The Battle Over Confederate Symbolism

Former Jefferson Davis monument on Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia. Public domain

The Black Lives Matter movement has called for the removal of Confederate symbols on public land, making the legacy of the Civil War a hot-button issue for candidates and elected officials in the South.

Black Lives Matter, originally conceived in 2013 as a protest against police brutality toward black Americans, has begun to target other agents of oppression. The recent chapter of the burgeoning movement, ignited by the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer, has seen protestors fighting for the removal of Confederate names and monuments from the public sphere. The growing chorus has forced a closer inspection of the South’s “Lost Cause” propaganda campaign, and why the memorials appeared in the first place.

The issue found its way to Capitol Hill on June 11, when the Senate’s Republican-led Armed Services Committee heeded the call of Black Lives Matter, voting to rechristen the names of all U.S. military bases and installations named after Confederate generals within the next three years, setting up the potential for a Senate vote on the bill this year. President Trump said on Twitter that he would not consider renaming any of the military bases. 

On June 13, the committee’s vote became a flashpoint issue in Alabama’s senate campaign when former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a candidate for the Republican nomination, launched a Twitter attack against incumbent Democratic Senator Doug Jones. Sessions accused Jones of dishonoring the memory of Confederate soldiers by voting to change the names, arguing that he was catering to the “woke mob” in “an insane attempt to erase history.” In his official press statement, Sessions said, Naming U.S. bases for those who fought for the South was seen as an act of respect and reconciliation towards those who were called to duty by the States.”

Jones responded by telling Sessions to “delete his account,” adding, “I know it’s tough for you to be on the right side of history when it comes to the Confederacy, but you should give it a try.” 

Fort Bragg, which is in North Carolina, is considered the largest military base in the world, with some 50,000 active duty soldiers. It is one of ten military bases currently named after Confederate generals. Established in 1918, the fort was named after North Carolina native Braxton Bragg, a Confederate general and West Point graduate who also fought in the Mexican-American War. According to William Sturkey, a professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the local chamber of commerce named it after Bragg because he was the only general from North Carolina during the Civil War, rather than as an effort toward reconciliation between North and South.

Sessions’ concern for the memory of Confederate soldiers doesn’t appear to jibe with the feelings of some U.S. veterans. A report in the New York Times on June 14 featured comments from black military veterans about being stationed at Confederate-named bases, with one veteran calling it a “slap in the face.” 

In cities across the South, Confederate monuments have been toppled by Black Lives Matter protestors; foremost among them the Jefferson Davis statue on the fabled Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. According to a 2019 report by The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights legal advocacy organization, 783 Confederate statues remain standing on public ground in the U.S.

On the night of June 14, the statue of Robert E. Lee, also on Monument Avenue, was tagged with the Black Lives Matter slogan and painted in the rainbow bars of the LGBT-Pride flag. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (a Democrat who came under fire last year when a 1984 photograph surfaced of him pictured in blackface) has said the Lee statue, along with the four other Confederate monuments on the street, would be removed. (Property owners on Monument Avenue have filed suit against the City of Richmond seeking to block removal.) On June 16, the Monument Avenue statue of Arthur Ashe, a champion black tennis player from Richmond, was vandalized and spray-painted with the tag “White Lives Matter.” The Ashe statue is one of six that line Monument Avenue, and the only one of a black Virginian. It stirred controversy in Richmond when it was unveiled in 1996.


Sessions, who was first elected to the Senate in 1997, is currently locked in a close race in the Republican primary with former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville. The two will meet in a runoff on July 14. Tuberville, who refuses to debate Sessions, has castigated his opponent for abandoning Trump during the Department of Justice investigation into the possibility of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Sessions has been harangued by Trump on social media for recusing himself in the investigation, but he still maintains support for the president, campaigning on the idea that he was the first prominent sitting politician to embrace the Trump movement. As of June 20, Trump will hold a rally for Tuberville at Mobile’s Ladd Stadium, sometime in July, according to national media reports.

