W.E.B. Du Bois Devastates Apologists for Confederate Monuments and Robert E. Lee (1931)

Who won the U.S. Civ­il War? “The north, of course,” you say… but ah… if you did not know the answer, you would have rea­son to be con­fused. Who los­es a war and puts up stat­ues of its heroes on the vic­tor’s land? In the south, say, in North­ern Vir­ginia, you’ll find pub­lic shrines to Stonewall Jack­son, pub­lic high­ways named for Jef­fer­son Davis, and pub­lic schools named after Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stew­art. These are not his­tor­i­cal mon­u­ments, i.e. pre­served bat­tle­fields, grave­yards, or his­toric homes. They were erect­ed decades after the war. You’ll find them in Cal­i­for­nia, Ore­gon, and Wash­ing­ton state, which did not exist at the time.

Next ques­tion: who did the Con­fed­er­a­cy fight in the Civ­il War? The Union, of course. But the lead­ers of the region also warred with anoth­er ene­my, as they had for over two hun­dred years: mil­lions of enslaved peo­ple kept in bru­tal sub­jec­tion. In many respects, they won this war, though they lost the priv­i­leges of legal slav­ery. Once Andrew John­son came to pow­er, the south rein­sti­tut­ed con­di­tions that were often more or less the same for Black peo­ple as they had been before the war. Grant strug­gled to reverse the tide, but Recon­struc­tion ulti­mate­ly failed.

This is the vic­to­ry the south com­mem­o­rat­ed when orga­ni­za­tions like the Unit­ed Daugh­ters of the Con­fed­er­a­cy and Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans put up mon­u­ments to south­ern gen­er­als all over the coun­try. It is the vic­to­ry invoked by the Bat­tle Flag of the Army of North­ern Vir­ginia (or the “Con­fed­er­ate Flag”). A defi­ance of mul­ti-racial democ­ra­cy and a gov­ern­ment that serves the needs of all its cit­i­zens; a men­ac­ing pro­mo­tion of white suprema­cist mythol­o­gy, main­tained with pub­lic funds on pub­lic lands. Those sym­bols include:

  • 780 mon­u­ments, more than 300 of which are in Geor­gia, Vir­ginia or North Car­oli­na;
  • 103 pub­lic K‑12 schools and three col­leges named for Robert E. Lee, Jef­fer­son Davis or oth­er Con­fed­er­ate icons;
  • 80 coun­ties and cities named for Con­fed­er­ates;
  • 9 observed state hol­i­days in five states; and
  • 10 U.S. mil­i­tary bases. 

But, no, one might say, these are obser­vances for the south­ern dead, who were, after all, Amer­i­cans too. This is what we’ve heard, over and over. It was a hoary old sto­ry when W.E.B. Du Bois heard it in the ear­ly decades of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. “Lost Cause” ide­ol­o­gy had done its work, flood­ing the cul­ture with sym­pa­thet­ic por­tray­als of the Con­fed­er­a­cy, a wave of pro­pa­gan­da that reached its apex in the spec­ta­cle of 1915’s Birth of a Nation (first titled The Clans­man), respon­si­ble for res­ur­rect­ing the Ku Klux Klan.

The sto­ry went some­thing like this: “No nobler young men ever lived; no braver sol­diers ever answered the bugle call nor marched under a bat­tle flag,” pro­claimed south­ern indus­tri­al­ist Julian Carr at the 1913 ded­i­ca­tion of Con­fed­er­ate stat­ue Silent Sam, which stood on the cam­pus of the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na in Chapel Hill until activists tore it down recent­ly. “They fought, not for con­quest, not for coer­cion, but from a high and holy sense of duty. They were like the Knights of the Holy Grail.”

Carr goes on like this at length, recit­ing poet­ry and mak­ing con­stant ref­er­ences to Greek heroes and gods. His pur­pose, he says, is to memo­ri­al­ize “the Sacred Cause.” But he nev­er says what that cause is, though he has many exalt­ed words for “the noble women of my dear South­land, who are to-day as thor­ough­ly con­vinced of the jus­tice of that cause.” The speech is boil­er­plate Con­fed­er­ate apol­o­gism: an almost hys­ter­i­cal­ly bom­bas­tic defense of the south that nev­er once men­tions slav­ery.

Yet in an odd moment, Carr breaks off—during a rant about “what the Con­fed­er­ate sol­dier meant to the wel­fare of the Anglo Sax­on race”—to make a “rather per­son­al… allu­sion” for seem­ing­ly no rea­son:

One hun­dred yards from where we stand, less than nine­ty days per­haps after my return from Appo­mat­tox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this qui­et vil­lage she had pub­licly insult­ed and maligned a South­ern lady, and then rushed for pro­tec­tion to these Uni­ver­si­ty build­ings where was sta­tioned a gar­ri­son of 100 Fed­er­al sol­diers. I per­formed the pleas­ing duty in the imme­di­ate pres­ence of the entire gar­ri­son, and for thir­ty nights after­wards slept with a dou­ble-bar­rel shot gun under my head.

