Confederate Monuments & Myths

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday October 19, 2017

Toppling monuments to 20th century dictators—Stalin, Lenin, Sadam Hussein among them—has had tremendous mass appeal. But in recent years, conflicting beliefs in the meaning of Civil War Monuments has become a potent subject for discussion, especially after recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia and other cities across the nation.

On Monday, October 23, a panel discussion on the subject, Monument, Myth & Meaning will take place in the famed Great Hall at Cooper Union with Michele H. BogartJames GrossmanJulian LaVerdiereBrian PalmerMabel O. Wilson, and Mya Dosch

Brian Palmer, a photographer and filmmaker based in Richmond, Virginia [disclosure: a friend and colleague of the editor], has encountered many proponents of Confederate monuments in the process of developing the documentary Make the Ground Talk, which he is producing with his wife, Erin Hollaway Palmer. He says, “I meet, speak to, debate, and occasionally correspond with Confederaphiles—reenactors and scholars, both credentialed and independent. Africans participated in the slave trade, reenactors tell me. And some African Americans fought for the Confederacy. Slavery was nothing new in the world—Africans did that, too, along with Greeks, Romans, and Arabs. And so on. I respond to each one of these points, all of them true, usually by quoting respected historians and occasionally by linking to actual documents, to provide context.

© Brian PalmerThe battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia flies in the Confederate section of Oakwood Cemetery, which is maintained by both the City of Richmond, VA, and private groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans, 2015

“As historian David Blight and others have pointed out, these monuments were constructed by Confederate partisans years after the Civil War to solidify a revisionist narrative that minimized the role of slavery—and of black struggle and liberation—in the conflict and promoted the myth that the war was first and foremost about self-determination for the South. If one erases the systematic dehumanization and enslavement of black Americans effected through violence, then the heritage rises like cream above the hatefulness of the system. The Confederacy’s own founding documents belie this interpretation, of course, but it is still peddled by those who don’t know any better and by their enablers.


© Brian Palmer, Counter-protest after neo-Confederate rally at Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue, Richmond, VA, 2017

“'Some Arabs and Africans profited from the business of capturing and selling fellow humans, but they did not create or control the transatlantic slave trade, out of which our unique American political, economic, and social systems grew. Chattel slavery, which built American wealth and prosperity, was unique to this country,' I wrote to one of my Confederate correspondents. It is not interchangeable with Greek, Roman, or Arab slavery. ‘If we don’t see and understand our own institutions as both similar to others and unique,’ I wrote to him, ‘how are we to understand them? Is the French Revolution the same as the American Revolution? The Iranian Revolution?’ Common sense, I thought. The vast majority of so-called Black Confederates were enslaved people dragged into the conflict by their owners to cook, dig ditches, and buff boots. Many of them escaped to join the Union army, as documents indicate my great-grandfather, who was owned by a Confederate officer, may have done.


© Brian Palmer. Dixieland gas station and convenience store, New Church, VA, 2013

“And fundamentally, how does any of this excuse or minimize what happened on our soil? We must own what is ours, I wrote to this same defender of the Confederate cause—one who refused to contend with an irreducible fact of slavery that always stops me in my tracks: A black person’s body was never his or her own. ‘Think about a system under which a “good” and “benign” owner of people, one who fed and clothed his chattel, could decide one morning—hell, every morning—that he had a taste for intimate relations with the women and girls he owned,’ I wrote. ‘I think about this a lot. You can’t rationalize this away.’ He had no reply. [Brian Palmer’s article continues here]

Monument, Myth and Meaning, panel discussion on Monday, October 23, 6:30 pm. The Great Hall, Cooper Union, 7 West 7th Street, NY, NY. Free/registration required