Roots of a Bitter Legacy: Determined Women Were the Driving Force Behind Confederate Monuments MENU
All the Trimmings: Confederate monument dedication ceremonies were usually major spectacles, attended by thousands. The 1907 unveiling of New Orleans’ Jefferson Davis Monument.

Roots of a Bitter Legacy: Determined Women Were the Driving Force Behind Confederate Monuments

By Karen L. Cox
JANUARY 2018 • AMERICA'S CIVIL WAR MAGAZINE

The 1922 wreath-laying at Arlington National Cemetery’s Confederate Memorial. (Library of Congress)

Forgotten it seems in the continuing controversy over Confederate monuments is who put them up in the first place.

Ex-soldiers actually had little to do with placement of the now-familiar marble and cast-iron representations of themselves in parks and courthouse squares across the South, or of the grand equestrian spectacles honoring their leaders. The statues didn’t appear in great numbers for more than 30 years after the war and were the product of a determined effort by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to champion the Lost Cause narrative that Southerners were not rebels or traitors but rather patriots defending states’ rights, as stated in the 10th Amendment. Slavery, they insisted, was a benevolent system, wherein slaveholders imparted Christianity to African “savages.”

Founded in 1894, the UDC was initially restricted to genteel women, mostly the offspring of officers, burning with resentment at how Northerners and historians had treated their fathers and mothers from Reconstruction to the turn of the century. More than anything, these women wanted to reclaim their defeated men’s lost honor.

Monument Momentum: UDC President Daisy Stevens speaks at the 1914 dedication of Arlington’s Confederate memorial. (Library of Congress)

An early objective of the UDC was the erection of monuments as tangible signs of pride and appreciation for elderly ex-soldiers while those men still lived. Monument building, though, was costly. A monument of a lone Confederate soldier, standing sentinel atop a pillar, was the least expensive and could be ordered from a catalog. But more elaborate monuments, like those in New Orleans or along Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., were done by renowned, handsomely paid artists. In today’s currency the equivalent of millions of dollars were spent on building these memorials. And though the UDC was savvy at raising money, it also helped greatly that local and state governments often supplemented the funding. More than 700 monuments were erected across the South before World War II.

The end game, however, was vindication—recognition by Northerners that the South’s fight had been just and honorable. Members used considerable energy to squelch contradictory historiography and teach white children to honor Confederate heroes, and to be ardent believers in the Southern cause. Many monuments were placed where children would see them as they walked to school.

This push to maintain a world order of Anglo-Saxon supremacy was clear in monument dedication speeches across the South. For example, the ceremony for the 1907 unveiling of the Jefferson Davis memorial in New Orleans, attended by thousands, included over 500 children from the city’s white public schools—dressed in red, white, or blue and arrayed on a stand in the form of a Confederate battle flag, all singing classics such as “Dixie” and “America.”

1911 dedication of the John Hunt Morgan statue in Lexington, Ky. (Library of Congress)

About this time, the nation was gradually moving toward sectional reconciliation. It helped that Southern men had been well-represented in the U.S. Army during the 1898 Spanish-American War, but in the UDC’s view, exoneration of the Confederate generation must be total before the nation’s split could be fully healed.

In 1912 about 2,000 members traveled to Washington, D.C., for the UDC’s annual convention, the first time it had been held “outside the South” (if one doesn’t count the 1905 confab in San Francisco). President William Howard Taft was persuaded to address the delegates, and organizers lobbied successfully for a White House reception hosted by the president and first lady. Taft opened his address by noting the “patriotic sacrifice” of the Southern people and said bitterness over the war had dissipated to the point that reasonable Northerners could express “just pride” in Southern men and women. During a ceremony to lay the cornerstone for a monument to Confederate soldiers buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Democratic politician William Jennings Bryan served as the keynote speaker.

Enemy Territory?: Statues of 12 Confederate leaders, including Jefferson Davis (shown here in 1938, at a wreath-laying celebration in honor of his 130th birthday), were placed in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall during the 20th century. In August 2017, a senator proposed a bill calling for the removal of all Confederate statues from the Capitol. (Library of Congress)

The 1914 unveiling of the Arlington monument was a critical moment in the fight for vindication. By allowing burial of Confederate soldiers at the sacred cemetery and accepting the monument to honor them, the federal government had fulfilled the Daughters’ conditions for reconciliation.

After World War I broke out in 1914, the UDC joined other organizations in calling on President Woodrow Wilson to keep the nation at peace. However, when the United States entered the war in 1917, the UDC became a dependable and enthusiastic participant. Praised for their contributions to the war effort and welcomed into partnerships with Northern volunteer groups, UDC leaders felt they had been able to vindicate the Confederate South “without sacrificing a single principle.”

Although the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s membership has dwindled, it remains a viable organization. Since the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va., in August, several UDC–sponsored monuments have come down. Some chapter leaders were angry about the removals, but the national organization grieved in a statement that “certain hate groups have taken the Confederate flag and other symbols as their own” and denounced those who promoted “racial divisiveness or white supremacy.”

Despite the Daughters’ current efforts to distance themselves from hate groups, there is no denying the monuments were erected within a context of white supremacy. Given the unabating controversy, communities across the South will have to decide on their own whether to remove or keep the memorials intact.

Karen L. Cox is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the author of Dixie’s Daughters (University Press of Florida, 2003).

2 Responses to Roots of a Bitter Legacy: Determined Women Were the Driving Force Behind Confederate Monuments

  1. Ron says:

    “This push to maintain a world order of Anglo-Saxon supremacy was clear in monument dedication speeches across the South.” Make a statement then don’t back it up. Has to be a liberal professor. Our monument, put up to remember the 50th anniversary of the War, which most were 50, 100, basic anniversaries for anything, has nothing on it but remembering the soldiers.

  2. Max Blancke says:

    Our monument, in front of the courthouse, was put up specifically to honor locals who died during the civil war. That is why the inscription reads “For our Confederate Dead”. There is nothing about slavery, or whiteness, or even the causes of the war. There are memorials to the dead of other wars there as well. They all take the same basic form. A Granite column, topped by a statue of a man equipped for that conflict. Some have lists of names as well. The Vietnam War memorial is not there to address the issue of colonialism in Asia, it is a memorial to local residents who died in that conflict. The First World war memorial also does not address the complicated politics behind that war.
    Because that is not what they are there for. The people who died in those conflicts, and others, were people who were called to serve, and had the courage to do so. Because their country was at war. Nobody asked those soldiers whether they supported succession, or the petroleum interests in the Persian Gulf, or Serbian independence.
    I have personally fought in two wars that I thought were pointless and counterproductive. But nobody asked or would have welcomed my opinion. I am just glad I did my duty and did not end up with my name on one of those monuments.
    That much of the anti-monument sentiment is coming from people who overtly support regimes such as the North Koreans, is a strong indication that none of this is about slavery or oppression. It is about revolution, and encouraging conflict in our country.
    Look at images of the Durham protests. The protesters have helpfully written their website address on the signs and banners they hold.
    https://www.workers.org/2017/10/22/do-it-like-durham-what-it-means/
    https://www.workers.org/2016/02/09/in-defense-of-north-korea/
    These people support the country that is the number one exporter of slave labor in the world today. The talk about oppression is nothing more than means to an end.
    Tearing down some or all of our monuments is not going to satisfy them.

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