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  • Nicholas Gerakis

From Burials to Boulevards: The Women Who Sculpted the Lost Cause

The American Civil War ended not quite with a bang, but with a whimper. After General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, fighting throughout the southern United States gradually died down. After four long years of waiting, the proud daughters, mothers, and wives of Union soldiers had their joyous reunion. They cheered as their boys paraded through the streets of Washington during the Grand Review of the Armies in May of 1865.

Yet just across the Potomac, the women of the former Confederacy met shaken, beaten and insecure veterans as their fathers, sons, and husbands quietly returned. The role southern women would play in grieving for and rehabilitating the old rebels would turn into one of celebration and veneration in the latter half of the eighteenth century. This would come to serve as a unique form of pre-suffrage progress towards political representation and engagement for women, while at the same time producing some of the rebellion’s staunchest and most enduring defenders.

The end of the war marked the beginning of the Ladies Memorial Association (LMA). Women in local communities, many of whom were the family members of soldiers, organized into LMAs throughout the South. Their primary aims were to establish local cemeteries for the Confederate war dead, erect funerary monuments in these cemeteries, and organize Confederate Memorial Day celebrations. Newspaper appeals were issued to ladies throughout the southern states urging them to organize their own LMAs, and the number of active groups flourished throughout the 1870s. The monuments they erected were almost universally funereal in nature, taking on the form of marble obelisks, urns, and anchors with simple inscriptions, tucked away in the Confederate plots of local cemeteries.

Confederate Memorial Day celebrations were just as much about validating living veterans as they were about remembering their dead comrades. Among many former Confederate soldiers, there was a great sense of dishonor, emasculation, and the general shame that comes with defeat. The “Lost Cause” mythology, a historical perspective of the war that maintains the morality of secession and the righteousness of the Southern cause, therefore formulated many of its elements in an attempt not only to repudiate their manhood and morality but to vindicate their status as loyal Americans rather than rebellious traitors. Excuses emerged, blaming the Confederate defeat on the overwhelming numbers of the North or the failure of Longstreet (who became a Republican after the war and therefore a conveniently easy target,) to attack at dawn at Gettysburg.

To this end, the early efforts of southern women in LMAs were more focused on grieving personal loss and rehabilitating the men in their communities rather than gaining any political or social empowerment. Through this work, however, they gained a new social responsibility. Women came to be seen as the protectors of Confederate history, keepers of antebellum “Old South” values, and orchestrators of the later period of Confederate celebration.

The end of Reconstruction with Rutherford B. Hayes’ election in 1877 brought about an entirely new political climate in the South. Democrats had already taken back control of most southern state governments through fraud, voter suppression, intimidation, and outright violence. These Democratic politicians, known as “redeemers,” sometimes used white supremacist paramilitary organizations to intimidate black voters and gain office, like the “White League” in Louisiana and “Red Shirts” in South Carolina. All the while, the Ku Klux Klan, founded in 1865, oversaw a campaign of violence and terror that eventually diminished before resurfacing in the 1910s.

These developments set the stage for the active public celebration of the Confederacy that re-emerged in the 1880s and 1890s and blossomed with the turn of the century. LMAs continued to erect monuments through it all, and after 1900 many more towns and cities dedicated monuments than had in the first 25 years after the war. The proportion of monuments placed in cemeteries declined to 55% as more towns placed their monuments on city streets or on courthouse lawns. More than 60% now feature a Confederate soldier rather than solemn funerary motifs. In many cases, women proved more adept or interested in organizing a monument and raising money than their male counterparts. In several instances, monuments originally planned by male committees were handed over to a local LMA after interest fizzled out or fundraising was insufficient.

The growing country-wide women’s club movement that accompanied the Progressive Era led to an interest in creating a national association of Confederate women’s clubs. In 1894, this dream was realized in the form of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), without a doubt the most prominent and enduring Confederate remembrance organization. While many other clubs were focused on practical goals like temperance or women’s suffrage, the UDC was primarily concerned with the preservation of the Confederate legacy. By the end of WWI, the UDC claimed nearly 100,000 members across the country.

Their efforts were not in vain. From 1900 to 1912, Confederate monuments swarmed the southern countryside. More towns than ever began dedicating monuments, 60% of all monuments erected before 1913 were unveiled between 1900 and 1912. Only 24% of these monuments were funereal in nature, while almost 80% now featured the Lone Soldier. This was no coincidence, Jim Crow was just getting started. Every possible action was taken toward disenfranchising and segregating African Americans. In public squares and courthouse greens throughout the South, these stone sentinels still stand ready to faithfully carry out this duty and to remind future Southrons to do the same.

Predominantly elite women leveraged their role as protectors of Confederate history to wield political power wildly outside their reach in any other arena of public life. When the Confederate celebration reached its height, it propelled them into an office even more consequential than that many of the same women had occupied in LMAs post-war. They successfully dictated the curriculum of schools throughout the South and placed within them several generations' worth of teachers sympathetic to the Confederate version of events. They lobbied for and successfully achieved state appropriations towards monuments on many occasions, and publicly announced the vindication of the Confederate soldier. They unanimously praised the actions of the KKK and extensively advocated for white supremacy. Ironically, the UDC was fairly split on the issue of female suffrage itself. While many did support the burgeoning movement, hardliners like historian-general Mildred Lewis Rutherford opposed female suffrage, on the grounds that it would enfranchise African-American women and invite federal interference in state election machinery.

Today the UDC is thankfully a shell of its former self. It is not defunct, however, far from it. While their membership numbers are nowhere near what they used to be, the UDC remains active. They continue to hold Confederate Memorial Day celebrations and distribute funds for favorable depictions of Southern history (even when they are disingenuous, as they most often are.) They can often be found filing lawsuits against local governments that attempt to remove Confederate monuments.

The American Civil War was America’s most dire and momentous hour by far. We have to, and we should remember it. The question rather becomes, how do we remember it? When talking about the removal of Confederate monuments people fall back to the argument, “Oh but it doesn’t mean any of those nasty things to me, it’s my heritage! Our history!” This is a categorically false statement. Confederate statues aren’t some natural imprint left by the fighting of the Civil War itself, they aren’t an ethereal reminder of how hard it is to maintain a free republic or a testament to the fragility of the American experiment. They were put there for a reason by someone with the means and a vested interest in doing so. By a thorough analysis of their history, we can soundly conclude that the public, celebratory monuments to Confederate heroes erected by groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, are a targeted, dishonest, and agenda-laden form of political propaganda. Their design is formulated to make the viewer feel grand and proud. Their location lends them a certain respectability and legitimacy. Their inscriptions tell you exactly how exactly to think about the lies you’re seeing and the very rock they are carved in shows that they’re not going anywhere unless we reconcile with their true history.


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