What does it say about his audi­ence that Carr thinks this admis­sion reflects well on him? Du Bois under­stood it. He had diag­nosed the fear and vio­lent hatred men like Carr embod­ied and seen their cow­ardice and des­per­ate over­com­pen­sa­tion. “They preach and strut and shout and threat­en,” he wrote in The Souls of White Folk, “crouch­ing as they clutch at rags of facts and fan­cies to hide their naked­ness, they go twist­ing, fly­ing by my tired eyes and I see them ever stripped—ugly, human.”

Du Bois knew what Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments were meant to rep­re­sent. In 1931, he cut to the heart of the mat­ter in brief remarks pub­lished in The Cri­sis (top). “Du Bois push­es right back against the myth of the Lost Cause,” writes his­to­ri­an Kevin M. Levin. “He refus­es to draw a dis­tinc­tion between the Con­fed­er­ate gov­ern­ment and men in the ranks,” as rep­re­sent­ed by stat­ues like Silent Sam. “Du Bois clear­ly under­stood that as long as white south­ern­ers were able to mythol­o­gize the war through their mon­u­ments, African Amer­i­cans would remain sec­ond class cit­i­zens.”

He did not refer to mon­u­ments put up in Con­fed­er­ate ceme­ter­ies, as many had been imme­di­ate­ly after the war, but to the hun­dreds of stat­ues and oth­er memo­ri­als erect­ed in promi­nent places of gov­ern­ment begin­ning around 1900. “All of these mon­u­ments were there to teach val­ues to peo­ple,” says Mark Elliott, pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na, Greens­boro. “That’s why they put them in the city squares. That’s why they put them in front of state build­ings.” It’s why there are Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues in the U.S. Cap­i­tal, gifts to the nation from south­ern states, glad­ly accept­ed.

Three years ear­li­er, Du Bois had writ­ten many choice words about attempts to deify Con­fed­er­ate lead­ers like Robert E. Lee (who him­self opposed mon­u­ments). He also coun­tered the argu­ment that the war was about “States Rights” in one inci­sive sen­tence: “If nation­al­ism had been a stronger defense of the slave sys­tem than par­tic­u­lar­ism, the South would have been as nation­al­ist in 1861 as it had been in 1812.” None of the high-flown rhetoric about “the cause” of gov­ern­ing prin­ci­ples had any­thing to do with it, Du Bois argues. “Peo­ple do not go to war for abstract the­o­ries of gov­ern­ment. They fight for prop­er­ty and priv­i­lege.”

One stat­ue in North Car­oli­na, Du Bois notes wry­ly in his Cri­sis remarks, goes so far as to claim that Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers “Died Fight­ing for Lib­er­ty!” This would not strike Lost Cause defend­ers like Carr as iron­ic. They too fought for lib­er­ty, of a kind—the free­dom to pun­ish, kill, imprison, exploit, dis­en­fran­chise, and oth­er­wise ter­ror­ize and impov­er­ish Black Amer­i­cans at will.

via Nathan Robin­son

Relat­ed Con­tent:

W.E.B. Du Bois Cre­ates Rev­o­lu­tion­ary, Artis­tic Data Visu­al­iza­tions Show­ing the Eco­nom­ic Plight of African-Amer­i­cans (1900)

Pho­tos of 19th-Cen­tu­ry Black Women Activists Dig­i­tized and Put Online by The Library of Con­gress

The Civ­il War & Recon­struc­tion: A Free Course from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (8)
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  • Arland says:

    So Josh, Cal­i­for­nia did­n’t exist before the Civ­il War?


    well done!

  • chrisare says:

    I would be grate­ful for less click-baity titles. Thanks.

  • Mark says:

    In 1849, Cal­i­for­ni­ans sought state­hood and, after heat­ed debate in the U.S. Con­gress aris­ing out of the slav­ery issue, Cal­i­for­nia entered the Union as a free, non­slav­ery state by the Com­pro­mise of 1850. Cal­i­for­nia became the 31st state on Sep­tem­ber 9, 1850.

  • Lonnie says:


    I agree with you that the Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues should be tak­en down and removed out of sight. Let’s try to for­get that time and move on as Amer­i­cans.

  • OLIVER LEWIS says:

    You are only mak­ing things worse by this and oth­er arti­cles on the present sit­u­a­tion

  • C.C. says:

    Not only was Cal­i­for­nia annexed in 1850, the south­ern coun­ties had so many ex-South­ern­ers and Con­fed­er­ate sym­pa­thiz­ers that a mil­i­tary base was built in Los Ange­les’ South Bay in case of a Con­fed­er­ate upris­ing.

    …Of course, Los Ange­les even­tu­al­ly got rid of its Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments. The last ones of which I’m aware were in pri­vate­ly owned ceme­ter­ies and were qui­et­ly removed years ago.

  • Vicki Carlson says:

    If you lis­ten to Thomas Sow­ell and his expla­na­tion of schools, then and now, you will find that today’s schools, indeed, have not ser­viced our minor­i­ty or our major­i­ty com­mu­ni­ties well. In the past the seg­re­gat­ed schools were very good and served our minori­ties and the major­i­ty of minori­ties were against deseg­re­ga­tion. We deseg­re­gat­ed to the point of bring­ing almost all of our schools down to a low equal­i­ty. Char­ter and pri­vate schools are try­ing to change this so it’s no won­der the gov­ern­ment and the teacher’s unions are against char­ter schools. Look for­ward peo­ple, glance at the past, but embrace the future.

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