Heritage vs. Hate: A military historian explains Confederate memorials in the Mountain State

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — To history buffs, the Confederacy is a subject of regional heritage; to others, it signifies a dark era of America’s history, representing a time of slavery, oppression of African Americans and treason.

The recent events that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia, following the protests centered around the city’s plan to remove its statue of Confederate States of America General Robert E. Lee, have sparked controversial discussion that arises with relative frequency — Is the Confederacy a symbol of heritage or a symbol of hate?

“I’m sure for some people they do think of it as heritage. They probably don’t think too critically of what that heritage includes,” said Dr. Jason Phillips, Eberly professor of Civil War studies at West Virginia University.

A protester holding up a sign in front of the statue of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Alex Thomas / WV MetroNews

This debate could potentially hit close to home, with monuments to Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in both Clarksburg and Charleston.

“What’s happened in Charlottesville kind of confirms that these monuments are touchstones, they’re charged with hatred, and it may not have always been that way,” Phillips said. “Things change over time, and that’s what historians study. We have to recognize that we’ve reached a point in this country where these monuments are no longer acceptable.”

Already there have been calls to remove Jackson’s monument at the Capitol. Similar calls have not been made in Clarksburg — at least not yet, says Harrison County Commission President Ron Watson.

“It hasn’t been an issue to this point, but a lot of times people like to be copycats, and when that happens, if it’s brought to our attention, we would certainly get a legal opinion and defer that to legal before we’d take any kind of action and see where it goes from there,” he said.

David Fryson, head of WVU’s Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, said though our country’s history can’t be changed, there is a challenge in how we deal with that history.

Especially in areas of great difficulty, such as our heritage of slavery, the Civil War and the aftermath of the Civil War,” Fryson said. “I think that statues and things dealing with historical events are important, but it’s also important to be placed in a manner that is within its historic context.”

Fryson described the monuments as a celebration and a veneration of the secessionist movement and the individuals who chose to break away from American ideals.

Brittany Murray / WV MetroNews

“The interesting thing about so much though of those Confederate monuments, many of them didn’t find their place until the 1950s, which came about as a rebut against the Civil Rights Movement,” he said. “Even the resurrection of the Confederate flag tracks with the Civil Rights laws of the 50s, so it’s less of a commemoration than it is a political statement, and that’s why I really have problems with it.”

Phillips said the first monuments to the Confederacy were erected shortly after the war ended as memorials to dead soldiers, but those monuments were placed only in cemeteries and funded solely by southern organizations.

“The first monuments for the Confederacy were looking back and mourning the loss of young men,” he said. “They were placed beside grave sites in cemeteries, which suggests that there’s a profound loss that the community is trying to come to grips with but they recognize that it belongs in the past. It’s going at a place of contemplate, mourning and mediation, so to speak.”

Most of the monuments to Confederate soldiers in public spaces were not erected until the turn of the century.

“They were basically monuments to white supremacy, to racial segregation, to Jim Crow laws, and they were put in a public place to present a very different message from the message of honoring the dead in a cemetery,” Phillips said. “Those monuments were put in place to celebrate the white south’s return to power after reconstruction and to send a not-to-subtle message to outsiders and people of color that the old south world order and power structure had sort of returned, and the old ways were going to be honored again.”

This was the same era when the Confederate battle flag began to appear on the state flags of the south.

“There was no way that in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War when those states were being reconstructed and brought back into the union, that the United States would’ve allowed, at that moment, for those states to honor the Confederacy by putting a battle flag on their state flag,” Phillips said. “No, it took a generation of sectional reconciliation along sort of racial lines.”

The modern controversy of what these historical monuments really mean started to arise in 2002 when the Confederate battle flag was removed from the state dome in Columbia, South Carolina.

“That was one of the first moments, I think, when people starting thinking about these symbols, where they are and what it means that the statehouse, the public government building for South Carolina has the Confederate flag flying from it and is that appropriate,” Phillips said.

“I think things really came to a head with the Charleston shooting by Dylann Roof,” he added. “That was probably what I would call the tipping point a few years ago, and now we see it’s not just the flag but the statues themselves that are being taken down.”

When that controversy first arose, Phillips said he didn’t know what to do. As a historian, he recognized their historic value.

Brittany Murray / WV MetroNews

“These are historical monuments. They have a story. It may be a story that, politically, I don’t agree with, but at the same time, there’s a past here that shouldn’t be forgotten or erased,” Phillips said. “But I thought about it some more, and I’ve come to the realization that there’s more at stake here, and the statues are really just the beginning of a bigger problem.

“You can’t solve the problem of the Charleston shooting by taking down Confederate battle flags,” he said. “It might be an important first step, but there are deeper problems with what happened there in terms of gun violence, mental illness, and racism than the battle flag would suggest.”

Fryson said that message was evident as the Confederate flag was flown alongside Nazi flags in Charlottesville last weekend.