Instead of only focusing on Tuberville, whose campaign has been marked by cheesy football metaphors and blind fealty to Trump, Sessions has targeted Jones, his would-be Republican opponent in November, for his vote on the Confederate-named bases. A former attorney, Jones won the Senate seat in a 2017 special election that pitted him against former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, a Republican evangelical who was accused of inappropriate sexual and social conduct by nine women during the course of the campaign, including one who claimed she was sexually assaulted by Moore at age 14. Jones, who was considered an underdog in the race, was vaulted into office after receiving overwhelming support from the state’s female black voters.

As of June 19, Tuberville had not weighed in on the issue of Confederate-named bases, and could not be reached for comment as of this writing. When Tuberville was head football coach at Ole Miss, he was instrumental in banning the Confederate battle flag at Ole Miss games in Oxford, Mississippi. Early in his tenure as coach, Tuberville said he faced obstacles in his effort to recruit black players as a result of the flag’s presence at games. The effort to remove the flag was met with protest from a portion of the student body and some Ole Miss alumni, so, in a diplomatic sleight of hand, the school’s president issued a ban on “sticks” at games.

When the issue of Confederate monuments comes up for debate, historians often note that Lee was opposed to the erecting of Confederate statues after the war. Lee’s objections were ignored during the advent of the Lost Cause movement, a century-and-a-half propaganda campaign which advanced the theory that the Civil War was fought over the issue of “states’ rights,” a viewpoint a plurality of Americans adhered to as recently as 2011, according to a Pew research poll

Upon close inspection, the states’ rights argument withers when one considers that the Confederate States Constitution, established in 1861, did not grant the individual states in the Confederacy the sovereign right to decide the question of slavery [Constitution of the Confederate States, Article 1, Section 9:4], though the document’s preamble says each state was acting in its “sovereign and independent character” when the new government was formed.

The Lost Cause idea, which was first promoted in an 1866 book by Virginian Robert A. Pollard, deified numerous figures in the Confederacy, none more so than General Robert E. Lee, whose characterization was emphasized as that of the chivalric man who could not take up arms against his home state of Virginia. Lee and his soldiers fought heroically on the field of battle, but were grossly outmatched in military size and industrial strength and defeated for this reason (and not because of strategic mistakes), the Lost Cause asserts. 

Some historical accounts paint Lee the man in a much less honorable light. Writing in The Atlantic in 2010, Ta-Nehisi Coates relates the tale of a black man who says Lee ordered his slaves to be washed with brine after they had been flogged. Lee at times called slavery a moral and political evil, adding that it was God’s will and the duty of the white man to nurture the black population until it had evolved to the point where it could live freely (a common refrain among Southern preachers then). Lee’s sentiments partly echoed those of Alexander H. Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy, in his notorious “Cornerstone Speech,” a virulently racist tract which claimed that “slavery subordination to the superior race is his [the black man’s] natural and normal condition.” In his speech, Stephens also rebukes the founding fathers’ notion that slavery was inherently evil, making his views on race retrograde to those of  George Washington, whose statue in Portland, Oregon was toppled by protestors on the night of June 18.

On “The Jeff Poor Show,” a conservative radio program broadcast in Alabama, Sessions said the current movement to eradicate Confederate monuments jettisons any opportunity for debate. “It’s a demonizing of anybody who was not perfect,” Sessions told Poor. “The great [scholar] Shelby Steele talks about this and it was clear in the 1980s, the radicals of the ’60s and ’70s and coming into the ’80s — but, they judged America by a standard of perfection. And, of course, we fall short. Good Americans will say to the radicals, ‘We hear you. We want to get better. We want to have better racial relations. We want to have a better justice system. We want to have a better economic system.’”


James Longstreet, Lee’s right-hand man and most trusted general during the Civil War, was not honored by the Lost Cause. A cool-headed officer from South Carolina that Lee called “my old warhorse,” Longstreet was often blamed by Lost Cause ideologues for the defeat at Gettysburg and consequently the loss of the war. But it was Longstreet, along with other subordinate officers, who cautioned Lee against Pickett’s Charge, a crippling psychic and physical blow to the Confederacy. Gettysburg National Military Park contains a statue of Longstreet, but there was never one erected in the South. After the war, Longstreet joined the Republican Party in support of Reconstruction and was branded a scalawag by most Southerners. Though he owned slaves before the war, he is also remembered for helping lead a black militia in a fight against white supremacists in New Orleans in 1874.

