Thomas J. Brown: Statue and Statute

Brown: Civil War CanonToday, we welcome a guest post from Thomas J. Brown, author of Civil War Canon:  Sites of Confederate Memory in South Carolina, just published in paperback by UNC Press.

In this expansive history of South Carolina’s commemoration of the Civil War era, Thomas J. Brown uses the lens of place to examine the ways that landmarks of Confederate memory have helped white southerners negotiate their shifting political, social, and economic positions. By looking at prominent sites such as Fort Sumter, Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery, and the South Carolina statehouse, Brown reveals a dynamic pattern of contestation and change. He highlights transformations of gender norms and establishes a fresh perspective on race in Civil War remembrance by emphasizing the fluidity of racial identity within the politics of white supremacy.


Statue and Statute

I was delighted that UNC Press published Civil War Canon on February 17, 2015, which was my fifty-fifth birthday and the sesquicentennial anniversary of the climax of Sherman’s March in my home city of Columbia, South Carolina. Naturally, however, readers have often wished that the book could have incorporated later events. On June 17, 2015, twenty-one-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans engaged in Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Discovery of his online archive soon led to removal of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state house and stirred nation-wide reassessment of the memorial landscape.

Shocking though it was, the tragedy extended familiar patterns. Civil War Canon charts the development of a Lost Cause culture grounded from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century in particular South Carolina sites, such as graves, monuments, and homes. Automobile tourism and consumer culture promoted a different relationship with place in the mid-twentieth century, and digital technology has brought memory into tension with location at the turn of the millennium. Roof exemplified these trends, as well as an archetypal anxiety about the stability of the color line. His version of Confederate remembrance ripped the mask of gentility from some previous phases.

Roof’s racial violence drew on profound problems in South Carolina public education, mental health treatment, and gun control (the last of which intersects with Civil War memory), but the executive and legislative response focused exclusively on the display of the Confederate battle flag at the state house. That display had roiled South Carolina for years, resulting in the July 2000 removal of the flag from capitol dome to a position near the state monument to the Confederate dead. The deaths of “the Emanuel Nine” and wide circulation of Roof’s photographs of himself posing with the flag prompted what Civil War Canon called “another extraordinary act of repudiation” in which “the flag disappeared altogether from the state house grounds.” The parallel announcements by Walmart, Amazon, eBay, and Sears that the retailers would stop selling flags like those shown in Roof’s photographs served as a reminder of the commercial popularization of the battle flag that had made it a useful emblem to the segregationists who installed it on the dome in 1962 in resistance to the civil rights movement.

Removal of Confederate flag at South Carolina state house, July 10, 2015. Photograph courtesy of John Allen.

Removal of Confederate flag at South Carolina state house, July 10, 2015. Photograph courtesy of John Allen.

Although news coverage highlighted the flag removal, South Carolina affirmed its national leadership in Confederate commemoration through efforts to limit the recoil against Roof’s hate crime. As public revulsion leapt from the battle flag to other Confederate memorials, South Carolina officials stood firmly by the Heritage Act adopted in the tactical retreat from the capitol dome and refused to consider the removal of any Confederate monuments or renaming of public sites. Previously imitated by Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee, the legislative suppression of community autonomy now became a model for North Carolina and Alabama. The determination of South Carolina officials to honor the battle flag removed in July 2015 even committed the state to the development of a new Confederate memorial at the museum to which the General Assembly entrusted the artifact. The Confederate Relic Room first proposed a $5.3 million exhibition and has more recently floated a $300,000 alternative. As the effort has made little progress, the flag currently remains in storage.

Roof may not have read Pierre Nora, but he understood the French theorist’s notion that “memory attaches itself to sites.” He drove a hundred miles to commit his murders in “the most historic city in my state,” and more specifically, at the church that had served as the foundation for Denmark Vesey’s planned slave uprising . Roof’s photographic archive documented a complementary series of road trips to South Carolina sites associated with slavery and the Confederacy. He took pictures of himself at Sullivan’s Island, several lowcountry plantations, and the Museum and Library of Confederate History in Greenville.

