Visitors to Washington D.C. flock to George Bacon’s immense marble tribute to the 16th President of the United States. The Lincoln Memorial, at the far western end of the National Mall, is rightly considered one of the highlights of the nation’s capital, welcoming around 6 million visitors per year. Yet, while pre-eminent in the public imagination, chronologically speaking Bacon’s structure plays second fiddle to a much smaller and lesser-known statue. At the opposite end of the Mall, ensconced in the leafy streets of eastern Capitol Hill, stands the ‘Freedmen’s Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln,’ a bronze carving of an upright Lincoln freeing a shirtless African-American slave who is cowering at his feet. In his right hand Lincoln holds a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, which rests on a plinth bearing a selection of patriotic symbols including the Stars and Stripes and George Washington in profile. Behind the figures, not visible from the front of the memorial, stands a whipping post entwined with vines emerging from the statue’s base.
Fundraising for the Memorial began in 1865 and it was eventually dedicated in April 1876, thus predating Bacon’s memorial by 46 years. The dates are appropriate, with the process initiated just after Lincoln’s assassination and finally concluded just as Reconstruction, the legislative effort by the federal government to define and protect the rights of freedpeople in postwar American society, was coming to an end. The funds appear to have been largely provided by ex-slaves, but the committee which decided on the design for the Memorial, as well as its designer and sculptor Thomas Ball, were all white.
In this post I talk to my fellow Young Americanist and our resident expert on Civil War memory Alys Beverton. We discuss what the Memorial can tell us about how people remembered the Civil War in the Reconstruction era, what currents and counter-currents of memorialisation were in play, and how the Memorial might help us navigate the stormy waters of Civil War memory today.
Matt: To modern sensibilities the Freedmen’s Memorial’s depiction of emancipation is clearly problematic. Historians have conclusively shown that African Americans exercised considerable agency in the emancipation process and were far from simply helpless, distressed objects of white Northern benevolence. Memorials, though, are often of greater importance not for the accuracy of the events they memorialise, but for what they tell us about the time they are constructed. What can the Freedmen’s Memorial reveal about how the Civil War was remembered during Reconstruction?
Alys: The Freedmen’s Memorial has a very clear message – it proclaims that the Civil War was a contest between slavery and freedom, and that Northern victory therefore marked a new era of freedom and democracy in the United States. This was a reading of the Civil War shared by many freedpeople and their white allies at this time. As the prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass told a crowd in New York City, the Civil War had not been of a “sectional character,” but rather was a “war of ideas, a battle of principles.” It was, he insisted, “a war between the old and the new, slavery and freedom … and in dead earnest for something beyond the battlefield.”
M: Douglass was an important figure as far as the Freedmen’s Memorial was concerned as well, speaking at its dedication in April 1876. Why did the Memorial Committee and spokespeople like Douglass feel the need to press home this message just after the Civil War ended?
A: While emancipation was secure in 1865, the precise nature and extent of the freedoms ex-slaves were to enjoy in the postwar nation were still up for debate. Those who wished freedpeople to receive the same civil and political rights as white Americans believed it necessary to remind the public of exactly what Union soldiers had fought and died for. Douglass’ speech shows that he and other advocates for African-American civil rights believed in the power of memory to persuade Americans that the magnitude of their wartime sacrifices placed on then certain duties in peacetime. The blood of your husbands, fathers, and sons, Douglass suggested to his audience, was spilt to end slavery, and it is now up to you to give substance and strength to black freedom to ensure that their efforts had not been in vain.
M: As far as we can judge, did this message have any success? I know that historians have long talked about Reconstruction as a period with great radical potential. Eric Foner famously labelled it an “unfinished revolution,” for instance.
A: It was a powerful message and one that apparently worked. In the years immediately following the Civil War, the U.S. Congress amended the Constitution to extend full citizenship and suffrage to African Americans and passed a series of legislation which empowered the federal government to protect these newly-gained rights. The Freedmen’s Memorial, then, represents a moment in American history when the national mood swung on the side of racial justice and so provided a window of opportunity for the radical reformulation of the republic’s creed on the basis of equality and universal democracy.
M: There was another side to this, though, right? I know that in 1866 the white Virginian Edward Pollard published The Lost Cause, which painted a completely different picture of the Civil War and its purpose.
A: Right. One year after the Committee began collecting funds for the Freedmen’s Memorial, Pollard publicised a distinctly and unapologetically Southern account of the conflict. Pollard argued that the Confederate cause had not been a defence of slavery per se, but rather an effort to preserve the kind of society which slavery had made possible – the idyllic agrarian antebellum South, a place of harmony and deference where the white master cared for his dependents – wife, children, and slaves – with a spirit of benign paternalism. For Pollard, the Yankees’ claim to have fought in the name of human freedom rang hollow. Rather, the Unionists had been on a crusade of conquest and plunder. Fanatical abolitionists had precipitated the Civil War, Pollard argued, in order to strip white Southerners of their political power, enfranchise freed slaves, and so secure the Republicans control over the federal government in perpetuity. This interpretation quickly spread throughout the South. In part, it served as a cultural dimension in the broader campaign launched by many white Southerners to undermine the new postwar political order by terrorising those freedpeople who dared to exercise their newly-gained liberties. Other elements of this effort included political resistance and vigilante violence – the Ku Klux Klan’s first chapters, for example, were formed in Tennessee in 1866.
M: So there were two competing versions of Civil War memory: the emancipationist as manifested in the Freedmen’s Memorial and the Lost Cause as espoused by Pollard. Which one was in the ascendancy from the early 1870s?
