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Their Flag and Ours

The Confederate side wasn’t the only one to indulge in postwar nostalgia—memorializing its heroes, victims, and symbols. But only one side kept fighting.

Paul Berman
July 08, 2015

The stubborn attachment of traditional Southern whites to the flags, statuary, and street names of the Confederate past is usually explained to the puzzled rest of us as an anthropological quirk or regional ancestor cult, which outsiders cannot possibly fathom. But there is another explanation, which bears on a rival cult elsewhere in the United States. This is the cult of the flags and statuary and street names of the Union army and its own generals and their war against the Confederacy. The two cults, Union and Confederate, arose in tandem in the immediate aftermath of the war and, in both cases, did so for the purpose of mourning the dead, which was a vast obligation. But the two cults also arose because the war had failed to settle any of the underlying disputes over ideas and principles. The contending sides had every reason to go on slugging it out, which they went about doing in various ways; and one of those ways was by conducting a different sort of war, civic and otherwise, over how to commemorate the military war. This was a war of rituals and symbols, a morbid war, a war of cemeteries against cemeteries. And in the morbid war of symbols, the partisans of the Confederacy turned out to enjoy a certain advantage, which was visible from the outset—an enormous advantage, telling for the long haul.

The outset means 1866, when soldiers from the disbanded Union armed forces organized a veterans’ fraternal order called the Grand Army of the Republic, or GAR. The GAR’s purpose was to ensure that sacrifices and sufferings by the Union soldiers were appropriately recognized. The GAR was also something of a Republican party front, and it campaigned for Republican candidates. For a few years it campaigned for the voting rights of African-American veterans, until it gave up. But mostly the GAR marched in parades and listened to oratory, and these activities attracted hundreds of thousands of members. The GAR campaigned to make Memorial Day a holiday, and, on this issue, it enjoyed a lasting triumph. The GAR inscribed itself into the national geography. U.S. Route 6, which runs from California to Massachusetts, is officially called the Grand Army of the Republic Highway, than which nothing could be grander. Gen. John A. Logan of the Union army was an early commander of the GAR, and, in Washington, D.C., an equestrian statue of General Logan will preside forevermore over Logan Circle: another triumph. Those were the victories of a conventional fraternal organization.

In the South, veterans of the Confederate army meanwhile put together a fraternal organization of their own in the first months after the war—only their organization, more of a terrorist army than a civic association, was the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK faithfully served the Southern Democratic Party (the racist party in those days) precisely for the purpose of denying voting rights to African-Americans, along with obstructing anything else that might lead to a more democratic society. The Klan’s murders and violence were terrible, and similarly the violence of the Knights of the White Camelia and other Southern terrorist groups, and the federal government eventually responded by sending troops. The KKK was suppressed. But the damage was undeniable. A mythic aura attached to the terrorists. And in the 1920s, when a revived Klan burst back into bloom, the membership expanded to several million people, which made it one of the largest mass organizations in the history of the United States—a movement that was not merely anti-black but was also, on grounds of religious bigotry, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic.

The KKK in those years was America’s counterpart to the fascist movements of Europe, drunk on its white-sheeted cult of Confederate ghosts and its parades and the sentimental hoodoo about virtuous womanhood and its ability to terrorize. And the Klan and the United Daughters of the Confederacy and their allies went about inscribing their own movement into the national geography. The original Grand Wizard of the Klan was Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general who presided over the massacre of African-American Union soldiers surrendering at Fort Pillow, a shameful military record; and dozens of statues, busts, and official markers celebrating the Grand Wizard were erected across Tennessee and the South, together with street names, school names, and buildings: a Southern rejoinder to the Northern insistence on attaching the names of Lincoln and Grant and other generals to every possible thing.

In this fashion, the proponents of the Union and of the Confederacy recruited new armies, this time made of bronze, to go on confronting one another forevermore. The bronze Union army consisted of many hundreds of statues, typically of an ordinary soldier standing at “parade rest” with his hand on rifle barrel, together with the equestrian statues of generals and sometimes group statues and friezes, which were made to stand guard at town commons, courthouses and cemeteries across the old Union. The inscriptions on the pedestals of those statues sometimes draw from Lincoln’s austere Gettysburg Address, which counts as the founding Union text in the war over how to commemorate the war. Or they quote President James A. Garfield, a major general in the Union army, who said more pithily and less eloquently than Lincoln, “the war for the Union was right, everlastingly right, and the war against the Union was wrong, forever wrong.” But, as I learn from the historian Thomas J. Brown, who has composed a short documentary book called The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration, the Union inscriptions tend to be taciturn. One of the statues of Grant in Brooklyn says, “Grant,” and not another word. Only a handful of the memorials invoke the struggle against slavery. As for the African-American soldiers, even the greatest of the monuments to their struggles and sacrifices, which is the magnificent frieze on Boston Common commemorating the legendary 54th Massachusetts Regiment, celebrates mostly the 54th’s white commander—though it is true that, at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Brooklyn, a sculpted black soldier occupies a heroic place front and center in one of the principal statues, holding a pistol and evidently in charge of a mortar.

The Confederate monuments, on the other hand—these are not exercises in taciturn restraint. The Confederate monuments, some of them, speak floridly of love—a mainstay of the statuary erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, whose specialty was statuary. A series of statues memorializes Southern white womanhood. Some of the monuments sentimentalize slavery. The partisans of the Confederacy mounted a major effort as late as 1923, which succeeded in winning Senate support but fortunately died in the House of Representatives, to erect a statue in Washington of the Southern “mammy,” the slave nurse. Gone with the Wind, the novel and the movie, was the product of this sort of kitsch and repulsive fantasizing—and the success of Gone with the Wind shows how deeply these ideas and fantasies entered into the popular mind, not only in the South.

