According to the Park Service, there are now 1,328 monuments, memorials, plaques, and tablets, and most commemorate the Union. The Confederate statues that draw fire are the so-called state monuments, and there’s one for each of the 11 Confederate states. The first, the Virginia Monument, was dedicated in June 1917—the same month American troops started arriving in Europe to fight in World War I—in a ceremony that celebrated North-South reconciliation and the heroism of Robert E. Lee, who sits on top of the structure astride his horse, Traveller. At the ceremony, Virginia Governor Henry Carter Stuart said, “The imperishable bronze shall outlive our own and other generations…and until the eternal morning of the final reunion of quick and dead, the life of Robert Edward Lee shall be a message to thrill and uplift the heart of all mankind.”
The UDC put the Arlington statue there for the same reasons that motivated it elsewhere: pushing Lost Cause propaganda. Do cemetery and battlefield monuments really belong in a separate, protected category?
The monument’s debut represented a major shift in attitude. According to the Gettysburg Compiler—a digital publication run by students and staff at Gettysburg College—the unveiling was “a crucial moment in reconciliationist memory of the war. For the majority of the previous 50 years, Union veterans and Northern politicians vehemently opposed nearly every attempt to commemorate the Confederacy at Gettysburg.” That changed, explains writer Zachary Wesley, as Union veterans died off and wartime patriotism fueled reconciliationist spirit.
Even so, says Wesley, there were limits: “One suggested inscription containing the phrase ‘They Fought for the Faith of Their Fathers’ was rejected outright” by the federal authorities who oversaw battlefield monuments. “They wanted a politically neutral message in the monuments on the landscape.”
These days, a giant statue of Robert E. Lee can’t be viewed as politically neutral. He was a slave owner who led an army that fought to defend and expand the institution. But as the years passed and more Confederate state monuments went up, the South slowly began to get its way with messaging.
The North Carolina Monument, dedicated in 1929 and created by Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum—a supporter of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan who also worked on the massive Confederate carving at Stone Mountain, Georgia—shows four soldiers advancing toward their fate, which was probably grim. North Carolina suffered the largest number of casualties of any Confederate state—6,000—and the inscription understandably focuses on valor. “To the eternal glory of the North Carolina soldiers,” it says. “Who on this battlefield displayed heroism unsurpassed, sacrificing all in support of their cause.”
By the time South Carolina was heard from, in 1963, Lost Cause editorializing had shown up in a way that once would have been blocked. “Dedicated South Carolinians stood and were counted for their heritage and convictions,” the monument’s inscription says. “Abiding faith in the sacredness of States Rights provided their creed.” The chief motivation—protecting slavery—isn’t mentioned.