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About Those Confederate Monuments...

Perry Cuskey


(Note - this blog post delves into modern-day issues. Issues related to the Civil War, to be sure, but modern-day issues just the same. Which as many of you are probably aware, is an off-limits subject on the discussion board. The same rule does not apply to blogs however, so if you are a member of the board, wish to start up your own blog and talk about such things, you're welcome to do so. Just don't start advocating violence, or endorsing groups like the KKK, Neo-Nazis, Antifa, and the like. That will get your blog shut down, as it still resides on the SDG's site. Aside from that, you're free to express your views. And you are of course aware that you alone are responsible for your views.) :)


Let me start here by making a few points:

First, I'm a card-carrying Republican, and have been since 1980.

Second, I firmly believe, beyond any doubt whatsoever, that slavery was the foundational cause of the Civil War. 

Third, had it been up to me, I would not have built Confederate monuments anywhere outside of battlefield parks.

And fourth, I am not in favor of removing those Confederate monuments. More on that later.

Going all Political

I mention my political affiliation because I think people make a lot of assumptions based on such things, and I'm not sure I always fit those assumptions. For instance, it seems to me that a lot of people assume that if you're a Republican, that automatically means you think the war was about states' rights. And if you're a Democrat, you think the war was caused by slavery.

Neither of those assumptions apply to me. I'm a Republican who believes, quite strongly, that the war was caused by slavery. (I agree that this is a simple answer to a complex issue. But it's also an accurate answer.) I also believe that the states' rights argument is and always has been a giant smokescreen to hide that fact. 

Does that mean that I don't believe in states' rights at all? No, of course not. (Hello? Republican? :) ) But states' rights wasn't the cause of the war. My being a Republican doesn't change that. (On a side note - I tend to think of myself as more of a classic liberal, although that's of little importance here. To be sure though, I am not, and never will be, a modern-day liberal. There is a difference.)

As far as slavery causing the war, my belief there is based on a brutally simple idea - evidence, rising to the level of what I regard as irrefutable proof. That's why I say that slavery caused the war. Not because I necessarily want to, but because that's what the evidence points to with screaming clarity.

Declaring the Cause

What evidence? Well, there's a lot of it, but a good place to start might be the declarations of causes issued by four of the original seven seceding states, where they outlined the why behind the what.

Secession took place in two rounds so to speak, with the first round occurring in response to Lincoln's election and prior to war breaking out. Tellingly, six of these seven states were in the Deep South, where slavery had its strongest grip, with over 48% of the total population being enslaved. (The outlier among these first seven states to leave was Texas. But as we'll see, they were not an outlier when it came to Deep South kinship.)

Here's a link to an 1860 map from the Library of Congress, based on that year's census, showing the distribution of slaves in the South as a percentage of the total population: https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3861e.cw0013200/

It's broken down by county. And here is a screenshot from that same site, below the map itself, showing the percentage breakdown by state:


If the fact that almost half of the Deep South's population was enslaved is an eye-opener for you, you've got a lot of company. I think it's an eye-opener for everyone when they first learn about it. (In two of those states, as seen in the table above, the slave population was more than half of the total. The order in which these two states left the Union? First - South Carolina - and second - Mississippi.) 

And it speaks volumes as to why this region was the first to leave - all six states - in response to the first president in American history to be elected on an anti-slavery platform. This is not a coincidence. 

Which brings us to those documents explaining why they left. Here's a link where you can read through them, courtesy of the Civil War Trust:


(Note - you can view these documents elsewhere online by doing a search, if you wish to compare them. Virginia's is included here, although they did not secede until after Lincoln's call for volunteers following Fort Sumter.) 

To be sure, there are defenses made for secession's legality. They wanted it clear that they believed they had the right to do what they were doing. But of interest here is the why behind it.

Some key excerpts, starting with Mississippi:

"Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery - the greatest material interest of the world."

South Carolina:

"A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that 'Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,' and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction."


"The prohibition of slavery in the Territories, hostility to it everywhere, the equality of the black and white races, disregard of all constitutional guarantees in its favor, were boldly proclaimed by [the North's] leaders and applauded by its followers."