Gary Gallagher, a Civil War historian and professor at the University of Virginia, explained the rationale for the Lost Cause movement on “The Civil War in American Memory” podcast in 2011. “They knew they were out of step with the great tide of Western civilization,” Gallagher said. “They knew they would not be received well if they played it straight on how important slavery had been.”

It’s certainly no myth that the Confederate army performed valiantly on the field of battle (as was also the case for the Union). Take the 15th Alabama Infantry Regiment, for instance, whose members were said to range in age from 13 to 70. At the start of the war, the regiment, which consisted of soldiers from southeastern Alabama, contained 1,958 men. After seeing action in 15 major engagements, including horrific bloodbaths like Gettysburg (where they famously charged the 20th Maine on Little Round Top), Antietam and Chickamauga, not to mention dealing with the onslaught of disease in consistently deplorable conditions, the regiment contained only 170 soldiers by the end of the war. 

In his Twitter thread June 13, Sessions writes: “Make no mistake, this [Jones’ vote] is not a little matter. It reveals a profound deficit in his understanding of what it means to be AL’s Senator. Doug Jones’ vote seeks to erase AL’s & America’s history and thousands of Alabamians for doing what they considered to be their duty at the time.”

While many volunteered to fight for the South, a great portion were forced to by law. After having trouble attracting volunteers to fight in the early days of the war, the Confederate Congress passed its first Conscription Act, or draft, in 1862, making all white males ages 18 to 35 available for service for three years. By early 1864, the age limit had been increased to 50 years old. Wealthy Southerners also had the right to purchase “substitutes” to fight in their stead, a common practice. Historical estimates of the number of “substitutes” range from 50,000 to 150,000. There were also parts of Alabama that did not fully support the Confederate cause. In Winston County, where plantation life was largely non-existent due to the non-arable soil, pro-Union sentiment was strong enough to generate a legend that the county had seceded from Alabama.


At the start of the war, nearly one-third of Southern families owned slaves, according to the 1860 census. Many of those who fought in the Confederate army, whether voluntarily or through conscription, were objects of derision among the slaveholding class. Like so many American military conflicts, the Civil War could be viewed as a rich man’s war fought by poor boys. In the case of the Confederacy, the South’s ruling class had to secede in order to ensure the preservation of an economy that was fueled by a slave-labor state. 

For the North, preserving the Union was paramount at the start of the conflict. In August 1862, President Abraham Lincoln wrote to the New York Tribune, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, an executive order, it was done to punish the Southern states who had rebelled against the U.S. It was a strategic decision on Lincoln’s part as much as anything else. Regardless, abolition had now moved to the forefront of the Union cause. 


Alabama, of course, is no stranger to racial politics. The Yellowhammer State was one of the main stages of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. And now, in 2020, Alabama finds itself grappling with the legacy of the Civil War in a prominent political campaign. In his Twitter thread, Sessions says the issue of Confederate names on bases is not about slavery, arguing that the issue was “settled by the war.” Sessions went on to label Jones as a member of the “radical left” who would advocate for the demolition of the Jefferson memorial and Washington Monument, presumably because these figures owned slaves. But it’s worth noting that the men of the Confederacy did fight a war against the United States.

As an argument, the defense of Confederate symbolism on public land is a tough sell, as quixotic as the doomed Pickett’s Charge, when Lee ordered some 12,500 Confederate infantry to march for three-quarters of a mile across an open field in the face of enemy artillery and rifle fire that was being directed from behind a fortified stone wall. In his 1948 novel Intruder In The Dust, William Faulkner reimagines the scene leading up to Pickett’s Charge, writing that “for every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863 …” The historical record, as many are learning, suggests that Confederate hagiography is itself a fantasy, a nostalgia for a past that never was, the defense of which is, indeed, a lost cause.

Author: Caine O'Rear

Caine O'Rear is a writer and editor based in Mobile, Alabama. He is the former editor in chief of American Songwriter Magazine. Follow him at

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