by Tim Gilmore, 3/24/2018
Sweet and Honorable
“In Memory of Our Women of the Southland,” the dedicatory plaque announces at Confederate Park’s memorial at the southern edge of Springfield, just north of downtown Jacksonville.
The sculpted mother at the center of the shrine holds her young children tight. Her arms wrap ’round her little boy on one side, her young daughter on the other. He wears a cravat, his hair brushed forward. The folds in his sister’s gown look pliable. The little girl’s head rests on her mother’s breast, chin settled on her hand, her elbow on her mother’s thigh. Their mother is feminine, strong and upright, domestic, noble.
“Let this mute but eloquent structure speak to generations to come of a generation of the past. Let it repeat perpetually the imperishable story of our women of the ’60s, those noble women who sacrificed their all upon their country’s altar.”
Upon the mother’s knees rests an open book. She and her children look into it longingly. What therein do they read? Perhaps of the valor, of the honor and glory, of the father and husband gone to war, ready to sacrifice himself for his new nation, for the Southland, for his family, and for the families of all his fellow patriots. Is it not, after all, as Horace, the lyric poet of ancient Rome wrote, sweet and honorable to die for the fatherland?
What else could the open book be? Surely she’s not reading her children the Texan declaration of Secession, which condemns “the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color, a doctrine at war with nature.” Nor Florida’s, which says it will not let the United States “consign you to a residence and equality with the African,” for even if the Floridian of the time escapes such a fate, “that destiny certainly awaits your children.” If Florida cannot keep its slaves, its declaration attests, its white men might as well be slaves themselves. “Men who hesitate to resist such aggressions are slaves already and deserve their destiny.”
No, this simultaneously strong and tender woman, this emblem of motherhood incarnate, surely imparts to her children the virtues of honor and personal sacrifice, of individual independence and Southern liberty, of glory for God and country. No greater lie could be told, she’d tell her children, than that the Confederate flag represented slavery. The Confederate flag stood for independence, the self-determination of the South, and the Southerner’s right to stand up against tyranny and despotism, against the tyrannical reign of Lincoln.
She would tell her children these things because she’s not really a Confederate woman at all. She’s a Southern revision of what the Confederacy represented. She’s the embodiment of a Romantic concept called the Lost Cause. Her rhetorical strength, as an object of art, is that to stand before her and deny the Lost Cause lie is to look her in her loving and noble face and call her a liar before her tender children.
Reconstruction, Redemption, Jim Crow and the Lost Cause
The Lost Cause movement and myth took hold of the Southern psyche in the 1890s. The war was a quarter century past. Confederate veterans were aging, but the bonds they’d formed with their fellow soldiers remained as strong as that brotherhood formed between fighters in any war. A new generation looked back at the last one. The loss stung less physically and nostalgia sunk deep hooks in the land. Older Southerners who’d resented their humiliation long enough revised their own pasts. Their revisions were wrong, but all too human.
The period of Reconstruction, which followed the Civil War, established a Freedmen’s Bureau to offer material goods and legal and labor advice to former slaves, sought to give more rights to black Southerners, including political representation under the Lincoln-brand Republican Party—Astonishingly, eight black Jacksonville City Council members were elected between 1868 and 1889.—and enforced fairer racial treatment under the law by force of Union military oversight.
Reconstruction so humiliated former Confederates that for the next century certain Southern politicians would call themselves “unreconstructed.” Reconstruction’s ideal of equality terrified Confederate veterans, including poor whites who’d never owned slaves but fought for the Confederacy because they believed the Union was “trying to force [them] to live as the colored race,” otherwise how could one prove that “a white man is better than a nigger,” for the choice was “a black republican government” or a “free white man’s government.” Historian James McPherson documents these expressions of poor non-slaveholding white men in his indispensable 1998 For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War.
What the South enacted after Reconstruction it called Redemption. Today, we know it mostly by the canon of laws called “Jim Crow,” named for a racist black stereotype performed in 1800s’ minstrel shows. Jim Crow the character led to a whole pantheon of blackface racist caricatures, big-eyed and slack-jawed, who stole watermelons and chickens and misused big words and made general buffoons of themselves. Since “Jim Crow” had become a racial epithet, the whole system of Southern laws enacted to segregate black people, under the dishonest supposition of “separate but equal,” became known as Jim Crow.
