Protests over Confederate monuments are less in the news, but the controversy continues across the US, especially in the South. A lecture at the Seward House Museum in Auburn tonight seeks to provide context for the cause the Confederacy fought for and the meaning of the monuments to that cause. Robert May is an professor emeritus of history at Purdue University. He says portrayals of the Civil War as a fight for causes other than preserving slavery began immediately following the war. That narrative led to the creation of monuments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that celebrated the Confederacy.
"If the monuments had been put up for any other reason there might be reason to retain them. For instance, Jefferson Davis was one of the finest secretaries of war in American history. In Davis' case, no monuments have gone up because Davis introduced an experiment to have camels in the American west for army transportation or anything like that, all of the interesting things he did as secretary of war. There's only one reason that anyone put up a statue to Jefferson Davis and that's because he was president of the Confederacy."
Professor May recognizes that the issue can be complicated and nuanced. The national park at Gettysburg is not subject to the controversy that the Stone Mountain Park in Georgia draws. Again, it’s the context that’s important.
"What are they doing in the center of a city or the center of a city park? I do think that statues are appropriate at places like Gettysburg because Gettysburg honors people on both sides. It's a battlefield and it's a cemetery and I see very little wrong. Now, it may be that a state that's put up a grand statue to Robert E. Lee might think a bit about putting up a second statue that gives a counter message, but I think they're okay in graveyards. I've argued that the memorial in Garfield Park is okay in Indianapolis. It honors Confederate soldiers who died. It doesn't honor the Confederate cause. It does what all gravestones do. Not everyone buried in a graveyard is a good person, but we honor the dead, that's why we go to graveyards and I see nothing wrong with having a memorial, not to the Confederate cause, but to the Confederate dead."
Professor May’s talk, “Contesting Dixie: States’ Rights, Slavery, & The War Over Confederate Memory” happens at the Seward House Museum in Auburn on Thursday, April 19 from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. There’s more information at on the Seward House Museum website.