For all the stoic silence in which figures in bronze or marble stand, monuments are built to elicit a response. They serve as symbols that ensure the endurance of the public’s memory of people and events — long after those who personally experienced those individuals and moments are gone from the earth. However, the impact of monuments lessens as they multiply and our national memory lengthens. Perhaps it is their ubiquity that has allowed Confederate monuments to stand for so long (by one count, about 1,500 in 31 states). Their omnipresence normalizes the white supremacy they represent. Removing these monuments is not a simple toppling of a few stones, but rather, is an intensive surgery, removing a mass that has taken deep root in the political body of the United States.
Recently, the continued presence of these symbols on the landscape has fervently come into question. Four Confederate monuments have been removed from their plinths in the city of New Orleans, spurring both reactionary and supportive responses. In Alabama, Governor Kay Ivey recently signed a law which prevents the removal of their memorial. In St. Louis, a crowd-funding campaign has begun in order to remove the city’s Confederate monument.
Although monuments to the Confederacy are ubiquitous in the South, they are so rare in the North that, for some Americans, they remain remote, unnoticed specters of a past that is foreign in both time and space. Even so, Confederate monuments would not exist in such large numbers without mass production, which, in the wake of the Civil War, was far more possible in the North rather than in the South.
On both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, the decades following the Civil War marked a shift in public memorialization in the United States, away from only commemorating famous individuals. There was a new impetus to honor the anonymous soldier, and a felt necessity for a place to mourn when the gravesites of loved ones were unknown or located too far away to easily reach in person. This shift birthed an entire industry of memorial-making companies. Eventually, some of these companies were successfully set up in the South. At first though, the demand for memorials was often filled by already established Northern companies who made gravestones.
The majority of the Confederate monuments created by companies in the North are local monuments that stand in cemeteries and town squares throughout the South. They often depict an anonymous soldier standing in “parade rest,” a pose assumed by soldiers during ceremonial occasions. Most of these sculptures do not bear an inscription regarding where they were made, since local communities were less than forthcoming about spending collectively raised funds in the North. But a comparison of these figures to the samples depicted in catalogues published by the companies producing them, as well as the diligent work of historians, reveals their provenance.
One of the most prominent Northern companies producing memorials for the South was the Monumental Bronze Company of Connecticut. It specialized in making monuments out of zinc, which was referred to as “white bronze” to help market it as a newfangled, more affordable alternative to actual bronze. Memorials designed by the Monumental Bronze Company can be found in Goldsboro, North Carolina (1883), Floyd, Virginia (1904), and more than twenty other towns throughout the South. The zinc casting process consisted of casting the figure in parts, which were then soldered together. A faux finish was applied to the figure in order to mask these soldering joints, and make the material look more expensive. This allowed for segments of the figures to be easily reused, with the ironic result that the figures representing both Northern and Southern soldiers were largely made of the same elements.
Traditional bronze foundries were predominantly located in the North, and likewise produced figures of Confederate soldiers. The Hall County Confederate Monument, located in Gainesville, GA and produced by the Chicago-based American Bronze Company in 1909, bears a biblical inscription that reveals the impact on the local community intended by erecting these monuments: “Tell ye your children of it, and / let your children tell their children / and their children another generation.” This epigraph indicates the desire for a very specific telling of history, resisting the truth that both memory and our reading of history shifts over time.
As with their zinc counterparts, these soldiers were often made in close likeness of those produced for the North. The monument in Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington, North Carolina, erected in 1872, is a facsimile of the Union soldier appearing on a monument at the Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York, and at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. Both were cast by the National Fine Art Foundry, located in New York City. (An ad for the foundry, published in the October 9, 1892 edition of The Sun, a daily newspaper published in New York until the mid-20th century, reads: “Soldiers’ Monuments a Specialty.”) The only difference between the two statues are the initials on the belt buckle: one reads “US,” while the other reads “CS.” Another replica of this same statue, as a Confederate soldier, was erected in Greensboro, NC, in 1888. A very similar version, in a slightly different pose, appears in Forsyth Park in Savannah, Georgia (1879).
In some part, this interdependence due to economic limitations could be read as resulting in a poignant symbolism: the war dead became unified in memorialization, that ideological differences are erased by the human cost of war. But the crucial ideological difference here was the right to own slaves — the commemoration of whom is scant in comparison to the number of memorials raised to the Civil War dead. Nevertheless, the transport of these commemorative figures from North to South, and their existence in near replica, binds us. The memory of the Confederacy is not limited to the South, but rather the result of an entanglement across a geographic divide.
I recently stood with my white, southern-born wife in Fountain Square Park, in Bowling Green, Kentucky, flabbergasted at the unabashed pride evinced by the city for once being the Confederate capital of the state. “Kentuckians sympathetic with the cause of states’ rights found a state and a country which they could call their own,” proclaims an historic marker. I could sense my wife shift uncomfortably beside me as we read the plaque, encountering the memory that her Kentucky foremothers had entrusted her with, whether she wanted it or not. “Slavery,” she finally said. “Sympathetic with slavery.” I’ll admit feeling a bit smug as we stood there — my people came to the United States after the Civil War, to Boston, bastion of abolition and progress. Surely this memory was not mine to grapple with? But there is no excusing ourselves from wrestling with national memory by virtue of our personal geography.