And with Jim Crow and Southern “Redemption” came the Lost Cause, a movement and mythology dedicated to reinventing the Southern rationale for turning against the United States and sentimentalizing its loss as noble and just.
The Lost Cause was a Romantic movement, in both the best and worst senses of the word.
I understand Romanticism. I do. William Wordsworth trod 30 miles or more a day through his Lake District mountains. My copy of Wordsworth’s The Prelude is more than 400 pages, one poem, but then really, not a poem at all, just the prelude to the poem he was going to write but didn’t. And I get, in my marrow, the poet John Keats’s most famous lines, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” I love the Romantic archetype of the immortal cursed wanderer cast anonymously among us—the Wandering Jew, the Flying Dutchman, the Ancient Mariner.
Characteristics of Romanticism as a tendency in art and philosophy include an emphasis on the imagination, over and against mere reliance on reason; beauty and nature, over and against mere utilitarianism and scientific management; spirituality and paganism over and against creeds and organized religion; a focus on the past, on myth, on personification (I regularly ascribe personal pronouns to buildings that / who captivate me); a love of haunting; a rejection of social conventions and forms of expression considered trite; a focus on the personhood of others not oneself, especially, for male artists traditionally, the lives of women and minorities, but also the downtrodden, the homeless, the insane, or anyone (perhaps narcissistically) unconventional.
The downsides of Romanticism include foolish glorifications of suicide or early death, like “the 27 Club,” the list of rock stars—Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse—who died tragically at age 27, automatic suppositions that mental illness connects to genius, and a belief that mind-altering drugs contribute to some greater consciousness—firmly established in British Romanticism by Thomas de Quincey’s 1821 Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
So I get Romanticism. I’m cursed with it (a Romantic idea in and of itself), and so I attempt to understand the Romanticism of the Lost Cause.
I mount the steps to the Confederate Park memorial. On the first step sits a homeless black woman covered in newspapers. I fight my Romanticist urge to consider her an oracle, an accidental sage, instead of an individual brutalized and failed by our society and culture; of course, I know neither supposition. I circumambulate the stone mother and her children. I look into their eyes. They cannot see me, but their faces are real enough to trick my brain. They’re uncanny. They’re ghostly, and I always fall for that. I’m trying to see them as they were meant to be seen. I try to see the valor of this mother. I can wish that she were mine. I experience as mine own the haunting in her children’s faces.
And how Romantic is any lost cause? The suicide? The genius destroyed by madness? The love that should have been but wasn’t? The lost valor and defeated glory? I understand the beauty of sadness and the poetic keening forever for love lost or stillborn.
It’s thus no loss to be called loser, as Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers demonstrates. Jesus was a loser. And a Romantic. So were all of his penitents.
What the Confederates Actually Said
But even Romantics, or especially Romantics, need to know when to call bullshit.
Let us then imagine what this lovely Southern Lost Cause mother might be reading her children. Instead of telling them how the “darkies” was “longin’ for de old plantation,” and reading them Uncle Remus stories, she’s reading them, let’s pretend, what the Confederates themselves really said.
South Carolina was the first to offer its “Declaration of the Causes Which Induced the Secession.” Its assembly named a breach of trust between the United States and “the slaveholding states,” especially since “non-slaveholding states” had too often refused to honor the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. “In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from the service of labor claimed.” Lincoln’s election, the assembly stated directly, imposed a “President of the United States whose opinions and purposes are hostile to Slavery.”
It was the editorship of South Carolina’s Charleston Mercury newspaper which first called for a convening to consider seceding from the United States, saying, “[T]he issue before the country is the extinction of slavery.” Unless the reader were “prepared to surrender the institution,” he could not doubt “the time for action has come—now or never.”
Mississippi’s declaration of Secession said clearly, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.”
Georgia’s declaration said the “non-slaveholding” states had created “serious causes of complaint” with Georgia and the rest of the South “with reference to the subject of African slavery.”
Texas’s declaration noted the state had been “received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery—the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits—a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slaveholding States of the confederacy.”
Furthermore, Texas’s statement of Secession declared its insistence of the “beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery,” resisted the “debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color—a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law.”
The vice president of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens, proclaimed in Savannah, Georgia, on March 21, 1861, in his “Cornerstone Speech,” that slavery was the cornerstone of the Confederacy. He could not have been more clear.