Thomas Brown, the historian, tells us that quite a few of the Confederate statues contain inscriptions from the tone-deaf Confederate poet Abram J. Ryan, the author of “The Sword of Robert E. Lee,” whose most quoted lines include these:

Gather the sacred dust
Of the warriors tried and true.
Who bore the flag of a Nation’s trust
And fell in a cause, though lost, still just,
And died for me and you.

A cause “still just”: Yes, that was the heart of it. The Southern memorials were erected by people who knew what they were celebrating. They were the champions of a nostalgia for martial white gentlemen, delicate white ladies, and servile and barely human blacks. The cruelest of social hierarchies was their ideal. Slavery was their cause, even if they tried to avoid saying so. Nothing anthropological entered into any of this. The determination to go on waving the flag of the Lost Cause was an ideological mania. It was a fanaticism swaddled in a sentimentality—a fanatical hatred for blacks—which accounts for the KKK’s terrorism and the cult of Grand Wizard Forrest. And a hatred for the principles of the Union. Fanaticism: This was the Confederate advantage.

What has kept alive the Union passion in the North for its own monuments and rituals and street names? I roam around Brooklyn, that most 19th-century of cities, and I see that, for some 60 years after the Civil War, something kept the Union passions alive. Brooklyn’s ardor for the respectable pomposities of the GAR and the austere patriotism of Lincoln and the practicality of Grant was immense during those many decades. In Richmond, Virginia, the partisans of the Confederacy erected the terrible and spectacular statuary of Monument Avenue: the imposing and intimidating statue of Robert E. Lee on horseback, the statues of Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, and the rest, all of them perched on lofty pedestals as if to suggest a god-like quality: the barbarous Norse deities of a terrible paganism. And in Brooklyn, New York, the partisans of the Union, in the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, constructed a Union and civic counterpart—a gigantic triumphal arch at Grand Army Plaza, modeled in part on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

The determination to go on waving the flag of the Lost Cause was an ideological mania. It was a fanaticism swaddled in a sentimentality.

The arch and the plaza, with its equestrian statues of Lincoln (holding his top hat) and Grant and the dramatic scenes of Union soldiers in battle, together with gods and goddesses overhead, as in Homer or Virgil, and other generals standing to the side, across the street—all of this is meant to define the center of a city in a more or less religious manner. And Brooklyn did more. A magnificent bronze Ulysses Grant (rumpled, exhausted, matter-of-fact) presides from a still more magnificent horse (proud, powerful, huge) over Grant Square in Crown Heights. A bronze Henry Ward Beecher, the abolitionist preacher, stands erect in Brooklyn Heights. Greenwood Cemetery memorializes the Union soldiers. The Brooklyn streets bear the Union names of Generals Slocum, Warren, Butler, Sherman, and Garfield, Admiral Farragut, Clara Barton (the Civil War nurse who founded the Red Cross), Lincoln, and the Union itself (though, in some kind of mistake, a General Lee Avenue has been allowed to amble past the Verrazano Bridge), as if the entire borough were a battlefield memorial.

Only who remembers any of this in our own time—who in the North? French patriotic parades march regularly under the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Élysée, and plainly the arch at Grand Army Plaza was designed for similar events in Brooklyn. One glance at that arch should suffice to tell you that, when the architects and sculptors designed it and the workmen erected it, their keenest hope was that, on the 100th anniversary of the Union victory, or the 150th, a parade of many thousands of people would pass under that arch, triumphantly heading into Prospect Park for a victory picnic and a delightful afternoon of windy oratory. Blue-hatted Civil War re-enactors, accompanied by marching bands and the rippling of banners and the applause of measureless democratic crowds—this was certainly the idea. Only the 150th anniversary came and went a few months ago, and nothing of the sort took place. The Civil War monuments of Brooklyn and of towns all over the North survive mostly as stony relics of a lost age. They resemble the Hellenistic ruins in the Middle East that are getting destroyed right now by the Islamic State. Brooklyn’s Grant Square with its grandiose statue, three stories tall, plays an insignificant role in the life of modern Brooklyn and New York and the United States. The street names: meaningless to everyone. Here, finally, is the reason why, in the South, large publics have maintained a stubborn attachment to the symbols and kitsch and rancor of the Confederate States of America—have maintained the attachment until today, and will doubtless go on doing so into the future, too, even after their political defeats of just now.

The nostalgics of the Confederacy have kept up their ancient attachment because, in the war over how to commemorate the war, the heirs of the Union, most of them, gave up the fight long ago, discouraged or distracted or bored or ignorant. Or was it the arrival of immigrants in the later 19th century and in the 20th century (yes, an anthropological possibility) that broke the cords of Union memory—the immigrants like my pious great-grandfather, who brought to Brooklyn a grudge against the czar but maybe knew not so much about Jefferson Davis? The weight of time: The GAR did not survive the death of its last member in 1956. In any case, the people who ought to have regarded themselves as the sons and daughters of the Union somehow allowed their attention to wander. Quietly and unconsciously they renounced the customs of the Grand Army of the Republic and its commemorations; renounced the original meaning of Memorial Day and its drums and bugles and the attention to the Union monuments; renounced the idea of trying to impose on the heirs of the Confederacy a better set of ideals and symbols; renounced the cult of Union memory that used to thrill to the names of Lincoln and his generals; renounced the patriotic displays that were anti-Confederate displays—and these several, silent, soft renunciations have turned out to be, for the United States, a grave and consequential error.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.