Empty Pedestals and Absent Pedestals: Civil War Memory and Monuments to the American Revolution

Empty Pedestals and Absent Pedestals: Civil War Memory and Monuments to the American Revolution

Today we share the first of our new Field Dispatches, an examination of Civil War memory by Niels Eichhorn, an assistant professor of history at Middle Georgia State University. Dr. Eichhorn specializes in the history of U.S. foreign relations in the nineteenth century, and his work has appeared in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History.


On June 17, 2015, when white supremacist Dylan Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and massacred nine parishioners, he set in motion a renewed debate about the nature of monuments honoring the Confederate States of America. Opinions have ranged widely on the subject. While some unreconstructed Southerners continue to insist that these monuments are about heritage, historians have disagreed about the advisability of their removal. A recent conversation saw James Broomall, Director of the John Tyler Moore Center for Civil War Study in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, suggest that monuments have meaning beyond the Confederate representative at their top, while Megan Kate Nelson offered the dramatic suggestion to take jackhammers to the monuments and leave the rubble as reminders of what once was.[1] In the course of the recent monuments debate in New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu made an interesting comparison. Half joking he said, “It would be like putting King George where the Washington Memorial is or Robert E. Lee where Lincoln is.”[2] I want to use this comment as a linchpin for two interrelated conversations that so far are absent from the removal debate: 1) the historical precedent of monument removal, and 2) the connections between the memory of the American Revolution and the Civil War.

John C. McRae, “Pulling Down the Statue of George III,” 1859, American Antiquarian Society. Courtesy of teachushistory.org.

Reading newspaper articles on the subject of removal, especially in their anonymous comment sections, one gets the feeling that for some white Southerners the removal of these monuments represents the end of the history. However, we should remember that statues have never been safe in the United States. On July 9, 1776, just after the people of New York City heard about the Declaration of Independence, they determined figuratively and literally to break their relationship with the British crown. They tore down King George III’s statue. A memorial to Prime Minister William Pitt also fell victim.[3] In Charleston, a sculpture to William Pitt, erected at the corner of Broad and Meeting Street in 1770, was removed by the city in 1794 for having caused “traffic accidents.” The statue remained at the Charleston Orphan House until 1881, before being moved to a park behind City Hall.[4] Some residents in the newly minted United States fought the symbols of the British Empire. It is an interesting juxtaposition to think about the removal of symbols of British power and the removal of symbols of Confederate power. Maybe Mitch Landrieu should have asked, why there are no statues to George III in the United States?

However, the American Revolution can offer more than just insight into the removal of statues. Where Civil War memory has provided many new insights into reunions, monuments, and battlefield preservation in recent years, the memory of our other defining national conflict has received very little attention. Considering its importance for the country’s history, the American Revolution has scarcely any literature devoted to its memory. It is in this absence where Civil War memory and the American Revolution should interact. In the 1960s, segregationist leaders in Georgia perceived of Cherokee removal as a safe subject to talk about and commemorate, since the Cherokee were no longer present,[5] so too did many people in the country find the American Revolution a safe and unifying topic to commemorate in the aftermath of bloody sectional strife. After all, during the Revolution, North and South had stood united.

Victory Monument at Yorktown, Virginia. Courtesy of the author.

There were initial thoughts about commemorating the American Revolution, but lack of money and Congressional interest prevented the erection of monuments. After the Civil War, in the word of Guilford Courthouse historian Thomas E. Baker, “Patriotism and nationalism were on the ascendant in this period and widespread public support developed for the establishment of memorials to George Washington, the Revolutionary War generation and the principles for which they fought; principles that were the common heritage of both North and South.”[6] It was at the very end of Reconstruction that Congress allocated money to the erection of monuments at Yorktown, Bennington, Saratoga, Newburgh, Cowpens, Monmouth, Groton, and Oriskany. However, Kings Mountain and Guilford Courthouse had to wait until the next decade. The Congressional effort built on a public campaign that had started in the 1850s to collect private money for monuments.

Just like with early Civil War era battlefields, groups only purchased a small piece of land on a Revolutionary battlefield to place their marker. The battlefields themselves often were not preserved for another century. For the 1880 centennial celebration at Kings Mountain, a committee organized, purchased the land where most of the fighting took place, and erected a twenty-nine foot high obelisk.[7] Similarly, although debates over its construction began in 1781, Yorktown finally received its Victory Monument in 1881.

There is one monument in particular that speaks to the use of the Revolution as a commemoration of healing. Dedicated in 1903 at Guildford Courthouse, No North, No South, marks an attempt to look beyond sectional difficulties. On its eastern face is written, “No North/Washington” and on the western face is engraved “No South/Greene.” The choice is deliberate. George Washington was a Southerner who fought largely in the Northern states during the Revolutionary War, whereas the commander of the U.S. forces at Guildford, Nathaniel Greene was from the North. Thus, if these men had no sectional issues, why should people in 1903?

The two faces of the No North, No South monument at Guilford Courthouse. Courtesy of the author.

What does this say about the Civil War? Most importantly, there are two stories of memory that Civil War historians should put into conversation–the American Revolution and the Civil War. It was no coincidence that during and after Reconstruction, monuments to the American Revolution appeared beyond the centennial celebrations. Even more, the dedication and removal of monuments are intricate moments of collective memory. The removal of the William Pitt or George III statues served to the community as a whole a similar purpose as today the removal of Confederate monuments: the symbolic ending of an era of oppression, real or perceived. Reality, as we all know and understand, is that neither the removal of George III in 1776 in New York nor the removal of Robert E. Lee in 2017 in New Orleans fundamentally alter (in the short term) the problems that have caused their removal. However, long term, they can help create a new collective memory. And in the case of the American Revolution that collective memory during Reconstruction may have helped with the healing process, incomplete perhaps, but it still could have offered a commemoration beyond sectional differences.

 

[1] “Empty Pedestals: What should be done with Civic Monuments to the Confederacy and Its Leaders?” History Net, accessed July 23, 2017, http://www.historynet.com/empty-pedestals-civic-monuments-confederacy-leaders.htm.

[2] Jonathan Capehart, “Fighting the Removal of Confederate Monuments is the Real ‘Lost Cause,’” Washington Post, April 27, 2017, accessed July 23, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2017/04/27/fighting-the-removal-of-confederate-monuments-is-the-real-lost-cause/?utm_term=.1f6bc31cee13.

[3] Karen A. Franck, “As Prop and Symbol: Engaging with Works of Art in Public Space,” in Uses of Art in Public Space, ed. Julia Lossau and Quentin Stevens (New York: Routledge, 2015), 195.

[4] Carl R. Lounsbury, From Statehouse to Courthouse: An Architectural History of South Carolina’s Colonial Capitol and Charleston County Courthouse (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001), 45.

[5] Andrew Denson, Monuments to Absence: Cherokee Removal and the Contest Over Southern Memory (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

[6] Thomas E. Baker, Redeemed from Oblivion: An Administrative History of Guilford Courthouse National Military Park (National Parks Service, March 1995), 2.

[7] Gregory De Van Massey, An Administrative History of Kings Mountain National Military Park (National Parks Service, 1965), 11.

Niels Eichhorn

Niels Eichhorn is an assistant professor of history at Middle Georgia State University. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas. His first book, Separatism and the Language of Slavery: A Study of 1830 and 1848 Political Refugees and the American Civil War, is under contract with LSU Press. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History.

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