The Pernicious Myth of the ‘Loyal Slave’ Lives on in Confederate Memorials

Statues don’t need to venerate military leaders of the Civil War to promulgate false narratives

Looking at the east frieze of the Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemtery in Arlington, Virginia, in the United States (Wikimedia Commons)
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The violence witnessed in Charlottesville, Virginia, during a white nationalist rally  thrust the debate about Confederate monuments onto the nation's front pages.  Should statues honoring the leaders of the Confederacy, like that of General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, remain standing? Or should they be pulled down, as the city had planned to do – the very action that inspired the vicious rally.

While this discussion is not new, the murder of Heather Heyer has accelerated the removal of these monuments in much the same way that the murders of nine Charlestonians by Dylann Roof in 2015 instigated the lowering of Confederate battle flags across the country. Since this weekend’s events, the city of Baltimore removed four Confederate monuments in the middle of the night and the mayor of Lexington, Kentucky, has announced that his city will soon follow. They will join a number of smaller town and cities - most notably New Orleans - that have already taken similar steps.

The most controversial of these monuments already removed or under fire honor Confederate leaders such as Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Jefferson Davis. Historians have correctly pointed out that these monuments distort the history of the Confederacy by ignoring the cause for which they were willing to give their lives, namely the creation of a slave-holding republic based on white supremacy.

The disfranchisement of black Americans through legal means and the threat of lynching, throughout the Jim Crow-era, allowed white southerners to frame their struggle as a “Lost Cause” - a defiant and righteous stand against an illegal invasion by a corrupt federal government that sought to wipe out their peaceful civilization.

But if we only focus on monuments that honor Confederate leaders, we miss the many monuments and memorials that intentionally distort history by presenting a false narrative of the “loyal slave.” Well into the 20th century, “Lost Causers” relied on this idea to clearly justify maintaining and extending the ideology of white supremacy. In 1895, local cotton mill owner Samuel E. White and the Jefferson Davis Memorial Association dedicated a memorial in Fort Mill, South Carolina, to honor the "faithful slaves who loyal to a sacred trust toiled for the support of the army with matchless devotion and sterling fidelity guarded our defenceless homes, women and children during the struggle for the principles of our Confederate States of America."

In 1931, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) erected a memorial to Heyward Shepherd, a free black man who was accidentally killed by John Brown's men during the October 1859 failed slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry. Shepherd worked as a porter in the town's railroad station, but in the words of the SCV and UDC represented "the character and faithfulness of thousands of negroes who, under many temptations throughout subsequent years of war, so conducted themselves that no stain was left upon a record which is the peculiar heritage of the American people..."

These monuments promulgate the idea that the Confederate cause united both races against invading Yankee hordes. In doing so, they reinforce a myth that ignored the many ways that enslaved people undermined the Confederate war effort, most notably by running off to the Union army and fighting against their former oppressors.

On June 4, 1914, the UDC dedicated what is perhaps the most egregious loyal slave monument, as it sits on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, not far from the former home of Robert E. Lee. A 32-feet-tall monument stood in a new section of Arlington, ringed by the graves of 267 Confederate soldiers, who had been reinterred from nearby locations. The dedication followed years of resistance to the idea of honoring Confederate dead on the same ground containing Union troops, black and white soldiers who had given their lives to save the United States.

Atop sits a statue of a human representation of the South, but beneath that, like tiers of cake, lies a ring of 14 shields emblazoned with the 13 seals of the Confederate states plus Maryland, then a series of life-sized friezes of the people of the Confederacy. Moses Ezekiel, a Confederate veteran and sculptor from Richmond, designed the monument and said he hoped to "show without any description how intensely and how seriously the men and women of every station in life had responded to the call to arms."

All together, they represent the pillars of Lost Cause ideology: Confederate military service, white southern family life and crucially, the faithful slave. One of the reliefs depicts, in the words of former Confederate Colonel Hilary Herbert, who chaired the executive committee of the Arlington Confederate Monument Association, "an officer, kissing his child in the arms of an old negro 'mammy.'"

To the left of this scene, Ezekiel placed a black man in Confederate uniform marching alongside white soldiers and officers. The meaning of this was clear for those who attended the dedication ceremony at Arlington. Herbert described Ezekiel's scene in the official history of the monument this way:

Then the sons and daughters of the South are seen coming from every direction. The manner in which they crowd enthusiastically upon each other is one of the most impressive features of this colossal work. There they come, representing every branch of the service, and in proper garb; soldiers, sailors, sappers and miners, all typified. On the right is a faithful negro body-servant following his young master, Mr. Thomas Nelson Page’s realistic “Marse Chan” over again.

Ezekiel's monument fit neatly into the racial and segregated landscape of its immediate surroundings at the time. Just a few years earlier, Virginia re-wrote its constitution to disenfranchise a large segment of its African-American citizens. Shortly after his inauguration in Washington, President Woodrow Wilson, who spoke at the dedication, ordered the segregation of all government offices.

This monument to the Confederate dead and its depiction of enslaved people as loyal, content with their subservient place, and disinterested in their own freedom, was a historical explanation that justified and helped maintain this new racial order that was now well in place throughout the former Confederacy.

Today, these monuments continue to distort the history of the Civil War and the Confederacy. Numerous SCV sites refers to the Ezekiel monument as evidence that black Confederates served in combat. In the hands of one unidentified author, Ezekiel's body servant is now a "Black Confederate soldier...marching in rank with white Confederate soldiers," and the monument itself is identified as "one of the first monument[s], if not the first, honoring a black American soldier." .

In recent years the SCV and UDC have advanced this myth not only to stem the tide of calls to lower Confederate flags and monuments, but to suggest, as their forebears did, that the cause of the Confederacy had nothing at all to do with the defense of slavery. Since black men fought willingly for the Confederacy, the argument runs, the preservation of slavery and white supremacy could not have been its goal. The Confederate flag and the many monuments that dot the southern landscape—properly understood—ought to unite black and white Americans.

The sons and daughters of the Confederacy understood that the key to re-imposing and justifying white supremacy following Reconstruction involved controlling history. Arguments against removing Confederate monuments often raise the dangers of erasing history.

What is often missed, however, is that the depiction of African-Americans as loyal and submissive itself constituted an erasure of history in favor of a fictional narrative that ultimately justified segregation and disfranchisement. The push to remove these monuments is recognition of the damage they have done and continue to do in communities across this country.

About Kevin M. Levin

Kevin M. Levin is a historian and educator based in Boston. He is the author of Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, now available in paperback and the forthcoming collection of essays, Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites. He is currently working on Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War's Most Persistent Myth for the University of North Carolina Press. You can find him online at his website: Civil War Memory and on Twitter.

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