DeMarco: Why Confederate Statues Should Come Down

The Op-Ed Page

statue in Marion

By Paul V. DeMarco
Guest Columnist

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there remain more than 700 statues in our nation honoring Confederates. I pass one regularly in my hometown of Marion. It is by far the most impressive statue in the county. The city of Marion website gives its dimensions: a seven-foot bronze replica of a Confederate soldier and a 22-foot Winnsboro blue granite base.

Paul and statue

Paul DeMarco with the statue.

Like many similar statues, the statue was purchased with funds raised by the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy. When it was erected in 1903, it was located in one of the intersections of Marion’s small business district. It was moved out of the intersection to its current location near the public library in 1952.

Legend has it that is was moved after being struck by more than one wayward (and as related by some wags, drunk) drivers. The website offers a much less interesting reason – to make way for new traffic lights. Whatever the motive, the soldier retreated southward only a few dozen yards, but he remains north-facing, gazing tirelessly at the horizon for the reappearance of Yankee invaders.

As far as I know, there has been no public discussion of whether to remove Marion’s version of Johnny Reb from his high perch.  Both sides would have their proponents. Some, including former President Trump, argue against removal. In a campaign speech in June 2020, Trump said “This cruel campaign of censorship and exclusion violates everything we hold dear as Americans. They want to demolish our heritage so they can impose a new oppressive regime in its place.” Trump has argued that the fight to save the statues “is a battle to save the Heritage, History, and Greatness of our Country.”

Many Americans, some of whom are black, have a less bombastic anti-removal argument: The statues serve as an important part of our collective memory. They assert that we should leave the statues up to remember who we as a people were, including the terrible mistakes we have made. Even if the statues glorify Southern politicians and military men who supported the enslavement of blacks, remembering these men is a way of inoculating ourselves against that kind of hatred creeping back into our national psyche.inscription

While I appreciate those arguments, I come down on the side of removing Confederate statues. I would argue that statues are not raised to teach history. That is the job of families, schools and universities. History is too broad, too nuanced, and too complex to be taught with public monuments.

Rather than teaching history, statues are erected to reflect our shared values. We carefully select the people and events from history that best represent who we are and enshrine them for generations to come.

The city of Marion’s Confederate statue was erected at a time when racial oppression was ironclad. I think it can be accurately seen as symbolizing and perpetuating the white supremacist society that blacks were forced to endure during the Jim Crow era. The inscription on the plinth gives it away. It says in part, “To the memory of those valiant souls who went forth from Old Marion to yield up their lives in patriotic devotion to the South and all that the South stood for.”

Remove the euphemism “all that the South stood for” and chisel in less-vague descriptions of the racial reality at the turn of the twentieth century. Take your sculptor’s mallet and mentally carve “oppression,” “persecution,” “brutality” and “terrorism.” Then the inscription is revealed for the propaganda that it is, propping up the lie that the Civil War was fought for something other than the preservation of black subjugation.

Confederate soldiers should be memorialized. They were men with families that loved them. They had lives before, and, if they survived, after their service to the Confederacy. Their living descendants can decide how that should best be done in the cemeteries in which they lie. The National Park Service maintains 17 Civil War battlefields, and states maintain many more. Multiple opportunities for reenactments still exist for those who are captivated by that conflict.

I wish I had a foolproof algorithm for whether a statue should be removed. The central question for me is, “What was the primary legacy of the person memorialized?” That approach, in my mind, disqualifies the political and military leaders of the Confederacy, a failed attempt to fracture the Union for the purpose of maintaining slavery.

But I don’t think owning slaves alone necessarily disqualifies a historical figure, particularly the Founding Fathers. Their role in establishing a new country dedicated to the ideal of freedom is their overarching legacy, even though many of them owned slaves.

To that point, there is only one other statue of a historical figure in the city of Marion. Located on the courthouse square, it is a likeness of Revolutionary War Brigadier General Francis Marion, known as the “Swamp Fox.”  It was dedicated in 1976 as part of our town’s celebration of America’s Bicentennial. Marion was a slaveholder. But his part in the Revolutionary War effort and his later service in the South Carolina General Assembly make him an inspirational, if flawed, figure. I would argue his statue stays.

Once a Confederate monument is removed, many communities struggle with how to choose its replacement. In Marion County that choice would be easy: Clementa Pinckney, the South Carolina state senator and senior pastor of Mother Emmanuel who was murdered along with eight of his parishioners in 2015. Pinckney had family in Marion County and is buried here. His life and legacy represent the values and hopes of Marionites in a way that a Confederate memorial never could.

