How would you interpret this Confederate monument?

The present consensus that Confederate monuments need radical re-interpretation—if not removal—makes for a righteous and satisfying call, but stops short of engaging the very real complicated histories, contexts, and bureaucratic politics of actual examples of the form. Keith Harris is doing his work, and I look forward to the progress he makes in Hollywood. Haven’t heard of anyone else doing anything. Well, besides #BlackLivesMatter activists.

Let me offer a specific example and solicit ideas. My object is the Confederate monument in Henderson County, North Carolina, presently tucked into a niche at the historic courthouse in Hendersonville. But first, an admittedly incomplete overview of the monument’s history.

The Western North Carolina Times, July 24, 1903.
The Western North Carolina Times, July 24, 1903.

Confederate veteran, attorney, and local economic booster Sidney Vance Pickens and the Watt Bryson Camp of the United Confederate Veterans led efforts in 1902 to raise money for a monument. Fundraising included benefit concerts, lawn parties, and ice cream socials. They intended it to be “the greatest altitude of any similar shaft in the world and will be to the memory of every Confederate soldier from Maine to Texas, living or dead.”* (The Western North Carolina Times, June 10, 1902.) The monument they selected (likely a stock model out of a catalog) is rather modest. Planners eschewed figurative or allegorical representations, preferring instead a funereal column and generic language. The epithet reads “To The Confederate Soldier,” on each side of the pedestal.

If I draw from Kirk Savage’s description of soldier monuments, I’d say that this example is less (but not not) about honoring a defeated nation-state or it’s long-dead of forty-years previous, and more about establishing an integral relationship with a larger contemporary community of southerners and Americans–a way to connect a specific locality and people with abstract notions of nationhood. This is supported by Richard Starnes’ observation that Confederate memorial efforts in Western North Carolina in the 1880s and 1890s were performed in the context of contemporary missionary effort by northeastern reformers and journalists that defined southern mountaineers as backward, “our contemporary ancestors.”** Engaging in the civic boosterism that tied mountaineers to the larger new south enterprise helped them lay claim to the thoroughly modern, connected, identity they always had for themselves. That Pickens, a booster and entrepreneur, lead this effort, supports Thomas Brown’s assertion that these things are connected to civic boosterism as much as anything else.

The point here is the difficulty of defining intent. White supremacy and the violence of racism is, of course, woven into issues of citizenship and nationhood, but it is not the entire story, or necessarily the primary story for the monument’s projectors.

Anyhow, the monument went up in 1903 with a modest ceremony. Pickens planted the column right in the middle of Main Street at the intersection of present day 1st Avenue.

See it down there?
Courtesy of the Baker-Barber Collection, Henderson County Public Library.

The UDC occasionally placed flowers and wreaths at its base in modest ceremonies but the monument earned larger meaning and notice beyond it’s commemorative purpose: it became a landmark, an annoyance, and a traffic hazard. One letter writer in 1921 saw it as a boundary that marked an unstated point beyond which the city did not pave roads. (I don’t think there’s any symbolic intent there.) A blacksmith used it as a way for visitors to locate his shop. The Henderson County Grand Jury recommended it’s removal in 1922 and in 1927 the county moved it from the street to the front lawn of the adjacent county courthouse.

The Daily Herald, September 16, 1911
The Daily Herald, September 16, 1911
Courtesy of the Baker-Barber Collection, Hendersonville Public Library
Courtesy of the Baker-Barber Collection, Hendersonville Public Library

I’m not clear on its history between 1927 and the 1980s and maybe someone can fill me in, but at the courthouse, it sat among monuments to Daniel Boone, Henderson County’s Revolutionary War soldiers, and after the mid-1980s an American Legion monument to twentieth century wars.

