Our country now finds itself in a difficult situation as questions of monuments from decades or centuries past now represent problems for the present and future. It’s a new predicament for the United States, given our relative short history on the global stage, but not one that hasn’t been hashed and rehashed elsewhere in the world.
I recently returned from teaching abroad in Italy this summer. During my time there I observed how over the centuries the Italians routinely repurposed old structures to meet the needs of a different time. Roman temples like the Pantheon were famously transformed into Christian churches and lesser known towers that once served public defense now house retail outlets.
This practice of repurposing existing spaces can serve us well as we contemplate the future of Confederate commemorative sites and statuary in our country.
As someone who studies and teaches public history I am loathe to see aspects of our built historic past completely razed to the ground. This is wasteful and strips us of opportunities to educate.
But clearly, things cannot and should not stand as they have for many decades. For instance, no African-American ought to pass a courthouse looking for justice only to find the entrance guarded by a statue commemorating persons who would have kept their ancestors in chains.
As the public ponders how to correct such egregious situations, I suggest that we seize this moment to repurpose many of the existing monuments rather than simply removing them.
Over 600,000 Americans died in the tragically destructive Civil War. Among the Confederates who fought were tens of thousands of men who were drafted; young men convinced by family, friends, lovers, politicians, and religious leaders that they ought to serve as well as people who joined voluntarily only later to regret their decision. Desertion was a major problem for all Confederate armies and over 40,000 North Carolinians abandoned their posts as complaints of “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight” grew louder over four long years of war.
The ambivalence that many white Southerners held toward the Confederacy ought not to be ignored in our current debates. For me the tremendous loss of life over an attempt to prolong slavery in a nation committed to the principles of liberty is a tragic lesson that deserves commemoration, lest we forget the costs of failing to follow the “better angels of our nature.”
In this spirit, I can imagine monuments to Confederate soldiers being transformed with chisel and new plaques to mourn the wasteful loss of life, Union and Confederate, white and black, that the Confederacy cost our country in its pursuit of an ignoble cause. Such reconstituted monuments should also point out that many Southerners, white and black, fought on the winning side in the Civil War as an accurate reminder that there never was a “solid South.”
Furthermore, I can imagine raising new heroes to mount existing pedestals to celebrate role models who fought for freedom for all and are more in line with our national narrative of the progressive, if at times grudging, expansion of liberty.
In short, as we seek to remove the mythology of the “Lost Cause” from its pedestal let us seize the opportunity to use current dedicated commemorative space to educate the public about more glorious causes won that can unify rather than divide our people. We can do this by thoughtfully recreating, rather than completely razing, much of the existing commemorative landscape.
Dan Fountain is associate professor of History and director of Public History at Meredith College in Raleigh.