17 thoughts on “DeMarco: Why Confederate Statues Should Come Down

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    That’s Paul’s opinion. Here’s mine…

    I would not take down the anonymous rebel soldier statue that stands in Marion, my mother’s ancestral hometown. (She mostly grew up in other places in S.C. and N.C., but both of her parents are from Marion County going back as long as there have been people of European extraction in the area.)

    That is to say, I wouldn’t demand, or even mildly call for, its removal. At the same time, if it came down, I wouldn’t object.

    You may find this confusing.

    After all, I’m the guy who demanded, over and over and over, for more than 20 years, that the Confederate battle flag come down — first from the Statehouse dome, then from the grounds. That was vastly different. Apart from the usual reasons — the indefensible embrace of the Lost Cause, the deliberate slap in the face to my black brothers and sisters — it constituted a gross misstatement of fact. No matter what you think of the Confederacy, it was entirely inappropriate.

    First, a flying flag isn’t a monument, a marker of something that once was in a certain place. It’s a living thing. It says whatever this stands for is in effect in this place right NOW.

    It was a gross lie for it to fly over, or in front of (and yes, I know that’s not technically the “front” of the Statehouse, but it’s the most visible and best-know approach), our present seat of government. No matter what you think of your ancestors, it had ZERO business flying up there with the U.S. and state flag.

    Even if you’re a neoConfederate who can’t wait for the South to Rise Again, it was out of place. It was, as John Courson used to always say so grandiloquently, a “mi-li-tari BAN-nuh,” not a thing that represented any government that ever existed.

    I could go on and on about such esoterica, because there is just reason after reason why its flying there was idiotic. But really, it’s unnecessary. The fact that it was evil should be enough. Here I’m back to the Lost Cause and the insult to black South Carolinians.

    What the flag said was, “This is not your state. It’s ours, and to hell with what you want.”

    And yes, the statues do that to a certain extent, too — so many were erected at the height of the Lost Cause movement in the 1890s. Just read the inscription that Paul cites. But it doesn’t bring that cause back to life the way a flag does. It sits out in the weather and corrodes, and suffers the indignity of bird dung, and basically says, “This is something that once was.” Which is true enough.

    And what was that, the thing that once was? Well, it was hundreds of thousands of men who left behind all that mattered to them, took up a rifle, slung a bedroll across their backs, and marched off to places that to them were as far away as the moon is to us, prepared to lay down their lives. Men like my ancestor from Marion, Pvt. Wesley Samuel Foxworth — my great-great-great grandfather. He died at the Battle of Globe Tavern, south of Petersburg, Va. He is buried in an unknown grave up there. I don’t know a whole lot else about him.

    Why did he fight? Why did any of them fight? Was it for slavery? Sure, ultimately — in the grand scheme of things. Anyone who says the war wasn’t about that is delusional (and should go read the “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union“). It’s also rather idiotic when people say the Confederacy was OK because, “My ancestor was a Confederate soldier, and HE didn’t own slaves.” One thing that building my family tree has taught me: If all or most of your ancestors were white Southerners, SOME of them owned slaves — and probably most of them.

    But yeah, they probably also marched off because they believed that they were defending their homes from outside forces. Propaganda can be remarkably effective. And these were men with a 19th-century notion of such concepts as “homeland” and “country.” Even an educated man of fine sensibilities like Robert E. Lee understood Virginia to be his “country” more than the United States.

    Also, finally, what they donned the gray and marched off for was generally not the same thing that they fought for. In the clash of battle, amid the inhuman noise and violence — the mud, dust, confusion and blood — what keeps a soldier fighting? Generally, they don’t do it for causes, good or bad. They don’t even do it for apple pie or the girl next door, as much as they may long to be back with her. They do it for each other. They do it for the guys next to them, who they know will give the last measure for THEM. Standing and fighting is their way of showing they would rather die than let those guys down.

    So there’s all that in such statues. There’s also the tears of those they left behind. Not my tears. Not even the tears of people I know, though I am descended from some of them. But people.

    And yes, as sad as it was for those people, and as horrible for the men who experienced combat, especially those who died — it’s a good thing they lost. The world is better for it, and I celebrate that.

    So, you know — leave the statue up, or take it down. I’m not demanding that you do either…

    Of course, if you’re talking about the statue of Ben Tillman at the Statehouse, well… take it down right now. Take it down yesterday. But we can discuss that at some other time. I just wanted to address Paul’s topic…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yeah, I wrote more than Paul did there. About 30 words more.

      But that’s because I did it in a hurry, and didn’t take time to hone and trim, so it’s probably about twice the length it should be. Writing shorter takes longer.

