Goin’ In: History and Memory
Confederate monuments continue to be controversial as we Americans seek to understand our past. In memorializing the past by building monuments, it is easy to obscure reality, to glorify a cause, and to justify the actions of a group of people. The difficult part is acknowledging the past and learning from it at the same time. This is where memory is substituted for history. Memory represents a personal, narrow view of the past as interpreted from individual remembrances, family stories, and local lore. In the act of remembering the past, we construct it to suit our conscience, to uphold family honor, to vilify outsiders, and to reconstruct history. No issue better illustrates the divide between history and memory than Confederate memorials.
The Confederate memorial in front of the Lauderdale County Courthouse was put up in 1903 by the Ladies Memorial Association, a group that formed in the late 1860s. Originally, the group wanted to place the monument in a park on Tennessee Street but by 1879, the group changed the location for the monument to the front of the courthouse and had the base installed. It took the organization nearly 25 years to raise enough money to complete the monument. The statue was put up to honor the Confederate soldiers who died, and to honor the cause for which they fought.
At the monument’s dedication, Dr. H.A. Moody, in front of nearly the entire city of Florence, praised the Confederacy and declared that African Americans had no place as equals in Southern society. School children unveiled the monument. The following week, the newspaper reprinted Moody’s speech and called it eloquent.
When Moody spoke of the Confederate statue, he spoke not of history but of the memory of the Confederacy: “that snow-white statue stands not only as a memorial to the Confederate soldier; it also stands for all that soldier stood for; and ah, my fellow citizens, what treasures he stood there to defend—honor, constitutional rights—home!” History and memory have often been confused for one another. The individual reasons for why soldiers fought for the Confederacy—given years later by historians and ancestors—make up how some remember the Civil War. If white southerners fought for honor, constitutional rights, and home, as Moody suggests, the war must have been a conflict over these values.
What Moody and others have done is to confuse memory with history. The distinction is important. Memory is different for all people. It is shaped by personal experience, education, and cultural background. Memory is malleable. It allowed southern historians to insert the vague notion of states’ rights as the defining cause of the Confederacy. As a nation, we remember the Civil War differently, depending on region, class, and race. But in remembering the war, we cannot let memory overtake history.
History is an investigation of what happened as determined by multiple, reliable sources. By reading the secession ordinances submitted by every state that seceded, it becomes clear that slavery was the integral concern of the Confederacy. Further investigation reveals the historical truth of the Confederacy—an ill-fated attempt to secede from the United States. In Alabama’s secession ordinance, whereby the state left the Union to join other slaveholding states, slavery is mentioned 9 times. The document refers to their new government as the “Southern Slaveholding Confederacy.” The document further states the election of President Lincoln was “avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions” of Alabama. This is the history of Alabama’s entrance into the Confederacy, the reason the state gave for fighting against its own nation.
Memory can help inform history. Individual memories, compiled and catalogued, tell us much about how people felt about certain historic events, how they experienced these events. These can and should be read with the assumption that many external factors make up a person’s memory. They should be balanced with history.
Too much memory can obscure history. When the Ladies Memorial Association put up the monument in front of the Lauderdale County Courthouse, they were not memorializing history. They were memorializing memory—a memory that allowed them to interpret the Confederacy as noble cause. Because the history was shameful, because the south had lost, and because its citizens had to live in the country they had seceded from and fought against, history was not a favorable measure of how white southerners wanted to remember the Confederacy. In telling the story of the Confederacy, they turned to memory to justify their actions and remember their ancestors.
The monument to the Confederacy was one way that white southerners justified their cause and honored their ancestors. One side states that “the manner of their death was the crowning glory of their lives.” This line, taken from Confederate president Jefferson Davis, establishes that the most important thing that southern soldiers did was to fight and die for the Confederacy. It is the best example of the overly sentimental memory that attempted to justify the Confederacy. While we can justify the soldiers who joined, or were conscripted to fight with the Confederacy, the cause was harder to justify. So, people who memorialized the cause turned to overly sentimental memories instead of history.
The monument is engraved with the motto of the Confederacy: “Deo Vindice,” which means “God will Vindicate.” Nearly forty years after the end of the war, the white southerners who erected the monument still believed that God would vindicate their cause. “Glory stands beside our grief,” is also inscribed on the monument. White southerners were convincing themselves that what they and their ancestors had done was honorable, glorious, and justified.
The memorial only recognizes the soldiers from Lauderdale County who fought for the Confederacy, and ignores all of the soldiers from the county who fought for the United States Army. Thus, it was not a memorial to all soldiers who fought bravely for a cause they believed in. The monument is a memorial only to the Confederate dead—memorializing their cause above the causes of all other soldiers of Lauderdale County. The cause needed to be memorialized because it could not be explained in historical terms that would allow the south to look honorable.
The reality is that while Confederate soldiers were honorable, worthy of memorialization and respect, the Confederacy—the cause that stood for nothing but the preservation of slavery—was and is not. It stands in stark contrast to the ideals of equality that America has attempted to uphold since its’ founding.
The memorial that sits in front of the Lauderdale County Courthouse is a monument to a nostalgic memory. That memory is born from a need to justify the south’s participation in a war against its own nation, a need to convince itself that it acted rightly. It was placed in front of the Courthouse to remind everyone who passed by of the proper place of the Confederacy. When the Courthouse moved a block south in 1965, the statue came with it, guarding the memory of the past and serving as a warning against change in the future. In thinking of a new monument, we should make sure it is historically accurate; we should tell the truth about our history; It should not be a memory; it should not glorify some and intimidate others; it should be a vision of our community’s shared values.
While memorials do not change, memories can. As historian Kevin Levin states: “Confederate monuments were erected and dedicated by white southerners as an expression of their collective values—chief among them a commitment to white supremacy that secessionists were willing to die for. Many descendants of those southerners have decided, as the freedmen and their descendants already had, that the Lost Cause does not represent them—not as members of their respective communities, and not as Americans.”
Brian Murphy works as a historian for the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area and the City of Florence Museums. His research interests include African American history, the history of urban renewal and public housing, and Civil War memory.