SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – There are renewed calls to dismantle or move Confederate monuments in Georgia following the violence that erupted over the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. White Nationalists had gathered in that city to protest a decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
A few years ago, there was a request in Bulloch County to remove a monument there but the County Commission refused.
There are a number of monuments throughout the area from Statesboro to Savannah. In Savannah, a large monument in Forsyth Park includes a statue of a soldier and two busts of Confederate leaders.
“What you’re seeing is the result of a movement that began in the 1860’s by the Savannah Memorial Ladies Association to honor Savanniahs who had fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War,” said Dr. Stan Deaton from the Georgia Historical Society.
He says the monument was erected in 1875, the war still fresh and painful. It was placed in Forsyth Park where young soldiers had trained before going to war. “This was an extremely emotional issue founded I think in an outpouring of grief,” says Deaton.
Deaton says this was the “White people who had lived through the war, many of them who had lost relatives, i.e. sons, husbands, fathers.”
“This was to mark their loss and I think it’s why you don’t see an emphasis, in fact, no emphasis – on any Confederate memorial statue – on the reasons or causes for the creation of the Confederacy. I don’t think it was important to them, I don’t think it was something they wanted to emphasize.”
Deaton says then as now there was a movement underfoot to rewrite some of the more unpleasant causes of the war out of the war’s history. “And so what you have is an emphasis on the men who fought but not the reasons that they fought or the reasons underlying the creation of the Confederacy,” he said.
And the reason for the creation of the Confederacy, he says was “definitely to preserve slavery despite the efforts later to indicate it was other reasons like states rights for example.”
“You have to recognize of course that not all Southerners owned slaves but it certainly is accurate to say all Southerners, all White Southerners had a vested interest in the preservation of slavery because it underpinned everything, the economy, politics, as well as social and cultural mores of the South. And that is not to say that most White folks in the North were not racist by our standard today. But there’s no getting around the fact (and they were quite explicit that the Confederate States of America) was established to preserve the institution of slavery. You won’t see that written on any Confederate monuments and our disagreement over that today I think is what underlies so much of the content regarding removal of these monuments. For many people their very existence is an affront,” said Deaton.
Deaton says in some ways the issue of healing after the Civil War prompted both sides to allow for the South to mourn its dead while no longer emphasizing the reason the war began in the first place.
“In some ways in order for the nation to come back together after the Civil War, white Southerners and white Northerners sort of agreed to stop talking about the cause at the expense of both African Americans who served in the military but also at the expense of the ones who were alive at the time,” said Deaton.
He says that uneasy truce all seemed to unravel during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. “And it’s really come unraveled ever since,” said Deaton.
Deaton says in the 20th Century, some Southern cities that never had monuments erected them. “This was done during the Jim Crow era as a way to sort of reconfirm White Supremacy,” he said.
In terms of the Savannah monument, again there is longevity here. And Deaton recognizes that. “For many people, the fact that this has been sitting here since 1875, they would say it’s part of the landscape and the
built in environment of Savannah as well. Whatever it stands for, whatever it was meant to symbolize then or now, it has become part of the built in the environment. So there’s no easy solution to this.”
We reached out to the city of Savannah which told us:The City of Savannah has long been a champion of the civil rights movement and the preservation of history. We are aware of the issue of contention with Confederate monuments in other communities. The City of Savannah maintains the Confederate Monument in Forsyth Park which pays tribute Confederate soldiers. There are also two busts of Confederate war heroes to the north and south of the monument. However, with respect to monuments to military service, the City does not have the authority to move or remove any monument to the military service of any personnel of the United States, the Confederate States, or any individual states, per a law passed in 2016 by the Georgia legislature.”