      I just wanted to make clear what I said earlier — that when I run someone else’s copy in this format, it doesn’t mean I agree with what he or she says…

    2. Ken

      “or even mildly call for, its removal.”

      I get this far and am immediately disappointed, even irked. Though not surprised. Because this the same middle-of-the-roadism that we have come to expect from Brad Warthen. But as William Buckley said, “Middle-of-the-Road qua Middle-of-the-Road is politically, intellectually and morally repugnant.”

      “a flying flag isn’t a monument, a marker of something that once was in a certain place….”

      A Confederate monument isn’t specifically about anything that was once in a certain place, either. Or it isn’t that any more than the flag was that flew in front of the State House. In other words, the flag was indeed a monument – or was considered such by those who put it there or who wanted it to stay there. It was a monument, on the one hand, to the Confederate soldier and to the Confederacy itself. And as such it was a monument to the very core purpose the Confederate States were meant to serve: slavery. The argument that a flag, by its nature, cannot be a monument does not stand up to scrutiny.

      And, just by the by, Courson was wrong: the flag that flew in front of the State House did indeed represent a government, as attested by the fact that it was eventually incorporated into the Confederate national banner itself. And by the fact that, in the course of time, it came to serve as THE symbol of the Confederacy, while all the others disappeared from public view. More importantly, claiming that it did not represent any government unnaturally and illegitimately disconnects the Confederate army from the government it was fighting to defend. This merely falls into a ready trap set by neo-Confederates: that the Southern soldier is unsullied by anything the Confederate state stood for. The distinction likewise does not stand up to scrutiny.

      It is similarly untenable to separate the motivations of individual soldiers from the cause they were ultimately serving. Those multitudinous motivations cannot be captured by a monument to all soldiers of the cause. Doing so would be a … well, monumental task. Something that no single monument or even series of monuments could ever properly deal with or commemorate. No, Confederate soldier monuments are, in the end, monuments to the cause those soldiers fought for. No war, good or bad, is fought merely in service to the brotherhood that forms between soldiers on the battlefield. Since war is politics by other means, all wars are fought with a purpose, an end, in mind – regardless whether or not all the soldiers involved in it are fully mindful of that purpose.

      A soldier works for a state. A state pursues certain ends. And in the case of the Confederacy, that end was slavery (as well as disunion: in service of slavery). A monument to the soldiers of that cause does not reflect personal motives, impulses or desires. It represents soldiery in service of the state’s cause. The only soldier monument that has any chance of avoiding association with state purpose would perhaps be one that merely lists the names of those soldiers lost in the conflict and nothing else. The Confederate monument in Marion, like all the other mass-produced Silent Sams across the South, does not meet that standard.

      It is intellectually schizophrenic to conclude that the flag’s placement was evil, but the thing the flag and the other monuments represent do not rate even “mild” support for their removal.

    3. bud

      I know you mean it metaphorically but calling a flag a living thing is a poor choice of words. I don’t see it that way at all. It really is just a piece of cloth that means whatever the viewer chooses for it to mean. Same with the statues. Personally as this issue has evolved over the years I’m more and inclined to simply get rid of all the confederate statues and most other symbols of the days of slavery. I would not tear down the Jefferson memorial in DC but I wouldn’t rebuild if destroyed. I certainly wouldn’t build any new war memorials. That WW 2 memorial in DC is way over the top. Something small like the WW 1 memorial is quite sufficient. We should stop glorifying war. Instead let’s focus on symbols of peace and healing.

      1. Bryan Caskey

        “I’m more and inclined to simply get rid of all the confederate statues and most other symbols of the days of slavery. I would not tear down the Jefferson memorial in DC but I wouldn’t rebuild if destroyed.”

        One crucial distinction you miss is that monuments to Washington, Jefferson, and other Founders were not erected for the specific purpose of honoring their slaveholding. The purpose of each monument is important to understand.

        By contrast, the vast majority of monuments to Confederate leaders were erected to honor their service to the Confederacy, whose main reason for existing was to protect and extend slavery…

        1. Paul DeMarco

          Bryan: One crucial distinction you miss is that monuments to Washington, Jefferson, and other Founders were not erected for the specific purpose of honoring their slaveholding.
          I agree. I think that’s a critical distinction. If you had a vote, would you vote to remove our nameless Confederate in Marion? Brad is less bothered than I am because the statue represents the ordinary soldier and not a leader of the Confederacy. But I see it as a signal to those same people-ordinary white Marionites-that despite losing the war, they retained power over their black counterparts. I can’t look at it without still feeling disheartened. I imagine that if I were black, that feeling would be more intense. I’d be interested to know where you come down.

