.
They’re still cropping up: The establishment of Confederate monuments, which crested between 1900 and 1930 and again during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, didn’t end with the 20th century.
Their numbers actually have been increasing. In North Carolina, for instance, 35 monuments have been added since 2000, according to a University of North Carolina survey. One, dedicated in Mitchell County in 2011, commemorates 79 men “who died for their freedom and independence.’’ And not for slavery.
'Who wore the grey … were in the right’
“Confederate monument’’ conjures images of imposing equestrian statues of Lee and Stonewall Jackson on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, or the huge bas-relief sculptures of Lee, Jackson and Davis at Stone Mountain, Ga.
But some monuments are more Confederate than others. They range from the strictly funereal to the aggressively polemical, like one in front of the Anderson County, S.C., courthouse with the inscription: "The world shall yet decide, in truth's clear, far-off light, that the soldiers who wore the gray, and died with Lee, were in the right."
After Charleston, Confederate monuments fall roughly into three categories:
- The vast majority that have remained unchanged and largely unremarked upon.
- The relative few that that have been “contextualized’’ by additional plaques or signs. For example, the Confederate soldier statue in The Circle at the University of Mississippi had two different explanatory signs last year; critics objected that the first did not mention of slavery.
- The even fewer that have been moved. A statue of Davis that enjoyed an honored spot on the University of Texas’ Austin campus for 82 years is now in a museum. The city of Louisville exiled its seven-story Confederate memorial late last year to a Civil War re-enactments site in Brandenburg, Ky.
Few public Confederate monuments have been changed, moved or razed since 2015. While flags can be lowered, songs censored, mascots switched and schools renamed, monuments are the most tangible and least mutable memorial symbols.
Several factors favor the status quo.
One is financial: It took $400,000 to move the Louisville memorial. A second is legal: Several states have moved to prevent or impede the movement of war memorials. A third is philosophical – ambivalence about tampering with a historical artifact, no matter how unpalatable its message.
The issue makes strange bedfellows. Both Gary Gallagher, a prominent University of Virginia history professor, and Richard Spencer, a prominent white supremacist, advocated leaving Charlottesville’s Lee statue in place.
To Spencer, the statue is a symbol of white power.To Gallagher, it tells an important story about the time in which it was erected — although he told a city commission last year that he’d like to see other statuary in the park that tells other stories.
In a further irony, Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer, who voted against the statue’s move, was the one who likened Spencer’s torch light march to a Klan rally, saying it was “either profoundly ignorant or designed to instill fear in our minority populations.’’
Montana and the Lost Cause
In 1916, Helena was a Northwestern city with a Southern heritage. Southerners followed the Missouri River north to Montana during and after the Civil War. They included Confederate deserters and veterans; released POWS; war refugees; and, after gold was discovered in 1864, prospectors.
They settled in and helped shape Helena, whose very name was pronounced Southern style — HELL-in-ah, rather than heh-LEE-nah.
Georgia C. Young, a nurse who was born in Georgia, came to town in 1885 at age 28. She was a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The UDC had grown out of groups formed immediately after the Civil War by war widows and other white women to give Confederate veterans, who were excluded from federal cemeteries, a decent burial.
But over time they became invested in the white battle against the black vote. To that end, they promoted the “Lost Cause’’ theory of the war: that it was fought not because of the South’s insistence on slavery, which benefited slaves as much as their masters, but on states’ rights.
Part of the UDC program was installation of Confederate memorials, many mail-ordered and mass-produced (in the North). One at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill (of a soldier today known as ‘‘Silent Sam’’) was modeled on a Harvard student who posed in Boston for a Canadian sculptor.
Georgia Young raised about $2,000 for a fountain carved by a sculptor whose father was a Union soldier.
Like most of its counterparts around the nation, the fountain aroused no opposition. For one thing, it was designed to enhance Hill Park in the spirit of “City Beautiful’’ urban planning. For another, it stood for national unity — especially important since the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914.
In March 1916, six months before the fountain was dedicated, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation made its Helena premiere. The film, as racist as it was innovative, was shown in the city’s largest auditorium, where it played for weeks to packed houses.
At the fountain dedication ceremony, the paper reported, Georgia Young “lauded the present day American spirit, a spirit of union with no feeling between the old North and South that caused such bitterness and sorrow years ago.’’ That for some the war was one of liberation went unsaid.
The post-Charleston compromise
For 99 years the fountain was notable only as the answer to a trivia question: What is the northernmost Confederate monument?
But after the Charleston shooting some saw it differently. A city council member worried about “an inaccurate perception of our city as not warm and welcoming.’’ Another suggested it be renamed “the Civil War Memorial’’ (despite its one-sided inscription).
A third council member called that “a knee jerk reaction” and “a solution in search of a problem.’’
Finally, a compromise was reached: a sign explaining how the monument came to be and what it originally signified. “Ten years from now, if a tourist asks, ‘Why is there a Confederate fountain in Montana?’ there’s an answer,’’ says Andres Haladay, a council member.
Ed Noonan, another council member and a film teacher, has studied the city’s reaction to Birth of a Nation and now understands the fountain’s real value: “We look at the nation’s racial problems as distant from us in Montana. But the fountain shows that we, too, played our role in Jim Crow.’’