Spirit of the Confederacy Statue
Backstory and Context
The history of the Spirit of the Confederacy begins with the group that put it up. This group is known as the Daughters of the Confederacy, or DOC, and still exists today. As with all groups the DOC presents themselves in the best possible light as can be seen from their website. According to their website the DOC has the following 7 goals. To honor the memory of those who served and those who fell in service of the Confederate states. To protect, preserve and mark the places made historic by Confederate valor. To collect and preserve the material for a truthful history of the war between states. To record the part taken by Southern women in patient endurance of hardship and patriotic devotion during the struggle and in untiring efforts after the war during the reconstruction of the South. To fill the sacred duty of benevolence toward the survivors and toward those dependent upon them. To assist descendants of worthy confederates in securing proper education. To cherish the ties of friendship among the members of the Organization. As should be clear by these stated goals the DOC clearly views the Confederacy, or at least the soldiers who fought for it, in a positive light. Thus, it is understandable that this group would put up a statue dedicated to those soldiers who fought for what they believed in. The Robert E. Lee chapter that put up this statue was founded in 1897, 32 years after the Civil Wars end. It is easy to view history with rose tinted glasses, so it makes sense that a group like this would be founded to protect the soldiers who fought for the South. The statue itself was put up in 1908 shortly after the city had been re-segregated. Due to the history of the Confederacy being based on the question of slavery, this could easily be seen as intimidation towards the African-American population of the city. As the Statue was approved by a house representative for Texas, it could even be said that the statue showed the position the state would hold on the Confederacy. After it’s installation, however, not much has been said about the statue.
Recently the Spirit of the Confederacy statue has come back into the news. After the “Unite the Right” rally at Charlottesville in August 11, 2017 a wave of petitions emerged for the removal of statues that apparently glorify the Confederacy. One of the statues that people believe should be brought down is the Spirit of the Confederacy. One of the claims made on a change.org petition is that “The Confederacy represents not only treason against the United States but a system of institutionalized terrorism against non-white people and a militant defense of one of the most brutal forms of chattel slavery to ever exist in human history.” As a result of this argument the petition requests a different statue such as one of Victims of Slavery, Abraham Lincoln or Soldiers of the Union. While this is understandable to a point it is also a highly divisive to the people living in the South. Aside from groups such as the DOC who would obviously oppose this sort of venture, there are a number of descendants of the soldiers of the Confederacy still living in the south who are proud of their history. Having personally been to see the statue it is in a rather out of the way location so as to not impose itself on anyone as you have to go out of your way to actually see the statue. However, a potential compromise that can be proposed is that the inscription be removed. This is in no way an ideal solution to the political crisis around these sorts of monuments, however due to there being no obvious confederate symbolism on the statue itself it would satisfy the petitioners while maintaining the statue. History is full of ugly mistakes made by everyone, but to try and erase history by removing its symbols is the height of arrogance as people believe that they can ignore history and still avoid repeating the same mistakes.
The statue has some major details that need to be discussed due to their symbolic significance. While somewhat obscured by the leaf one of the most important parts of the angel is the sword, a symbol of war. Far more obvious is the pair of wings which clearly indicate that the statue is meant to be an angel which is a rather significant being in Christian mythology. The rest of the details are harder to explain definitively due to them potentially being of lesser importance. Nevertheless, these are some of the most important parts of the statue.
The sword is a well-known symbol of war. Unlike the spear it is not particularly useful against animals. Unlike the axe, it cannot be used in a utilitarian fashion such as to harvest wood and unlike the knife it cannot be used to prepare food without great difficulty. The sword is a weapon developed for the sole purpose of fighting other humans. The way the sword has its point in what would be the ground clearly shows that the South knows that they have lost the Civil War. However, they do not seem to acknowledge it as a complete defeat as the statue is still armed, and if truly pushed too far they would rise again and resist to the end. This does have historical importance as part of the reason why the war ended when it did was because General Lee signed a formal surrender. Had they truly wanted to, the Southern army could have dispersed to the hills and forests and fought a guerilla style battle as was done during the Revolutionary War. However, this would doubtlessly have caused severe damage to both sides especially after General Sherman demonstrated his willingness to inflict horrible damage during his march to the sea. Thus, the sword and its position show that while defeated the South still possesses the means to protect itself should the need arise.
