Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, is much in the news because of the effort of some of its more progressive inhabitants to remove the statues of confederate heroes from its Monument Avenue. Those monuments were put in place long after the Civil War was over. From about 1890 through 1920 there was a burst of monument building by persons wanting to legitimize the heroics of the South’s leaders during the earlier Civil War.
There were still many in 1890 who remembered that deadly effort to separate in order to preserve “the southern way of life”. And, it was deadly. The combined death toll during the Civil War is now newly estimated at 750,000, when the population of the whole country was about 31 million. For the Confederacy, with a population of about 5.5 million whites, to suffer 280,000 deaths, almost all young men, had to be enormously traumatic. The same fatality rate for the current United States would mean 16,800,000 largely youthful male fatalities, sacrificed for the Southern cause.
After the war was over there was a need to justify the sacrifices of those who died and the many remaining maimed for life. So, in the Southern mind, the war ceased to be about slavery and came to be about the Noble Cause, to defend states’ rights against murderous Yankees and their slave era accomplices. The leaders of that noble defense had to be heroes, hence the glorifying monuments.
It is now little recalled but the Southern argument for secession was that each state had voted to join the new federal government after the creation of the Constitution only seventy two years before. If states could vote to join, they could vote to leave. The Northern argument (the Lincoln argument really) was that the Constitution had been voted in by a majority vote of the citizenry in special citizens’ conventions in all of the thirteen original states. It was true that they voted by state but that was because it was the only way to organize the vote. So, states could not vote their way out of the union unless a majority of all citizens once more voted to allow them to leave.
The 1860 census done before secession revealed a northern population of 23 million and a southern white population of only 5.5 million (all eleven confederate states together had a population roughly half the size of the current population of Michigan). That meant that a successful withdrawal by vote was highly unlikely. Northern troops were called up to prevent any southern state from leaving. Legally, that was what the war was about. The South’s willingness to fight for the right to leave and thereby preserve their independence and the “Southern way of life” was the Noble Cause.
Those monuments in Richmond and elsewhere have been on display for 100 years or more. Why the uproar about them right now? Actually it is misleading to think that there have not been objections to them before. There always has been a sense of unease about them. Young Whites may look upon them as local examples of martial heroism. Black citizens, who more keenly feel the weight of what to them is corrosive white domination, have been less enthused.
The murder in Minneapolis of George Floyd and the subsequent demonstrations and rioting which have swept the country have brought all racially connected issues back to life. That has caused the lingering irritation caused by the confederate monuments to once more spring to the surface. The fate of the monuments has also become politically charged because Donald Trump is arguing in his famous tweets that they should be allowed to remain as part of our “cultural history”.
It is hard to believe that Donald Trump is genuinely interested in preserving southern culture. He is interested, desperately interested, in holding on to his rally-going base. To southern rally-goers, most previously conservative Democrats, the monument controversy means that outsiders are trying to tell them what to do. Trump has put himself in the position of defending them against people “out there” who they believe look down on them and their “southern way of life”.
To a visitor from Mars it would appear that Trump is on the wrong side of history on almost every issue. They might reasonably surmise that he is really trying to lose. From Trump’s perspective he can only win with white “working class” voters, his rally-goers. For more than three years, he has, except for some of the very wealthy, simply ignored everybody else. The ralliers and some traditional Republicans are his only hope. This new-found interest in issues like the Confederate monuments in Richmond is his only route to victory. So, thanks partly to the martyred George Floyd, and to Donald Trump’s need to unite his rally-going followers, statues honoring the Noble Cause, after more than a hundred years, clearly represent a time long gone.