"In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color - a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States."

Perception vs. Reality

It's worth pointing out that some of these claims about the North championing racial equality are wide of the mark. There were certainly exceptions, especially among the abolitionists. By and large though, white northerners were lukewarm, at best, about racial equality, even though they were also mostly anti-slavery. (It was entirely possible at this time for someone to be both anti-slavery and anti-black. Which speaks to the complex nature of slavery and race-relations in 19th Century America.)

But as often happens, perception (in the South) was more powerful than reality (in the North), and what drove them is what they believed. And it should be added that the South was indeed right about one thing - Lincoln's election pointed toward slavery's eventual, if not immediate, eradication. 

By 1860, words like "eventual" and "immediate" were distinctions without a difference. Collectively speaking, the South simply didn't care, or even believe, that Lincoln and the Republicans were not out to bring an immediate end to slavery in the South. The threat to the institution was real enough, to be sure. To southern leaders, that made it immediate, and that's all that mattered.

Davis and Stephens

More proof of slavery-as-the-cause can be found in the words of the men who became president and vice-president of the Confederacy. Here is an excerpt from future Confederate President Jefferson Davis's farewell address to the U.S. Senate on January 21st, 1861, following the secession of his home-state of Mississippi:

"It has been a conviction of pressing necessity, it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi into her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races."

He then goes on to explain how, in his view, the Declaration was never meant to do any such thing. We can argue back and forth about that if we wish, but the point here is that Davis is accusing the North in general, and Lincoln and the Republicans in particular, of wanting to bring about racial equality. And this - in Davis's own words - "made the basis of an attack upon [Mississippi's] social institutions."

Translation: Mississippi wasn't going to sit idly by while the Republicans tried to impose racial equality on the country. 

Ending slavery and bringing about racial equality - this was the threat, perceived or real (it was a little of both), that Davis and the collective South were responding to. It represented a nightmare scenario for the South, and was a threat that was far too important to ignore. 

Here's a link to the entire speech, via the Papers of Jefferson Davis, at Rice University:


And then we come to Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens, and his infamous Cornerstone Speech in Savannah Georgia, on March 21st, 1861. Here is the key paragraph, which speaks entirely for itself:

"Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery - subordination to the superior race - is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."

Here's a link to the speech, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's web site, along with an excerpt from another, similar speech he gave the following month to the Virginia secession convention: https://www.ucs.louisiana.edu/~ras2777/amgov/stephens.html

The Defining Difference

Stephens in these two speeches hit upon the single most important difference between the United States and the Confederacy, and he did so knowingly and deliberately. It's a difference that cannot be emphasized strongly enough. And it comes down to this:

In all of human history, there has only ever been one country - one - founded on an ideal. That country is the United States. And that ideal upon which it was founded is the ideal of freedom and equality.

This bears repeating - there has never, before or since, been a country that came into existence based on the ideal of freedom and equality. The list includes one country and one country only – The United States. The emergence of this incredibly unique country was, quite literally, a world-changing moment.

In looking at the Confederacy, we find a nascent country that was also founded on an ideal. But - as Alexander Stephens pointed out - with an all-important distinction.

Whereas the United States was founded on the ideal of freedom and equality for all, the Confederacy was founded on the ideal of freedom and equality for some.

This critical difference is exactly what Stephens meant when he said that the Confederacy was the first country in the history of the world based on the inequality of the races. What Stephens referred to as “this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” The exact opposite of the United States, in its ideal form, as the native southerner Stephens well understood.

Human nature being what it is, the United States has clearly, and unsurprisingly, not always lived up to its lofty ideals. (Within the context of world history, the surprise is that the ideal was proclaimed as a nation's founding principle.) But it is far closer to them, in no small part because the foundation was already in place. The foundation on which the Confederacy was built, in contrast, allowed for no such evolution.

As I said to a friend in a recent conversation on this same subject, the Confederacy could never have evolved into what the United States has become without a complete reversal of its fundamental reason for existence.

(This is an argument that I've made before, and I'll continue to make it because I firmly believe it. It also speaks to why protests against the American flag are misdirected. The flag represents America's ideals, symbolizing why it came into existence. The ideals do not exist to protect the country. The country exists to protect the ideals. This matters.)