The Confederacy’s “foundations are laid,” he said. “Its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man.”
The Confederate vice president declared “African slavery, as it exists amongst us, the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.”
Stephens baldly announced that “This, our new government, [the Confederacy], is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth, “that slavery subordination to the superior race is [the “negro’s”] natural and normal condition.”
Unfortunately, for the Lost Cause Romantics, history documents the originating words of the Confederates. In the Confederate Genesis, there’s no valor, no glory, no honor, no beauty, no hidden dignity, no poetry, and no truth.
But it takes honor and courage and valor and poetry and dignity to look the lies of your culture in the eyes and damn them and demand grace and dignity and honesty.
“The Woman of the South Instructing Future Generations,” or, The Lost Cause versus The Triumph of Peace
Peering into this sculpted family’s century-frozen eyes reminds me of looking into the face of a body in a coffin. You know the person-you-loved-and-knew’s not there, but expect her to look up at you and move her head any moment. You almost imagine it, like when you stared at the eyes in paintings when you were a child until you saw them move. I still can’t disrespect this woman, her motherhood, her love for her children. She didn’t ask to be created for such a purpose as her funders intended. But I can denounce the lies that enshrined her thus.
So I ask him, Allen George Newman, “What do you want from me? You’ve been dead since 1940. You sculpted these children and their mother in 1915. What did you want me to see when I came here a century later?” And he answers.
“When the Greeks wished to honor a divinity, they made a statue of her and built a temple around it. The design of the Monument to the Women of the South, for which I have had the honor of furnishing the enshrined sculpture, has always suggested this sentiment to me, and I have approached the subject from this attitude of reverence.”
These words of Newman’s come from the April 1915 issue of a magazine called Confederate Veteran, which featured an image of Newman’s Confederate Park sculpture on its cover.
“In brief,” Newman says, the family in the sculpture “represents the woman of the South instructing future generations as well as showing her the most privileged guardian of the home ties.”
Now I see the sculpture in a different light. The woman in the sculpture is the mother of all Southerners who stand in her future. The little boy and little girl are the citizens of Jacksonville and New Orleans and Atlanta and Richmond and Charleston in the year 2018. She instructs us. I get it. But it’s funny her children are so white, when today’s Jacksonville is white and black and Cuban and Mexican and Vietnamese and Bosnian and Indian and Palestinian and Ethiopian and Bahamian and Panamanian.
Newman, born in New York City, is best remembered for The Hiker, a 1907 statue of a Spanish American War soldier, hand-on-hip and slouched Walt-Whitmanic-and-not-unlike Donatello’s feminine nude David standing on Goliath’s decapitated head.
In 1911, an Atlanta business guild called The Gate City Guard, commissioned Newman to commemorate “the visit of friendship made by [vanquished Confederate regiments] to cities of the north in 1879.” So Newman created The Triumph of Peace for Piedmont Park at 14th Street in the center of Atlanta, a sculpture depicting a humbled Confederate, his rifle lowered, a glorious angel with the same nose as Newman’s Jacksonville sculpture, face up, eyes down, wings spread, one hand gracefully holding an olive branch over her head, the lower hand, delicate and long-fingered, staying the soldier beneath her.
Is The Triumph of Peace a Lost Cause sculpture? It brings the Confederacy into the realm of myth, but there’s no Romantic lost valor and glory. Unlike Newman’s Jacksonville mother, his Atlanta angel employs her noble tender strength to hold off a Confederate rifle, not to validate Confederate honor. She thrusts a hip rather seductively over him. More than a Lost Cause trope, The Triumph of Peace reminds me of the photographer Bernie Boston’s famous Flower Power, which shows a Vietnam War protester placing a flower in the barrel of a soldier’s rifle.
If Newman’s Triumph of Peace isn’t Lost Cause apologism of a Northern artist for Confederate commissions, his In Memory of Our Women of the Southland oozes it. Some historians have argued the “Yankee” embrace of the Southern Lost Cause helped facilitate reunion between North and South, but if that’s true, it also financed the rebirth of the KKK.
In 1914, the year before Newman’s Jacksonville sculpture took its prominent place in the municipal space soon renamed Confederate Park, newsreels proclaimed 48,000 Confederate veterans had settled on Dignan Park and the surrounding neighborhood of Springfield for one of their last large veteran’s reunions. Old men with long flowing bears hopped up and down in grotesque jigs to the woods-holler fiddling of motionless old long-gray-bearded men. Vehicles paraded central Jacksonville blazoning Confederate flag after Confederate flag.