Now the most obvious part of the statue would be the angel wings. Humans are almost always able to find a reason why they are the good guy in any situation. For the South they would most likely say that they were defending their way of life and the principles of states rights. In fact, saying the Civil War was over state rights was the main defense used by “lost cause” revisionists. Not only that, but it is also considered bad form to insult the dead in most cultures. Thus, when creating a statue to honor the Southern soldiers who fell in the Civil War, they were depicted as angels rather than being insulted with some other depiction.
Other parts of the statue have more questionable symbolism. First is the leaf that covers up the statue. The leaf used is the same one used in laurel wreaths which are used to crown the victors in a number of situations. For example, the Romans would crown generals who return from victorious campaigns with a laurel wreath. As the South lost, this would instead be the South saying that a victory was possible, but in the end, they were not successful. However, it is also possible that it was simply used to have the statue remain modest as without the leaf it would be naked. Next is their posture, the statue is depicted as looking straight ahead. This would mean that despite losing the war they still maintain their dignity as they refuse to lower their gaze to what would be a superior. This is further emphasized by how the statue has their arms crossed. When the body take this position, it is usually a sign of defensiveness and so this shows that the South was wary of any further attempts to change their way of life after the Civil War and the 13th Amendment. Based on this information it makes sense to say that the South while militarily defeated did not consider itself destroyed as they may have been willing to resist in a full blown war setting.
The next piece of importance is the plaque on the base of the statue. At the top is the name of the statue identifying it as the Spirit of the Confederacy. Next is the group who put it up as well as the inscription of who it is dedicated to. Finally, is the committee who are part of the group known as the Daughters of the Confederacy. This is all important as while a picture can say a thousand words, words are easier to understand and typically do a better job of getting the authors message across.
The name that was given to the statue is important in and of itself as it is the first thing most people are likely to hear about something. Calling something the “Spirit of the Confederacy” should immediately bring forth memories of the Civil War. This is important as depending on where you live, this may influence your ideas on the Confederacy. Some will view the term as a group fighting for the rights of the states to self-governance whereas other will view it as an institution bent on keeping African-Americans enslaved. Either way, before even seeing the statue itself it is likely that people will have one of these reactions though this is obviously not a comprehensive list.
The inscription on the Statue reads “To all the heroes of the South who fought for the principles of States Rights” which clearly indicates that the people who put up this statue believe that the Civil War was over states’ rights. Therefore, it is clear that the people who put it up would not have a negative opinion of those who fought for the South in the Civil War. To begin, the inscription refers to the people who fought for the South as “heroes” which is a term only used when you have a great deal of respect for someone. What is more, while it is certain that the soldiers had a variety of reasons for fighting in the Civil War on both sides, there is something positive that can be said about someone willing to lay down their lives for their cause and not refuse to join the army or desert if they are conscripted. “States’ rights” is another issue brought up by the inscription that is important to address. Simply put, this is the idea that the individual states have a right to self-determination and can do what is believed to be the best for the people of that state. Therefore, this reasons that when the South seceded from the Union it was not because they wanted to keep their slaves, but rather that outsiders were attempting to interfere with their laws and way of life by imposing Northern values. As mentioned before a picture can say a thousand words, but words do a rather good job at explaining the specifics.
The Spirit of the Confederacy is clearly a statue with a lot of symbolism. Due to events of the early 21st century new arguments have sprung up about the Spirit of the Confederacy and other statues like it. Meanwhile, the statue itself represents the way a group of people viewed their history in a time not long after the Civil War. While the dedication of the statue itself raises its own controversies, people still see circumstances in black and white as they always do. In the end, all I can say is that we must learn from history so that we can build a better future and we cannot do that by moving, replacing or destroying symbols of a different time.
McMurray, Cort. “Houston, We Need to Talk about Those Confederate Statues.” HoustonChronicle.com, Houston Chronicle, 19 Aug. 2017, www.houstonchronicle.com/local/gray-matters/article/How-Houston-s-Confederate-memorials-can-help-us-11943884.php.
“Spirit of the Confederacy Monument, Houston, Texas.” RoadsideAmerica.com, www.roadsideamerica.com/story/30034.
“Spirit of The Confederacy.” Back to Www.houstontx.gov, www.houstontx.gov/parks/artinparks/spiritoftheconfederacy.html.
Crutchers, Nelma. “Historical - Educational - Benevolent - Memorial - Patriotic.” United Daughters of the Confederacy, hqudc.org/.
“Sign the Petition.” Change.org, Houston Young Communist League, 2017, www.change.org/p/city-of-houston-remove-houston-s-spirit-of-the-confederacy-monument.