The Meaning of Civil War Statues

In July this year, the statues that sparked the 2017 deadly racist protest in Charlottesville, VA were removed from public display. They went quietly to storage.

The Statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were created and displayed in the 1920’s, long after the 1865 defeat of the South in the American Civil War (1861-1865). What is the meaning of honoring defeated generals of a failed civil war fifty-something years after the country was reunited?

Southerners may say that the statues honor the soldiers who fought for the lost cause. Those soldiers were ancestors of modern-day Southern white people. However, what was the core of that “lost cause”? Slavery: For most people, the cause the South fought for–and rebelled against the American government for– was the right to continue holding Black people in life-long chattel slavery (people as private property of their owners).

At the time that the Civil War broke out, the international slave trade was ending. People were no longer being kidnapped out of Africa and transported to the Americas to be life-long slaves. The existing population of Black people were either enslaved for life, or fugitives who had escaped, or Black people who had been freed (for a cash sum) and their descendants.

States’ rights and statues:

In the years leading up to the Civil War, legal and legislative actions were brewing about whether states entering the United States would be allowed to hold life-long slaves. There were court battles about the rights of slaves who were transported into states where slavery was abolished. (Were they free? Could they be forced to return to the slave-holding state?) The structure of the states joining America through expansion west was at stake. Slave owners would be unable to bring their human “property” with them to the American west.

The structural divide was about whether the Federal government or the state legislature could decide whether a state could or could not allow slavery.

Article IV:3 of the Confederate Constitution

 (3) The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide governments for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several Sates; and may permit them, at such times, and in such manner as it may by law provide, to form States to be admitted into the Confederacy. In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected be Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States. [source]

There was also an economic difference. The North had less farming and more industry. Although the North benefited from cheap slave labor indirectly, Southern slave owners lost more wealth when they lost their human “property.” Owners of mills in the North would see an increase in cotton costs when slavery was over, but cotton plantation owners had to reestablish their labor force (which they did in a new, exploitative way through share cropping).

So what’s the importance of those statues?

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