Henderson County abandoned its dilapidated old courthouse in 1995 for a new building off Main Street. Not until the early 2000s did county leaders turn to an expensive renovation of the old courthouse. When it reopened in 2008, it housed county offices and the Henderson County Heritage Museum. On the lawn—really, concrete and brick pavers—town leaders reorganized the memorial landscape into a “walk of honor,” placing new monuments to World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and Korean War veterans, updating the Revolutionary War monument, and moving all of them into a tight semi-circle around the base of the courthouse. The Confederate monument now sits beside a monument (in the 2008 style) to the county’s Union soldiers.*** (I suspect William Dean Howell’s would have something to say about this militarized memorial landscape.)

This Union monument is laying out, ready to spring an ambuscade on the Confederate monument. A literal bushwacker.
This Union monument is being a literal bushwacker, ready to spring an ambuscade on the Confederate monument.
Can you see it?

So, this generic monument has been moved around quite a bit. It has been utilized beyond its commemorative intent—as a waymark and impediment. And now it sits, almost anonymously, in a corner among brighter and more prominent (if not taller) monuments, in a memorial landscape that lacks any interpretive markers.

I have some conventional ideas, but I want to know what kind of markers, programming, or other interpretive initiatives would you employ to draw this monument into the way we talk about the war now.

Here are some criteria that must be followed.

  1. Interpretation must be evidence based and it must connect specific historical circumstances of Henderson County’s history with the needs of visitors. (That’s some Freeman Tilden there.)
  1. Interpretation must, in elegant fashion, connect this monument to the larger issues of the Confederate state, twentieth century segregation, and the modern carceral state.
  1. The Heritage Museum is run entirely by volunteers and has no budget. This must not cost a thing.



*Claiming “the greatest altitude” appears to have been a thing that Sidney Pickens did to brand his many entrepreneurial efforts.

**Richard D. Starnes, “’The Stirring Strains of Dixie’: The Civil War and Southern Identity in Haywood County, North Carolina” North Carolina Historical Review 74 (July 1997)237-259. In fact, the yellow journalism description of southern mountaineers served, more than any historical source, to overemphasize the wartime Unionist leanings of white Western North Carolinians.

***It supersedes a monument to Union soldiers erected in Etowah in the mid-1980s. So, Henderson County has TWO monuments to local Union soldiers.


2 thoughts on “How would you interpret this Confederate monument?

  1. First of all, as a native of Hendersonville, let me say thank you for your research and the context you’ve provided for this monument. This post is fascinating just from that perspective.

    I don’t have the expertise to comment very intelligently on the real question you’re asking, but I will offer some observations as a lay person: I think the fact that the memorial is decentralized by its positioning around the corner of the building, that it is contextualized by its inclusion in a display of memorials to almost every war and military action in American history, and that it is rendered historical by its presence at what is now a museum – and not the seat of local government – are all important factors in diminishing its potential offensiveness and divisiveness within our community. Coupled with the fact that it only memorializes the soldiers, and not cause for which they fought explicitly (although that is implied), I am inclined to say that this may be a good example of how a southern community could compromise on this sort of issue.

    Since you have placed us under a “no cost” restraint for suggestions on interpretive initiatives I will suggest two: someone such as yourself should be invited to conduct a mandatory training session for the board and volunteers of the museum about the nature of these types of memorials, this one in particular, and how they can speak with sensitivity to people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds about it. Secondly, a community forum should be held at which people from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds talk respectfully to each other about what this memorial communicates to them and how they feel about its display within our community.

  2. Jonathan,

    Actually, this represents the fruits of one morning’s worth of research. I’m sure there are folks in this town who know far more than I do about this monument’s history.

    I am troubled by how layers of context and distance can diffuse a necessary story. What’s missing from my overview is a troubling counter-narrative that can offer unexpected contexts and collapse that comforting distance. How do you find that in Hendersonville? (That is simultaneously a rhetorical question and an actual plea.) Then again, as history never gives you the answer you are looking for, I’d be skeptical that we’d find the searing historical critique that would satisfy me here.

    Your suggestions for programming ideas are good and they should be organizing those types of forums right now.

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