But Roof was an impatient tourist rather a reverent pilgrim. His visit to Elmwood Cemetery in his hometown of Columbia dramatized his weak tie to filiopietistic tradition. He could scarcely fail to photograph the large gate to the principal Confederate section in the cemetery. Ironically, however, he also managed to make a random self-portrait at the grave of one of the few Reconstruction carpetbaggers buried at Elmwood. In cooperation with a biracial board of directors, Union veteran Joshua F. Ensor implemented the integration of the state mental hospital and remained a prominent Republican for years after “redemption.”

Illustration 3: Dylann Roof at the grave of Joshua Ensor in Elmwood Cemetery, Columbia, South Carolina. Photograph from Roof's website.

Dylann Roof at the grave of Joshua Ensor in Elmwood Cemetery, Columbia, South Carolina. Photograph from Roof’s website.

The youth simply did not know who Ensor was or that a more ideologically logical backdrop would have been the nearby grave of secessionist martyr Maxcy Gregg. Although Roof’s travel album tried to ground his racism in the historical landscape, his attachment to the Lost Cause as a civil religion was as thin and portable as the Confederate-themed license plates on his car. Introduced by South Carolina during the long dispute over the battle flag on the dome, the tags recognized consumerism as proof of citizenship.

Recent technology further uprooted Roof. The internet and video games were crucial to his immersion in white supremacism and his conception of reality. The name of his website, “Last Rhodesian,” embraced an exotic fantasy disconnected from the South Carolina upbringing he stressed in his online manifesto. The home-grown racist heritage paled for him in comparison with apartheid-era and neo-Nazi references that marked membership in a global online community. His manifesto closes with a horrifying resolution to merge invention and experience by transforming “talking on the internet” into homicidal action.

Roof’s white supremacism certainly demonstrated the most continuous theme of Confederate memory, in which he followed precedent with a deep anxiety about the permeability of the color line. His manifesto observed that some of his allies were “bordering on insanity” on the topic of “race mixing white women,” though he thought that “these women are victims, and they can be saved”–by killing African Americans. His choice of Emanuel AME Church for the massacre establishes a link to the nearby site examined in the longest chapter in Civil War Canon, the Marion Square monument to John C. Calhoun. Like the decisions to raze Emanuel in reprisal against the Vesey conspiracy and build a military school on the square in readiness for future slave uprisings, the placement of the Calhoun monument expressed vigilant surveillance of a disproportionately free black neighborhood deemed threatening to the slave regime. The memorial was not dedicated until 1887, when it became one of the most spectacular failures in the history of American monuments. African Americans’s mockery of the composition, which featured a portrait statue and a female allegorical figure, prompted white critics to join in ridicule of “Calhoun and He Wife.” The sponsors would not abide blackface parody. They took down the statue in 1894 and two years later substituted the present version, a more forcefully authoritarian portrait looking out over post-emancipation African Americans, including the Emanuel AME church building completed in 1892.

The Calhoun Monument now offers the most promising opportunity for South Carolinians to join the national debate over the landmarks of American racism. The Heritage Act provides that municipalities may not disturb war memorials. Whether the Calhoun Monument constitutes what the legislation identifies as a “War Between the States” memorial is a question that illustrates the distinct domains of the historian and the lawyer. Civil War Canon shows how the Calhoun Monument is a uniquely revealing Confederate memorial, but for purposes of the statute, the statue is not a Confederate memorial at all. Although the antebellum campaign to build the monument intertwined with the promotion of secession in South Carolina, it honors a politician who died a full decade before the Civil War. As much as the sponsors hoped their completion of the project would reflect favorably on their wartime patriotism, the plain-language reading of the Heritage Act is that it defines a “War Between the States” memorial with reference to a person or event to which a monument is dedicated. The second sentence of the statute, which covers renaming of facilities, supports this logic. A courageous municipality would recognize that it may remove the work.

After the city installed its Holocaust memorial nearby in 1999, the novelist and essayist Jamaica Kincaid argued that “Calhoun was not altogether so far removed from Adolf Hitler.” The proximity of the statue to the scene of Roof’s crime adds further damning context to an utterly undistinguished work of art that in its placement and scale is disastrous to the formal as well as the thematic layout of Marion Square. Charleston can and should do better. I would be pleased to see the Calhoun Monument follow the Confederate battle flag at the state house in receding from the memorial landscape of South Carolina into historical studies like Civil War Canon.


Thomas J. Brown is professor of history at the University of South Carolina.