“The fact that the Confederate flag was being flown at the same time that the Nazi flag was being flown, so the whole idea of it just being a vestige of a southern heritage is truly problematic to me because I think it’s more of an emblem of hate, more of an emblem of separation, more of an emblem of the degradation of human beings,” he said.

Comparatively, you would not see Nazi flags flying as a symbol of “heritage” in Germany, Phillips said.

“This is a fundamental difference between the way Germans have handled their complicated and dark past and the way Americans have handled ours,” he said. “It’s very different. You will not find monuments to the Third Reich in Germany. World War II is not as prominent over there as the Civil War is here.”

Both of Phillips’ grandfathers served in World War II, and they both were in action at the Battle of the Bulge and the Normandy Invasion on D-Day.

“One of my grandfathers, my dad’s dad, captured a Nazi flag and brought it home as a battle trophy, and he gave it to me before he died, so I own a Nazi flag,” he said. “Like, what do I do with this damn thing? It’s ugly, there’s no place for it, but it’s historic. It’s from my grandfather; it’s part of our family history. So I basically have done everything I can do preserve it, but I don’t let this flag see the light of day.”

Phillips said most people likely don’t know about the flag, as it’s not something that he talks about or showcases.

“I think that what the Nazis stood for has literally no place in modern society, so I don’t have any physical place for this flag except to stuff it in some dark corner somewhere,” he said. “I suppose maybe as I get older, I’ll give it to a museum. It probably belongs in a museum.”

Brittany Murray / WV MetroNews

Upon the lawn of the Harrison County Courthouse stands a prominent statue of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who was born in Clarksburg, then-Virginia, in 1824. The statue, sculpted by Charles Keck, is a duplicate of the Stonewall Jackson statue in Charlottesville that stands one block from the Lee monument that sparked the weekend’s protests.

Though some may argue that the statue, along with more than 1,500 other public symbols of the Confederacy’s history throughout the U.S., memorialize the ideals of the C.S.A., Watson said he believes it’s an important part of the history of the city and the county.

“Stonewall Jackson was supposedly born right here across the street from the courthouse. There’s a monument that says, ‘The birthplace of Stonewall Jackson,'” Watson said. “I mean, history is history. We can’t stop and we can’t bring back what’s already happened.”

Following the protests in Charlottesville, a group of 200-plus protesters gathered outside of the West Virginia State Capitol in Charleston, advocating for the removal of the Stonewall Jackson statue that sits upon the Capitol’s campus.

The request for the Charleston statue’s removal is not a new event.

Howard Swint, a real-estate broker in the Charleston area, first stirred up the topic in 2011 with an op-ed that appeared in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

While Phillips believes Jackson should be remembered for his military achievements, he doesn’t believe that the public celebrations in the form of monuments is the right venue.

“I have no doubt that Stonewall Jackson was a brilliant general,” he said. “I mean, his valley campaign is still being studied at West Point, as it should be. He was a brilliant military leader, but the cause for which he fought is not something that we should publicly praise.”

Brittany Murray / WV MetroNews

Phillips said if too many of our monuments are to soldiers and not to artists, reformers, teachers and doctors, it presents a skewed perspective on what we as a society value.

“In West Virginia for instance, we have some amazing West Virginians who deserve being on pedestals,” he said. “Why do we concentrate on Stonewall Jackson? I mean, where’s Booker T. Washington on a statue? There are plenty of West Virginians who could be put up there, very complicated Americans who did things other than fight and kill in war.”

Watson said he has never fielded any complaints about the statue in Clarksburg, and that the county has no plans to remove it from the courthouse grounds.

“But it is part of history, and you just have to accept that and know that we’re a better country and that we’re diversified now and more tolerant and we all live together.”

There is a monument commission in the former Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia, that is trying to develop a solution to this debate. Monument Avenue, the city’s street filled with monuments to Generals Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart, as well as C.S.A. President Jefferson Davis, remains mired in controversy.

“This commission is trying to come up with what they’ve termed a ‘middle road,’ some solution that will preserve the integrity of the past while also recognizing the change over time and the fact that what these monuments stand for is increasingly unacceptable in modern society,” Phillips said. “I wish them well, but after what’s happened in Charlottesville, I think I’m coming to the realization that there really isn’t a middle road. Either you’re for what these monuments stand for or you’re against it, and we as a nation are going to have to make a decision about that.”

Fryson said he would support moving the statues to a historical place, such as a museum or a library, rather than a public area that should serve as a place of commonality.

“So I think the conversation needs to start immediately,” he said. “The interesting thing about it is that unfortunately it takes some kind of event like the massacre of the Charleston nine before people will take seriously what many of us have been saying for a very long time. I would hope that we can have this conversation in a time of peace, rather than in the aftermath of a difficult.”

Phillips added: “Hundreds of thousands of people died for the very same principles that we’re now arguing about when it comes to these symbols. Maybe it is time to just take them down and put them in museums, put them on battlefields, put them in cemeteries and interpret them honestly for what they mean.”

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