In June 2015, Dylann Roof murdered nine black parishioners at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. That hate crime prompted South Carolina to remove the Confederate Flag from the grounds of the state capitol, and communities throughout the country debated the continued presence of monuments to the Confederacy in the public square. That December, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed an ordinance to remove four monuments. These include statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, as well as a commemoration of those who opposed Reconstruction. Over the past several weeks, after one monument was removed, a number of demonstrations and counterdemonstrations have rocked the city; at least five people have been arrested, and law enforcement has expressed concern over the number of heavily armed demonstrators. Landrieu says that he plans to take down the remaining three.
To discuss the controversy and the debate over how Americans should think about the Confederacy and its leaders, I spoke by phone recently with David W. Blight, a professor of American history and the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale. (He is also the author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.) During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed New Orleans’ long history of racism, the case for not removing all offensive monuments, and why Trump’s election may buoy the neo-Confederate cause.
Isaac Chotiner: What strikes you as unique or new about this particular controversy in comparison to other flare-ups in the past?
David W. Blight: What does seem unique about the New Orleans case is that they managed to get an ordinance or resolution through the City Council, and supported by the mayor. That’s unusual—for a major city to take it upon itself to decide to move such big monuments. I don’t know of many other cases where that has happened. But of course the broader context here is everything we have been living through since the massacre in Charleston, and to some extent before that because of protests against police shootings and so on. We have never before experienced a wave of concern about Confederate iconography, flags, memorials, etc. like we have in the year [plus] after Charleston. No one could have predicted it. You have a real resistance to this sort of thing that may not have materialized without that event. There was something so horrific and shocking about it, given that the murderer claimed such ties to neo-Confederate and white-supremacist ideology.
What was unique about New Orleans’ war experience and the way the war is remembered there?
For one thing, New Orleans was occupied by the Union forces very early in the war, as early as April of 1862. So for most of the war the city was occupied. However, after the war and during Reconstruction, New Orleans saw some of the worst violence against Reconstruction. And one of the memorials being removed is in effect a memorial to a massacre that occurred in New Orleans during Reconstruction. This is as much about the way Reconstruction is remembered or forgotten as it is Civil War heroes and iconography. New Orleans was a special case. There was a huge riot in New Orleans, which really turned into a massacre against the black community in 1866, and then there were acts of mob violence against black voters. And in broader Louisiana, you had some of the worst political terror and mob violence committed in all the Reconstruction years, most famously the Colfax massacre of 1873, which was the largest mass killing in American history until 9/11.
And Beauregard, for whom one of the statues was erected, became part of post-war Louisiana life, correct?
He did. He didn’t really become a scalawag, that is turning over to the Republican Party and so on, but he did express some positive sentiments about possible black rights, although I am not sure about black equality. He moderated a great deal.
We call it pivoting now.
Pivoting, yes! He went into business after the war, but his statue is of course a military statue. He is remembered in that monument for his role in the war, not during Reconstruction. In fact, Reconstruction is almost never commemorated in memorials or monuments. It’s always the war. You can say that about almost all societies and cultures around the world. Human societies and cultures have been much, much more prone to commemorating war, either victory or defeat and suffering, than in reconstructions or peace or treaties. If you think about it, there is a World War I memorial in almost every village and town in Europe. To the soldiers. Understandably: We honor the dead for good reasons. But we don’t know quite how to build monuments and memorials to the aftermath, because they are not about valor or sacrifice or blood necessarily. They are about a political process that is often deeply divisive and deeply problematic.
The monuments are right in the heart of New Orleans. The equation here has become, for those resisting the monuments, and understandably, that anything Confederate is ipso facto a memorial to white supremacy.
Those who defend the monuments who have Confederate ancestors say that they weren’t white supremacists, and that the monuments are about soldiers and sacrifice and valor. Where do those two arguments ever meet? You have to have descendants of Confederates willing to say that the cause was either deeply flawed or terrible. Yes, people fought with valor and courage, but for a cause that was holding back history. There are some white Southerners who do that, but they don’t get much attention.
I read a letter calling for the removal of the New Orleans monuments from a history professor at Tulane, Randy Sparks, in which he wrote, “My ancestors were slave owners who fought for the Confederacy. I take no pride in that, nor am I ashamed of it. They were men of their time and place. But this is our time, and our place.” I thought that was well-put.
It is. And if you were directly descended, what are you going to do, disown him? But Randy Sparks is a very good historian of slavery and the slave trade. He is doing his part to right the wrongs of history. But facing that past is never easy for people.
