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Op-ed: The monument controversy: a crucial distinction between history and memory

A damaged nearly century-old Confederate statue lies on a pallet in a warehouse in Durham, N.C. on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017. Investigators are working to identify and charge protesters who toppled the Confederate statue in front of a North Carolina governme
A damaged nearly century-old Confederate statue lies on a pallet in a warehouse in Durham, N.C. on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017. Investigators are working to identify and charge protesters who toppled the Confederate statue in front of a North Carolina government building, the sheriff said Tuesday. The Confederate Soldiers Monument, dedicated in 1924, stood in front of an old courthouse building that serves as local government offices. (AP Photo/Allen Breed)
Allen Breed, AP

As a historian of the American Civil War, I write to respond to the oft-repeated idea that removing Confederate monuments amounts to “erasing history.” Seen in places including the tweets of the president as well as the political cartoon that ran in Saturday’s Deseret News, this formulation of what’s involved misses the crucial distinction between history and memory.

History is what happened in the past. To study history is to try to understand what happened and why. Memory is how an individual or community chooses to remember what happened, usually to celebrate or condemn the events or people being commemorated. To study memory is to examine what in their history a community chooses to emphasize, as a way to understanding what they value at the moment of commemoration. Civil War monuments document the memory, not the history, of the war.

In the case of the Southern monuments to the war making recent news, they were built almost entirely during the late 19th and early 20th century by white Southerners who wished to celebrate the Confederacy. This was not a random choice, for in this era those same white Southerners were enacting the laws and preaching the social norms that created the system of segregation. They could have emphasized (in order to celebrate) any number of participants in the Civil War, including Northern Unionist soldiers and leaders, African-American participants in the war, and even the hundreds of thousands of white Southerners who fought for the Union rather than the Confederacy. So to celebrate the Confederacy and its leaders, who also stood for white supremacy, was in no way a politically neutral remembrance of history for them any more than it is for those who do so today. The Confederate monuments tell us more about the Jim Crow era and what white Southerners valued at that moment, therefore, than they do about the Civil War itself.

Likewise, today’s debates about those monuments are not really about history, but rather what we as 21st-century Americans value and want to celebrate. The fact that these debates are really about our own identities is why they are so contentious. People who identify themselves with particular participants in the Civil War take it personally when we decide whether to celebrate or condemn those participants.

Furthermore, the history of the Confederacy would be alive and well even were all the monuments to it removed from their places of honor or even destroyed. The leaders and soldiers in the Confederate cause left us mountains of written evidence to which we can go to try to understand what they did and why they did it. That started from the moment the Confederate States of America was born, when Southern state secession conventions declared that the preservation of slavery was the reason for their secession from the Union.

It continued when those conventions sent commissioners to other Southern states to convince them to join the new secessionist nation, who joined the new nation’s vice president in declaring white supremacy to be the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy. The hundreds of thousands of lesser-known Confederates’ letters and diaries, as well as public documents in the ongoing debate within the South about what the CSA was all about, add further depth to our understanding.

There is not an archive fire or even an online hack that can erase all that history. So what we are really debating is which version of that history we want to emphasize and celebrate. That tells us much more about ourselves than it does about the American experience from 1861-1865.

Matthew Mason is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University. He is the author or co-editor of six books on the history of slavery and the American Civil War. His views do not necessarily represent those of BYU.