In 1915, Newman’s Lost Cause pièce de résistance planted itself in the park the City of Jacksonville renamed Confederate Park.
Also in 1915, filmmaker D.W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation, the first Hollywood blockbuster. Its original name was The Clansman. The movie portrayed the Ku Klux Klan—a post-Confederate racist vigilante group Congress shut down by 1871, having filled 13 volumes of Congressional committee investigations with documentation of the group’s racist crimes—as a band of medieval knights set adrift in the South in the manner of Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe. The movie showed despotic Union-backed black men rigging elections, controlling the legislature, and fulfilling every Jim Crow South and “Zip Coon” caricature—drinking whiskey in legislative session, sticking their bare feet up on tables, standing before Congress, ostensibly to deliver some grand soliloquy but distracted instead by a leg of fried chicken, and of course, sneaking up on white women in private quarters.
In 1915, the Ku Klux Klan rebirthed its nation at Stone Mountain, Georgia, before the unfinished bas-relief sculpture of Confederate generals, the mountain sculpture sometimes called the Confederate Mount Rushmore.
In 1920, the future-Civil Rights activist Stetson Kennedy, four or five years old, saw his first Ku Klux Klan parade on Jacksonville’s Main Street. The sentimentalism of the Lost Cause rose with the racial brutalism of the Klan. Klan membership soared in the ’20s, at the same time as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, to as much at 15 percent of American white men.
As women received suffrage in 1920, Jacksonville’s Eartha White led voter registration drives across this largely black town to register black women to vote. The Klan staged an Election Day parade to intimidate black voters, filling the center of the city with their white-knight terrorists on Ivanhoe steeds. Ahead of Election Day, an NAACP telegram sent to the Duval County sheriff, the mayor of Jacksonville, and Florida’s governor said, “Advertized purpose of parade is to prevent trouble on election day. Real motive terrorization and intimidation of colored voters. Instead of prevention will likely lead to trouble and perhaps bloodshed, responsibility for which would rest upon city and county.” Though thousands of new black voters showed up at the polls, official results erased all but a few of their votes.
Meanwhile, Stetson Kennedy’s mother quieted him when he recognized his uncle’s shoes beneath the robe of a parading Klansman. Soon thereafter he discovered, by accident, as he later wrote in The Klan Unmasked, how his family’s black maid was tied to a pine tree, whipped and raped, for she had “sassed” a white streetcar conductor by questioning him when he’d returned to her the wrong change. Meanwhile, in Ocoee, Florida, the Klan murdered 50 black residents and burnt Ocoee’s black houses, school, and church. University of Florida historian Paul Ortiz has called the Ocoee Massacre “the single bloodiest day in modern U.S. political history.” The bullet-filled body of black contractor July Perry was hung from a light pole in Orlando bearing a sign that read, “This is what we do to niggers that vote.”
Perhaps Allen George Newman failed to understand the historic forces that spun him in circles and dropped from Baltimore to Atlanta to Jacksonville. In 1923, Jacksonville Baptist pastor A.C. Shuler predicted the Klan would decide the next American president. He wasn’t delusional. Klan membership had risen to around 5 million. In 1920, Warren G. Harding had won the presidency by just more than 7 million votes.
I walk the circumference of Confederate Park. The ground here bleeds history up onto and over your shoes. The 49th Regiment of the Iowa Volunteer Infantry, Col. William G. Dows commanding, camped here, 1898 to ’99, stationed oddly north for the Spanish American War. A plaque sponsored by the Kirby Smith Sons of Confederate Veterans claims that in 1914, when “the United Confederate Veterans celebrated their 24th annual reunion,” a supposed 70,000 visitors invaded Jacksonville, amongst whom were 8,000 veterans who fought treasonously against the United States, their average age 74. The number’s much higher than historical records attest.
The plaque heralds Florida Governor Park Trammell, in full Lost Cause mode, proclaiming, “Florida has never lagged in loyalty to the Southern Cause or to the Southern Veterans.”
After all, Jacksonville school children still stayed home every April 26th in observance of Confederate Memorial Day. I wonder how many of those children knew that Florida Governor John Milton, when he found out the Confederacy had lost the war, shot himself in the head.