In New Orleans, the people charged with taking down the monuments have been disguising their identities, and companies have been afraid to do the physical work of removing them, because of threats. Is that normal in situations like this?
No. This is pretty new. Especially the stuff about guys walking around with AK-47s. That is terrifying and does seem new. The only way you can begin to interpret that is as a backlash. Friends in the South tell me there are far more Confederate flags, especially in rural areas, six months after Charleston than there were before. And Trump’s election may have emboldened people as well. They think, “Here’s a possibility of bringing back white America.” I don’t think these things are unrelated. The guns business is a horrific tragedy waiting to happen.
Let’s step back from the Confederacy specifically, and consider this subject from a more generic perspective. Whether it’s a statue to Saddam Hussein or whoever else, is there a case against erasing these things because they are part of history, and for looking at them for what they represent about the people who erected them in the first place?
Yes, of course there is. You can’t erase everything from the past. If you set out to erase every Confederate monument that would take a few lifetimes. But having said that, these things are all about politics and the present. You mentioned Saddam Hussein: You had a regime that took over a country and ran a brutal dictatorship and fell when he was deposed. It isn’t surprising that monuments were pulled down. The problem with America is that this was a Civil War that involved the whole country, and the South couldn’t go anywhere. The losers were not going to go away. About 6,000 of them went into exile in Brazil and England and Canada and other places, but even some of them came back. The loser in this war was always going to be here. And the problem was that the “lost cause” tradition that these monuments tend to represent, because that’s when they were put up—the late 19th, early 20th century—gained a deep, deep foothold, and not just in the South.
But there is an argument to be very careful when you erase history. It’s a dangerous thing to do, because next year someone will want to erase history you think should be preserved. We went through all of this at Yale University last year with the changing of the name of Calhoun College.
What do you make of that debate, looking back on it now?
It was very local in one sense, with Yale and its traditions, and I didn’t go to Yale, so I didn’t feel the emotional tug that some people did. For 82 years the name had been on that college. and graduates had called themselves Hounies and all that stuff. But because of Charleston, a politics developed whereby the university had to find a way to change the name. And they appointed a committee on renaming, and our task was to come up with principles by which a university could rename buildings and institutions. One principle was: rarity, exceptionality. Another principle was, if someone’s name was on a building, to try to find what that person’s principle legacy was. That’s not always simple. And the third, after endless days of debate, was nonerasure: If you change a name, or alter something about the landscape, you don’t completely erase it or move it, but you do something that commemorates that it was once there. Maybe that is an exhibition or programming, but you don’t just erase it, because that is irresponsible to the past.
If you were in charge of historical memory around slavery in the United States—
If you had a Cabinet position called “Secretary of American Historical Memory”? [Laughs.]
You might have to wait for another administration for that to happen. But are there principles you think should be followed? The ones you laid out in the Calhoun case were about removing things. But what about in terms of building things going forward which represent the era?
One thing that is always an answer is: To build new monuments rather than tear down old ones. The only monument about black soldiers in the Civil War for a century was the famous one in Boston, the Shaw Memorial, a sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a magnificent monument in Boston Common. But it was alone. There now are a few. So one way you commemorate the past anew is build tasteful, important, meaningful new memorials. Not unlike what we do with war itself after wars end. You don’t necessarily tear down the old, but you complement the old by showing that history changes, that new people come into the narrative, to say the least. We have a much bigger, broader history to tell. Think about what happened with Vietnam. Maya Lin’s memorial became a way to think about not just Vietnam but all kinds of things.
Are you still constantly amazed at the speed with which Confederates, especially Robert E. Lee, became heroes after the war throughout the entire country?
It took some time before Northerners of any scale warmed up to Lee, but it did happen by the turn of the 20th century. It happened in part because the Confederacy was allowed to craft its own legacy, to build its own memorials, to create its own story, and historical memory is always about the politics of who gets to control the story.
Lee is gone in 1870. He didn’t write a memoir like Jefferson Davis, who wrote this long, turgid, 1,200-page defense of slavery and states’ rights. Lee doesn’t do that. And he was portrayed as this Christian solider-hero who fought for his home. Some of that is nonsense. Lee was a Confederate nationalist who fought for its cause and knew the cause. But in the popular memory, he became the military figure who was overwhelmed by, as he put it himself, superior numbers and forces. And fought to the bitter end as a good Christian. There was something attractive about that in the 19th and early 20th centuries because they saw Lee as one figure among many whose image could begin to reconcile the country. And his image became as much the man who became a college president for a couple of years as it did the aggressive Confederate nationalist who fought to the bitter end to destroy the United States. Nobody puts that on a Lee monument.