Opinion

Finger on the trigger, Sam was never ‘silent’

Man hammers Silent Sam statue in video

In a video taken by a passerby on Aug. 15, 2017, a man takes a hammer to the face of the Silent Sam Confederate monument at UNC-Chapel Hill.
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In a video taken by a passerby on Aug. 15, 2017, a man takes a hammer to the face of the Silent Sam Confederate monument at UNC-Chapel Hill.

It is true that most Confederate soldiers were not slave owners, but wars are rarely fought on behalf of the interests of the people who do most of the fighting and dying, although that maxim is probably less true in regard to the sons of elite families who left the University of North Carolina to join the Confederate army.

The monument that was erected to honor those young men has become known as “Silent Sam.” Another name would be better.

The story goes that the statue depicts a soldier who cannot fire his rifle because he does not have a cartridge box. Without ammunition the guns of war fall silent. Well, if you knew what a Civil War cartridge box looked like, and if you also knew where to look for it amidst all the gear hanging from the soldier’s belt, you might have noticed that the box was missing — and then you would have been able to draw the appropriate conclusion about his inability to fire.

On the other hand, even a casual observer will notice that the soldier is holding his rife "at the ready," and that his finger is quite clearly on the trigger. Apparently, no one bothered to tell him that he had no bullets. The joke was on him — or more likely, it’s on us.

Contemporary accounts of the monument’s dedication ceremonies in 1913 make no mention of the missing cartridge box or the symbolic "silent" gun. The first time that the campus newspaper referred to the statue as “Silent Sam” was not until 1954, just a few years after women had become a small but significant part of the student body.

As this story goes, their presence stimulated some campus humor that became legendary. An article that appeared in the Alumni Review in 1992 explained: “the soldier is supposed to fire when a maiden (virgin ... walks by. And for 77 years he has not pulled the trigger.”

It is embarrassing that anyone ever thought that was funny. It is disturbing that a term spawned by sophomoric male humor is still in common usage.

Beyond that unfortunate context, “Silent Sam” sounds like the name of a benign campus mascot. It is not that. It is a monument honoring UNC’s support for the Confederate war effort.

Alfred Moore Waddell, Locke Craig, and Julian Shakespeare Carr were prominent Carolina alums who gave speeches dedicating Confederate monuments. Waddell spoke at the dedication of the towering monument on the state capital grounds in Raleigh in 1895. Craig and Carr both spoke at the dedication of UNC’s monument, nearly 20 years later.

In 1898, just three years after his speech in Raleigh, Waddell led the violent overthrow of the city government of Wilmington, which included three black aldermen and other black officials. Locke Craig praised what Waddell had done. Craig was a strong advocate of measures to prevent black people from voting. He confidently predicted that what happened in Wilmington would happen “every time in North Carolina when the Negro attempts to rule the white man.”

By 1913, Craig had become the governor of the state. He was invited to be the main speaker for the unveiling of the Carolina Confederate monument, although his speech that day has been forgotten and overshadowed by the oratory of Julian Carr. It is significant that when Carr spoke he did not try to inspire his listeners with stories of his exploits in battle. Instead, he thought it appropriate and instructive to evoke the story of when he whipped and humiliated a black woman after the war.

When they gave their dedication speeches, the war had not really ended for Waddell, Craig and Carr. Literally, as well as symbolically, they kept their fingers on the trigger, just like the statue. They attempted to silence black voting.

Earlier, men like them had attempted to silence criticism of secession and slavery. The statue still does.

There is nothing wrong with reflecting on the loss of young lives. Almost 30 years before UNC honored its Confederate soldiers with a monument, it had already inscribed the names of the fallen on marble tablets that still hang in Memorial Hall. Their names have also been inscribed on metal plates as part of the “Alumni Memorial in Memory of those Lost in Military Service.” No student who died fighting for the United States in any war has been honored as well, or in as many ways, as those who died fighting for the Confederacy.

There are historically sound options for the relocation and preservation of the monument. What is at issue is whether a great public university should continue to show contemptuous disregard for the history, experiences and values of people who know that a finger on a trigger is not a symbol of inclusion.

Reginald F. Hildebrand is an adjunct instructor of history at Durham Technical Community College.

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