The shifting history of Confederate monuments

The backdrop of Saturday's violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, was a plan to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from the city's downtown. What’s the story behind such monuments and why do we continue to struggle with the legacy of the Civil War? Edward Ayers of the University of Richmond joins William Brangham to offer some historical context.

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    Now for some historical context on the South and its Civil War heritage that sparked this weekend's clash.

    William Brangham has that.


    As we reported before, Saturday's violence started originally as a protest by white nationalists over plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from downtown Charlottesville.

    For more on how we continue to struggle with the legacy of the Civil War, we turn to historian and author Edward Ayers. He's written a number of books on the Civil War and the South and spent many years on the faculty at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He was also president of the University of Richmond from 2007 to 2015.

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    He joins us from the site of this weekend's violence, where a memorial to victim Heather Heyer has spontaneously appeared.

    Welcome, Mr. Ayers, to the NewsHour.

    I wonder — before we get to the past, I wonder if you could just give me your reaction to this weekend's events.

    EDWARD AYERS, University of Richmond: Well, for somebody who lived here for 27 years and raised their children here and enjoyed this beautiful small city, it's both heartbreaking and hard to believe.


    Obviously, as we have mentioned before, Saturday's protest began by these white nationalists who were protesting the removal, the plans to remove the Robert E. Lee statue.

    And I wonder if you could just give us a sense, why where these statues — there's hundreds of them all over the country. Why were they first erected, and who put them up?


    Well, as you say, they are all over the country.

    There are — obviously, the Confederate statues are concentrated in the former states of the Confederacy. Some memorials to fallen Confederate soldiers began immediately after the Civil War, but what we think of as these Confederate statues are really much more a product of the 1890s to World War I period.

    And so decades go by after the end of the Civil War before this widespread effort to memorialize the Confederacy appears. And you might say, well, why the lag? Well, it's, in part, because that's when Confederate veterans were dying.

    And their daughters, United Daughters of the Confederacy, took main responsibility for making sure that they were not forgotten. And so they raised money in small towns and large cities all across the South to put up these memorials to the Confederate soldiers.

    Sometimes, they were grand, such as the one that was put up in Richmond in 1890 that required 10,000 people to pull it by rope up on the James River as it arrived from Europe, all the way to the little solitary soldiers that stand in front of isolated courthouses all across the South.


    So, how do you suggest that we are to reconcile with this past? Because, to many people, they look at the statues like this one in Charlottesville of Robert E. Lee, and hundreds others, and they see a monument to men who not only owned slaves, but fought tooth and nail to protect the institution of slavery.

    What are we to do with that past?


    Well, for most of the past that we have had since then, white Southerners had told themselves a story in which slavery didn't play a leading role in this, as unlikely as that seems to us now.

    The story was men that like Robert E. Lee had risen up to fight against a tyrannical federal government that was trying to take away its rights of the states and had fought a valiant cause against much larger forces, and had lost, and when they did, laid down their arms in a gentlemanly way.


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    So, slavery basically was written out of the story until relatively recently. Looking back on it now — and I think this is not uncorrelated to the controversies over the Confederate Flags and the Dylann Roof killings that unleashed a kind of reaction against that — people have been growing to understand, well, of course, even if these individual soldiers were not slaveholders, they were fighting to defend a nation that was based on slavery.

    And one thing to think about is, forget about for a moment whatever might have motivated these men to have fought. The fact is, had they won, you would have had an independent nation overseeing the largest and most powerful system of slavery in the modern world.

    So, that's one way to think about it. But I think what these statues tell us is that people remember what they want to remember, and then they see what they want to see.


    Do you think that there is a way that we can keep any of these monuments, but wrap them in enough context so that a modern audience can appreciate what they stand for? Because there are so many people around the country who now argue, take them all down.


    Yes, I think that both of those are legitimate arguments in different times and places.

    It is a fact that, if people understood why these monuments were put up when they were and who put them up, for what rationale, it could play an instructive role. If people understood there is not such a thing called history, and it never changes, and then we just honor it or not, but recognize that every generation is going to see these events of 150 years ago through different eyes.

    And, you know, through the generations since the civil rights movement, it's harder and harder for the older story of the Confederacy as merely a defense of states' rights against the federal government to stand. But, as we have seen, some people want to hold on to that story for their own purposes today.

    So, can the monuments speak to us? Yes, they can. But you have to be very careful about recognizing the story that they tell.


    All right, Edward Ayers, thank you very much.


    Thank you.

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