          1. Bryan Caskey

            “I’d be interested to know where you come down.”

            If I lived in Marion, I would want to know what my fellow citizens of Marion thought about it. I would want to know if it made anyone feel upset, uncomfortable, and if so…why. I don’t really have strong feelings about the monument, as I didn’t even know it existed before yesterday. Either way, but I wouldn’t want my friends and neighbors in Marion to feel uncomfortable. If the monument was the source of that uncomfortability, then I would listen to those concerns.

          2. Ken

            In his book, In the Shadow of Statues, former New Orleans Mayor MItch Landrieu recounts that despite growing up in a progressive-minded family firmly devoted to integration, it wasn’t until later in his life that he was made aware of the discomfort caused to Black residents by the presence of Confederate monuments in their city. He says that growing up in N.O, he passed by those statues all the time without giving them a second thought. They were just part of the landscape. It wasn’t until later when Black friends told him of their very different reaction on passing by those same statues that he came to see them much differently.

        2. bud

          Bryan, I generally agree that the Jefferson Memorial is intended to honor Jefferson’s roll in creating a nation that could evolve into a country that guaranteed the freedom and dignity of all Americans. At the time of the writing of the Constitution it was not possible to ensure blacks, women and gay people could enjoy certain freedoms and rights. Jefferson and the others did what they could. But it really would be hard to enshrine his legacy in that light alone given his rather imperfect treatment of black folks even to the point of rape. That episode was hidden for 200 years which suggests that even by the standards of the day Jefferson was seriously flawed. I don’t believe for one minute that a grand memorial to Jefferson would ever be built today. And that’s as it should be.

          1. James Edward Cross

            I’m afraid I disagree. Jefferson’s role in drafting the Declaration of Independence had international impact. Millions of people have found inspiration in the words of the Declaration to fight for freedom. For that alone Jefferson deserves a memorial. Don’t make the same mistake that many on the right make in that their heroes must be paragons of virtue who never did any wrong. Jefferson was deeply flawed and certainly failed to live to live up to his ideals. But that is true for many people whose accomplishments we celebrate.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Actually, it’s true of everybody. If you honor someone, you do it for the things he or she did to rise above that flawed nature.

              Refusing to honor someone’s achievements because you can point to something you dislike is a fundamental flaw in judgment.

            2. Brad Warthen Post author

              Just ran across James’ comment weeks later…

              The thing about accepting that heroes are flawed, but still heroes, reminds me…

              I was listening to someone on the radio awhile back saying that people needed to know that Jefferson and Washington had slaves, and our education system needs to be amended to make sure they learn that…

              I was walking down the street, listening with earbuds, and I cried out, “Who doesn’t KNOW that?!?!?”

              I mean, seriously… Who gets through school NOT knowing those guys were slaveholders?

              The problem we have with history education is that we have too many of two kinds of students (and former students): those who think they can’t be heroes because they had slaves, and the people we’ve heard so much from over the last four years who think it’s just fine that they had slaves.

              What we need is more people who understand that they were slaveholders, but they’re still national — and as James says, international — heroes for the other things they did.

              Because that’s the way the world is, and people from one end of the political spectrum to the other need to understand it, and stop trying to see everyone as either all good or all bad, according to their differing standards…

  2. Paul V DeMarco

    Glad to be back on the blog and pleasantly surprised that Brad will run my columns occasionally. As he says, we won’t always agree. But when we disagree, we will do so respectfully. I assure you I will not comment as often as Brad, but I am interested in your thoughts and criticisms. If I don’t respond, it doesn’t mean I haven’t read and considered your comment. It just means I, like many of you, am busy. And since I’m not a former head of South Carolina’s most respected editorial page, I don’t always have to have the last word!

  3. Pat

    I really think confederate monuments should come down for almost the same reason the confederate flag should have been brought down – the distinction being that the flag did represent a failed, racist, treasonous government. The confederate monuments represent their service to said government. I would leave individual graves alone.
    It has been a surprise to me how soft the post civil war United States was on the confederate soldiers, repatriating them, giving them pensions, naming forts and other military installations after them.
    Also, many seem to be sure their southern ancestor wouldn’t have owned slaves if they weren’t well off plantation owners. They might be surprised if they did some research and read some of the wills on file. It is not unusual to find a pre-civil war will that includes one, two, or three slaves in the estate.
    Maybe the softness comes from the fact that many in the north found themselves closely related to those in the south.
    It is really past time to fix this and show some respect to all our citizens by showing some humanity.

Comments are closed.