The Monuments

There is far more evidence then just what I've outlined here for slavery as the cause of the Civil War. I may cover some of it in future posts, but this entry is long enough already, so we'll leave it here for now.

But the bottom line is this: the Confederacy came into existence because of a threat to the future of slavery. The record on this is not simply clear, it is starkly clear. Post-war and present-day arguments to the contrary notwithstanding. And there have been many.

Slavery was the main strand in the social and economic fabric of the ante-bellum South, and to remove that strand would be to completely unravel the South itself. They viewed this as simply too much to risk. The irony is that by seceding and engaging in a long and bloody war, the end of that society came much faster and with more violence than what, almost certainly, would otherwise have been the case.

So now you know why, had it been up to me, I would never have built any Confederate monuments aside from those in the various battlefield parks. I have no issue with, and in fact support, acknowledging and honoring the courage displayed by these men and their northern counterparts. As well as trying, however imperfectly, to understand what all of them endured in those hellish nightmares in places we now stroll across in silent wonder.

But I would have raised no monuments to their leaders. To people who set out to ensure permanent, government-sanctioned inequality based on skin color, ethnicity, religion, or anything else. The Confederacy represented an attempt at such a thing. Thankfully it failed.

Our role as students of history is to take the entire story and learn from it, so that we might better understand ourselves, where we come from as both a people and as individuals, and find a way to move ever closer to those ideals on which this country is based. Ideals that represent fundamental truths about humanity and life that transcend any border. It's a tough assignment. But that's why we drew it.

Our Choice

So if I'm against monuments to Confederate leaders, why did I also say that I'm against removing them? Because they're part of our history. We can learn from them. I would not have put them up, but since they are already there, use them in our quest to understand. Place them within the context of the times in which they were built. What do they tell us about those times? About those people? About ourselves? About human nature in general?

They're silent stone and marble, and yet they can speak to us, and teach us. If we're willing to listen and to learn from them. Maybe we can't always agree on the lessons to be drawn. But the conversation has to start somewhere. So let it start with us.




Recommended Comments


First of all, I'm not a card carrying Democrat or Republican.  Like all voters in the Commonwealth of Virginia, we do not affiliate with a political party.  (I have to say, however, I definitely have strong Democratic leanings). :)  

Second, I believe slavery was a contributing factor to the Civil War.

Third, I think the Confederate Monuments (outside battlefield parks) that were erected and dedicated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries served an emotional purpose for the people of the South who had native sons who fought in the Civil War.

Fourth, I'm sorry to see all the 21st century controversy and removal of the Confederate Monuments, but I can also empathize with the black community who feel the time has come to find a more appropriate place to display them.

Since I started studying the American Civil War, I became a monuments  geek after visiting my favorite battlefield in Gettysburg.  I collected every book on the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association and its history up until the Association dissolved when they transferred the monuments to the Federal Government.  I also collected and read all the old Gettysburg Monuments Commission Reports for the states of New York,  Pennsylvania,  Michigan, Maine, Ohio, New Jersey, Vermont, West Virginia and Delaware.  Each were chock filled with dedication programs,  battle history of their state's regiments, and speeches, poems and songs that were part of the dedication ceremony.

After the war, the South was not in a financial condition to add monuments to battlefields, and probably would not be welcomed in northern battlefields if they could afford it.  As a result, Confederate Monuments eventually began appearing  in Southern towns several decades after the war to honor their sons, brothers, and husbands who fought for the South.

Time marched on and the Civil Rights Movement made us aware of injustices that needed to be corrected.  The Confederate Monuments were/are a constant reminder to the black community of the slavery their ancestors endured and their history.

There should be some meeting of sane minds.  Perhaps it is time to not erase our history, but place the non-battlefield Confederate Monuments in a special museum or dedicated art history hall in local Southern towns for those who want to view them as monuments of our past history or art and protect them from hate groups' intervention.  The chaos and fighting needs to end.

(Perry, we have a long history of debating Civil War and political issues and have still remained very good friends.   I value your opinions and thank you for letting me voice mine on this blog.)




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