A: During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the emancipationist interpretation of the Civil War all but vanished from national public memory. In part, this was due to the challenge posed to it by promoters of Pollard’s Lost Cause narrative. Equally harmful to the emancipationist legacy, however, was the waning interest of its white Northern articulators. As soon as the late 1860s, Northern popular support for the use of interventionist federal judicial and military powers to protect the liberties of Southern African Americans had begun to decline considerably. The intensity of white Southern resistance to Reconstruction legislation had convinced many of them that they must choose between continuing to defend black freedom, and making peace with their white Southern countrymen – they could not have both. Ultimately, most white Northerners chose the latter.
M: So if white Northerners were moving away from the emancipationist paradigm, what version of Civil War memory did they turn to instead?
A: Historian David Blight argues that a third version of Civil War memory emerged in the North during the late nineteenth century which he calls the “reconciliationist” interpretation. This narrative all but ignored the emancipationist achievements of the Union war effort. Instead, reconciliationists presented a non-ideological reading of the Civil War which focussed primarily on soldiery valour. They wrote poems, delivered speeches, and erected statutes which memorialised the bravery and martial skill of the men who had fought on both sides of the conflict. By side-stepping the topics of slavery and race, reconciliationists promoted a version of the Civil War which they hoped could be celebrated by Northerners and Southerners alike.
M: I think it’s fair to say that, despite conclusive historical evidence that contradicts it, the Lost Cause narrative has had disproportionate resonance in popular culture and commemoration.
A: Overall you’re right about the influence of the Lost Cause, although its popularity was of course not constant over time – it typically peaked at times of particularly acute racial strife. For example, its first resurgence occurred in the 1890s, a decade in which the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Plessy vs. Ferguson case gave constitutional sanction to the doctrine of “separate but equal” and the system of racial apartheid in existence throughout the Southern states on which it was based. The hardening of the system of Jim Crow was accompanied by a flurry of memorialist activity by Confederate veterans and their descendants. In 1894, for instance, the United Daughters of the Confederacy formed and dedicated themselves to teaching a proper veneration among future generations for the glory of the Confederate cause. They did this by, among other things, raising funds to restore the White House of the Confederacy in Richmond and organising public celebrations of Memorial Day services.
M: So it’s fair to say that when the Lost Cause was peaking, racist violence against African Americans was on the rise as well?
A: The pattern is certainly more than a coincidence, but perhaps it’s more useful to think about Lost Cause memorialist activity as constituting part of the broader cultural resistance against efforts to push forward black equality. There was a second resurgence during the 1950s and 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement was at its peak. During this time, commemorative associations such as the United Confederate Veterans and the Ladies Memorial Association stepped up their efforts to promote the South’s telling of the Civil War. Their efforts resulted in a wave of memorial activity which included the construction of monuments and the naming of streets, schools, and other public sites in honour of Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, and other heroes of the Confederacy.
M: Confederate monuments and their impact have certainly been in the news recently, with a number of Southern cities either debating removing them, or already in the process of doing so. This seems to constitute not so much a resurgence of the Lost Cause as an attempt to, supporters of these measures would argue, remove the most visible manifestations of its injustices. Coming back to the Freedmen’s Memorial, how can looking at this portray of the emancipationist reading of the Civil War speak to these very present debates?
A: Americans would do well to take their cue from the Freedmen’s Memorial Committee and recognise that the creation of public memory is more about construction than it is destruction. The Committee gave their time and money to create their Memorial because they believed that reminding the public of certain aspects of the Civil War’s history would encourage them to continue to advance and defend black freedom even after the conflict passed from living memory. Today, those who similarly believe that shaping public spaces can shape public memories, and from that influence how the public thinks and talks about certain contemporary issues, should recognise that tearing down monuments they dislike will only get them so far. They also need to create their own ways of commemorating the Civil War in order to inspire and guide national conversations about how the conflict’s legacies – questions, for example, surrounding democracy, justice, and equality – continue to affect American society today.
Coming back full circle to the first thing we discussed, the Freedmen’s Memorial certainly has troubling paternalistic undertones. But Americans should not seek, as the reconciliationists of the nineteenth century did, to push difficult subjects such as racial injustice out of the national dialogue for the sake of an easy life. Much better to confront such issues – to probe and question the message behind the Freedmen’s Memorial, for example, and then extend these conversations further to consider what other people and events of Civil War history – abolitionists, runaway slaves, the first black office-holders – ought to be memorialised and why. Instead of being focussed solely on taking down monuments, popular attention might then focus on how such moments can be supplemented, perhaps eventually overshadowed by other memorials which emphasise different aspects of the Civil War. Another D.C. monument, the African-American Civil War Memorial on U Street, is a great example of this, emphasising the heroism and bravery of black soldiers in a far more accurate rendering of African American contributions to the conflict.
By engaging with memorials and the unsavoury aspects of America’s past which they represent, we can give Americans a broader, richer understanding of their nation’s past. And as ever with the public memory of the Civil War, the more expansive and informed it is, the better placed Americans are to engage in thoughtful conversations about the condition of the conflict’s legacies in their society today.
For more on the Freedmen’s Memorial:
For the Douglass speech cited by Alys:
Frederick Douglass, “Speech Delivered in Madison Square, New York, Decoration Day,” 1877. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division — https://www.loc.gov/item/mfd.23011/
On Civil War memory and memorialisation more broadly:
David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001)
Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)
Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997)