When President Trump recently wrote his tweet: “They’re trying to take away our culture. They’re trying to take away our history,” he wasn’t referring to Civil War monuments that we know so well in Chattanooga. The military parks that surrounds us on Missionary Ridge, Lookout Mountain, Moccasin Bend, and in Chickamauga were created by an act of Congress in 1890 “to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
No, the statues in the public’s crosshairs, on the whole, were commissioned by one group. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) erected most of the statues that people want to remove.
The UDC started as a small group of about 30 women in 1894 in Tennessee. In the next few decades their numbers spread across the South and even to the North, and they had erected over 1000 Confederate statues.
Their statues, unlike the ones of the national park, were not approved by Congress; there was no public input, no community debate associated with their decisions, and no procedures for approval, like we associate today with public art. And they have a very different purpose.
According to Karen Cox, author of Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture,this work was done by women “because Southern white men who are defeated can’t go around building monuments to themselves.”
After the riots in Charlottesville over the statue of General Lee, even the UDC, in contrast to Trump, issued a statement that they were “grieved that certain hate groups have taken these symbols as their own,” and they denounced “any individual or group that promotes racial divisiveness or white supremacy.” Some people might rightly see that statement as disingenuous.
Let’s look deeper into our history.
Another movement took hold in the South at the same time as the North/South reunification. Perhaps the North wasn’t looking so closely or had just grown tired.
According to Fitzhugh Brundage, professor of history at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, the spread of Confederate statues was an “orchestrated effort” at a time “when the South was fighting to resist political rights for black citizens.”
Racial segregation in the South was enforced by strict laws and customs such as requiring that blacks drink at separate water fountains, step aside when a white person passed on the side walk, or not to look a white person in the eyes; as well as prohibiting voter registration, limiting employment outside of certain jobs, or criminalizing interracial marriage.
The erection of Confederate statues gave force to segregation laws. The monuments to Confederate generals, often placed in conspicuous places of civic importance, said to whites: “You are still in control,” and to blacks, “You are not free.”
Because the statues were privately paid for and installed, African Americans or any whites who objected had no voice in the matter. In fact, the statues implied “a degree of white cultural unity that had never existed in the region” before, during, or after the Civil War, according to Brundage. They perpetrated a myth of Confederate unity in the South and marginalized dissent.
The statues of Confederate generals proliferated at the same time that lynching was rampant—and they served the same purpose: to intimidate and threaten both blacks and whites from acting out of line with the laws of segregation.
It’s no wonder that many blacks chose to migrate out of the South. Like lynching, those statues spoke clearly enough.
The national history that we all share.
Chattanooga is awash in Civil War monuments. It’s part of our landscape, like the rocky bluffs of the wooded hillsides.
But these monuments don’t commemorate the cause of the confederacy. They recognize the movements of both armies and numbering the dead and wounded of both sides. . The theme was reunification: Veterans from both sides attended the dedication at Chickamauga in 1895. This is our national history, and it is extremely popular with tourists and scholars alike.
Why A.P. Stewart was chosen
A.P. Stewart was the natural choice for the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy because they are the A.P. Stewart Chapter of the UDC.
His background is mixed. According to records, A.P. Stewart did not support secession nor did he own slaves, but when Tennessee seceded, he went with his home state. He was one of the generals at the battle of Chickamauga. But after the war when he heard that Congress had passed a bill to create the military park at Chickamauga, he moved to the area and was active in the creation of the park along with Union veterans. Later he became its first commissioner.
The local chapter of the UDC could have recognized A.P. Stewart for his civic contributions after the war, but instead they dressed him as a Confederate general and included only these letters beside his name and dates of his life – “CSA.”
So what do we do now?
Because a privately funded group installed the statue and because it carries a divisive message that does not represent the nation as a whole, it should not be on the public square in front of the courthouse. It is not right for taxpayers to walk by his statue commemorating him as a warrior against the nation on their way to do business with the county.
However, we have a unique opportunity here to handle this issue in a way that is appropriate to honor all of our citizens.
We can leave him where he is but accompany his statue with the full and accurate historical context as described above. Or he can find a new home in the military park that he helped create.
Either way, this time around, the public, not a private organization, should be included in the discussion.
Eleanor M. Cooper
Community engagement strategist and author of Grace: An American Woman in China, 1934-74.
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Eleanor Cooper's research on the origin of the A.P. Stewart statue at the Hamilton County Courthouse has given our city and county citizens a chance for a reasonable discussion based on now knowable facts rather than the usually, highly charged arguments with only personal reflections to guide the discussion.
Knowing who the originators of this statue were, how it was paid for, how it was placed, and the time and milieu in which it was created should give us a better chance to make an intelligent decision as to its right and/or appropriateness to be placed on the grounds where it sits than when we did not know before Ms. Cooper's research.