More than 150 years after the Civil War ended, Confederate monuments can spark fierce debate, and at least one scholar says Civil War-era journalism could help mitigate the fierceness of that debate.
Speaking at the opening session of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s 26thannual Symposium on the 19th-Century Press, the Civil War and Free Expression, Debra van Tuyll said reading newspapers from the period around the war’s end in 1865 to the early 20thcentury reveals that, initially, memorials mainly were to lost lives, not “the Lost Cause.”
Van Tuyll, a professor of communication and expert on the history of journalism at the Augusta University Department of Communication in Georgia, said her research was prompted by a 2017 NAACP rally calling for the removal of a prominent Confederate monument in downtown Augusta. That rally came the week after a violent confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia, between white supremacists protesting the city’s removal of a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee and counter-protestors including Heather Heyer, who was struck and killed by a car driven by a white supremacist into a crowd.
While van Tuyll acknowledges that many, if not most, Confederate monuments likely were products of Jim Crow-era intimidation, she also said, “Most of the early monuments, however, spoke more to grief and loss than defiance and anger.”
Her position is based on her research, “Hatred or History: Newspapers and the Reconstruction Construction of Confederate Monuments,” presented to a roomful of about 50 journalists-turned-scholars on Thursday.
According to van Tuyll, the Augusta monument “is the only one to subordinate the generals—Lee, Jackson, Cobb and Walker—to the common soldier in memorializing all of them.”
A soldier is depicted on the pinnacle of the obelisk-type structure with generals at its base. One person at the rally said the monument was to “a despicable cause” and that Confederate soldiers are being “re-envisioned as heroes.”
Several months after the rally, Augusta University faculty held a “Teach-In” with a panel of historians to share background on the city’s downtown Confederate monument. NAACP leaders there said they sought “conversations to talk about things that hurt.”
Van Tuyll and historians who reviewed newspaper archives found “that the monument was not the product of Jim Crowism but of true mourning for lost soldiers.”
She also found that “speeches reported in the ensuing years following the Civil War reflected more grief and loss than defiance and anger.
“Extreme Southern bitterness,” she said, was another 20 or so years later and “fueled in part by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, successor to the Ladies’ Memorial Association, which grew out of wartime societies established to aid soldiers.”
After the Civil War ended, a Ladies Memorial Association existed to return the remains of Confederate soldiers home for interment or “to give a decent burial where they were.” That laid groundwork for monument building, mostly in cemeteries of Confederate soldiers.
In 1862, van Tuyll reported, Congress authorized the U.S. president to establish national cemeteries six months after it authorized efforts to locate the remains of dead Union soldiers and their reburial at national cemeteries. The authorization did not include Confederate dead, to be left where they were.
Newspaper editors reminded the public that federal legislation gave resources for Union soldiers’ graves but not Confederates. Then in 1898, President William McKinley gave the federal government responsibility to also care for Confederate graves, which “rescued the dead from the dishonor that the neglect of their graves implied,” a letter from a Confederate veteran wrote to a Macon, Georgia, paper reviewed by van Tuyll.
What her research confirmed, van Tuyll said, was that Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation in the South from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 to the start of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, were behind many but not all Confederate monuments.
“Untutored contemporary Americans tend to paint the Civil War and its participants in black and white, never realizing there are far more than 50 shades of gray,” she said. “A nation should consider its history, what it means and how it informs the present … Now, as in the aftermath of the Civil War, the press has the responsibility for facilitating, if not leading, that conversation.”