Civil War Monuments Loom Large
All over North Carolina, statues of Confederate soldiers stand sentry in front of courthouses, churches and in public squares.
It was a dark and stormy night in Reidsville early on May 23rd...
Michael Pearse: "There was a big lightning strike on the roof of City Hall... ... we had a section of our brickwall about 6 square foot that was just knocked out."
Reidsville city manager Michael Pearse says the strike blacked out email, municipal wifi and the downtown security cameras. Including a camera that’s pointed at the intersection of Morehead and Scales Streets.
Pearse: "There's a small traffic circle there…"
Where a marble statue of a Confederate soldier has stood for 101 years.
Pearse: "Apparently a driver had fallen asleep "
He drove up onto the traffic circle.
Pearse: "He wasn't hurt but he drove into the bottom of the monument and the statue that had been sitting on top of there of a Confederate soldier toppled and broke into about 30, 40 pieces."
James Festerman: "My first response was that this is going to be highly controversial…"
James Festerman was born and raised in Reidsville. He’s the retired police chief and the current mayor.
Festerman: "I recall back in the 1970s there was a move to move the monument, and it got very heated and very controversial at that time, and since that time I know that some folks in the community would prefer that it not be there, and some feel very strongly that should be there."
Forty years later, the statue still provokes strong emotions.
Man: "When the monument was erected it was placed here with the understanding that it would remain here forever as a reminder of the honor, valor and bravery of her sons…"
Man: "All it is is just bigotry and prejudice. That’s all it is… it’s symbol of folks hating one another."
Woman: "Today we are faced with the opposition of some who oppose our history..."
Usually Reidsville city council meetings draw six, maybe eight people. But more than a hundred showed up for the meeting last week. And many old wounds were visible.
Man: "Growing up in Reidsville, I had to pass that monument every day. I used to go home crying from school because someone had pushed me off the sidewalk. Or because somebody called me a nigger. The monument represents to me everything, all the prejudice and racism I experienced growing up here in Riedsville."
Man: "My ancestor never owned any slaves. He was a dirt poor farmer, a laborer, who worked on someone else's farm for his money. He deserves a place of honor and dignity, along all American veterans."
There was a time when Confederate monuments weren’t so contentious. Just after the war, many monuments were erected in cemeteries.
Tom Vincent: "Especially at the beginning a lot of it had to do with the fact that a lot of people had been killed and a lot of the bodies never came home. . "
Tom Vincent is a historian with the state Department of Cultural Resources
Vincent: "They were buried in mass graves, unknown, they didn't know their names, just 700 guys buried in a pit near Cold Harbor, Virginia. Sons and fathers never came home from the war and they wanted a tangible... something tangible, a tangible evidence of their grief. "
But over time, things changed. Monuments moved from private, discreet locations in cemeteries to the public locations – like the Reidsville monument. It was erected downtown in 1910. The rhetoric at dedications became more strident.
Vincent: "They increasingly used the speeches and dedications to justify secession, to justify the fact that they say they were fighting for states rights, sometimes they explicitly say we were not fighting to preserve slavery, we were fighting to preserve liberty. "
In the decades after fighting ceased, those ideas gelled into a justification for the war that’s become known as the Lost Cause.
Fitzhugh Brundage: "And so the monuments are covered with inscriptions which speak about the unparalleled valor of Confederates, and the inherent supremacy, or superiority of the Confederate cause. "
Fitzhugh Brundage is a professor of history at U N C Chapel Hill. He thinks and writes about the Civil War and how it’s remembered. He says the monuments that dot the North Carolina landscape were often meant to convey a meta-message of triumphalism… for whites.
Brundage: "As a kind of inverse of that, they must be symbols of white power inherently to African-Americans because the Confederate experience was… it was the cause of only white Southerners, and only some white Southerners. And so it speaks to the power that they held, and it speaks both to the power that they held not only when they put the monuments up but their control over public spaces. "
Brundage finds it interesting to also consider the monuments that have never been erected… to unionists in the South, to Southerners who fought to preserve the Union. Especially in North Carolina, where there was not consensus about the state’s entry into the war, and where an anti-war movement gained strength as the war neared its close.
Brundage: "Cause I think it's a very sobering story. The Civil War looks very different once you realize it wasn't just a sectional war between the north and the south. It was a war within families, it was a war within communities and it was a war within the states of the South, especially in North Carolina."
That complexity isn’t always evident at meetings like the one in Reidsville. Sherry Blackburn was the only white person there who suggested anything other than putting the monument right back where it’s always been. She isn’t from Reidsville. Her family’s from Tennessee, and Blackburn’s ancestors fought on both sides of the conflict. She moved to town three years ago and says it’s time for healing.
Sherry Blackburn: "I think it would end if they repaired it and put it somewhere else in the city that wasn't such a prime location that everybody sees every day. I think it would make a… and I think it’s a fair compromise. "
Blackburn says she’s doubtful there will be a compromise, even though many she’s spoken to feel like it’s time to move on. But those are not the people speaking up.
Blackburn:" I don't know how many times we have to fight this war when we have so many bigger things to deal with. This is dead and done, it's statue. We have to keep things in perspective... it's a statue."
For many people, though, those statues remain a lot more than metal and stone.