Memories: An Interview with Harold Holzer

Memories: An Interview with Harold Holzer

Equestrian statue of Union Gettysburg campaign commander George G. Meade LC-DIG-highsm-58404

Sara Gabbard: Recent questions about the fate of various Civil War memorials raise several obvious questions.  Is there a profound difference between possible sites for statues; e.g. public vs. private property?

Harold Holzer: To me, yes, there is a difference: private sites can display what their owners want to feature, within reason (a Hitler statue shouldn’t be displayed anywhere, for example). But public sites owe an obligation to the public good and public mood, because as a citizenry, we collectively own and maintain such ground. I might add that there are subtle differences among public sites, too. Placing a heroic statue in front of a courthouse or other government building, for instance, bestows “official” status on that monument, and suggests that decisions rendered inside are guided by the hero portrayed outside. I have heard this from several people of color who grew up in Southern towns that boasted Confederate statuary outside their local government offices. The message those statues conveyed seemed clear to them: expect less than equal justice here, because we celebrate Confederate generals, soldiers, and politicians who waged war to keep your ancestors enslaved. On the other hand, placing such a statue in a public park or square, or a college campus, is meant in most cases not to intimidate but to celebrate (however misguided some cases of admiration might be). Of course, exceptions abound within that category, too: UNC students pulled down the school’s Silent Sam Confederate soldier statue, and when one reads the virulently racist speeches with which it was dedicated, there can be little doubt that it deserved to go. Many of these seemingly benign statues have cast a long and ugly shadow for too long. A statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis—a man who murdered unarmed Black troops and became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan? Indefensible. The Lee statue and the others along Richmond’s Monument Avenue? They became a genuine tourist attraction today, but were installed in part to delineate a new batch of fancy, whites-only real estate (still, the Mercié statue of Lee is phenomenal). Finally, what of museums? People are always saying: put these contested statues in a museum, where they can be contextualized with labels. Well, museums are public spaces too—and display there conveys a stamp of approval by their curators. Besides, these statues were carved to be seen from far below their elevated pedestals. Placing them at lower sight-lines in museum galleries makes them look like cartoons, and the resulting reaction can only be: why did we save these ugly things anyway? The other “public” solution is the Civil War battlefield park—many of which, like Gettysburg, rank as outdoor sculpture galleries in their own right. In such cases, historian Allen Guelzo has proposed some useful guidelines. Did the general fight on this ground? If so, relocate him here. Was the statue commissioned to commemorate leadership or promote Lost Cause ideology? Accept only the former. Less useful perhaps is Guelzo’s additional suggestion, that only those convicted of high crimes should be excluded from battlefield display. The fact is, too few Confederate leaders ever faced such reckoning.


SG:  Is the discussion of location similar to the controversies about, for instance, erection of tablets containing the Ten Commandments on courthouse property?

HH: Well, the contest for the public square has been going on for a long time—in a variety of forms. Speaking of the Ten Commandments, wasn’t Moses the world’s first iconoclast? When he hurled down the golden calf, he took the initial stand against idol-worship! I dare say he might be surprised that some people now contest the tablets containing the ten principles of human justice. The objection to “Thou shalt not kill”? Not sure, though I do understand the point of discouraging so-called religious messaging in a secular sphere that is supposed to reflect freedom of religion. I’ve heard similar objections to the seasonal display of crèches and Christmas trees, because they inherently stigmatize non-believers. OK, but in my home town of New York City, the tradition of Christmas decor is almost universally accepted. Think of the storefronts along Fifth Avenue and the Rockefeller Center tree. Plus, the quest for equal access has been met by adding a giant, seasonal Hanukkah Menorah near the Plaza Hotel.  By the way, all these holiday displays stand quite close to Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ brilliant equestrian statue of William T. Sherman outside the Plaza Hotel near Central Park—and it’s bright gold, lest anyone fail to notice it. Actually, Donald Trump paid for its re-gilding some years back. Sherman, who of course helped win the Civil War, has come under criticism lately for his hostility to Native Americans, and some have called for even this great work of art to be removed. No way, I hope.

SG:  Please relate the story of the “tearing down” of the statue of King George in New York City.

HH: It was the first, and until Mayor Mitch Landrieu removed the Confederate statues in New Orleans, the most famous outbreak of American iconoclasm. In July 1776, the newly issued Declaration of Independence was read aloud to the public from Bowling Green at the southern tip of Manhattan Island—which was then dominated by a huge equestrian statue of George III made of lead.  Apparently, the patriots were so aroused by the Declaration, and its prospect of freedom from royal domination, that they not only hauled down the statue—they smashed it into pieces to make bullets for the anticipated war for independence: some 42,000 pieces of ammunition in all. Only a few fragments survived. The royal head was spared so it could be displayed on a pike in the manner of beheaded English kings and princes, but it somehow fell into the hands of Loyalists and spirited to England. The horse’s tail, for reasons that should be obvious, was preserved intact and today lives in the New-York Historical Society. For generations, painters and printmakers depicted the act of destruction and desecration as a seminal patriotic event, venerated as an entirely justifiable outburst of the public yearning for liberty.  It is such a celebrated story, illustrated so often, that I fail to understand how modern Americans who think all statues should be preserved can neglect or ignore the episode. By the way, the statue’s empty pedestal survived for more than 40 more years, and when it was removed in 1818, many New Yorkers objected, believing it should remain where it was in perpetuity, as testimony to the fragility of false idols!


SG:  What was the impact of the movie Birth of a Nation when it was first released?  Is it still a factor today?

HH: The impact was simply enormous—more, I try to convince myself, because of its cinematic power than because of its retrograde, racist perspective. For this 1915 feature, director D. W. Griffith introduced tracking shots and close-ups—unheard of innovations in technique that really brought both its dramatic action and human stories to life (however corny the film looks a century later). It was a revolutionary phenomenon as a work of art, and still taught in film schools—because there’s no way to ignore the fact that it changed the way movies were made. On the other hand, its prejudicial attitude was so egregious that the movie offended many people of the day, even though segregation and inequity were routine. Remember also, the movie coincided with the final phase of the age of minstrelsy, and Griffith embraced it by insisting that Blacks in his movie be portrayed by white actors wearing blackface. This outrageous casting decision made African American, Reconstruction-era legislators into caricatures who seemed less than human. Still, there was no escaping the revolutionary technology.  Southern-born President Woodrow Wilson, who personally knew the author of the novel The Klansman, on which the movie was based, hosted a White House screening and came up with the best line I’ve ever read about the power the movie achieved: He called it “History by lightning.” Of course, it was the kind of history with which Wilson felt comfortable: Lost Cause revisionism melded with white supremacy. Two points to add. Griffith, the Kentucky-born son of a former Confederate colonel, ended his career with a sympathetic biopic about Abraham Lincoln—so in a sense he came full cycle. And remember, 25 years later, Gone With the Wind had an equally huge impact on the next generation—telling its own retrograde story of grateful slaves, noble plantation owners, and evil Carpetbaggers, but in such grand style, and with such great stars, that it may have done even more than Birth of a Nation to sustain Lost Cause mythology. By the way, if you’re also asking whether such films should be banned, my answer is no. Televised screenings can easily offer what outdoor sculptures often can’t: context. And TCM, for one, is doing a fine job of running these retrograde but revolutionary films preceded and followed by useful discussion.


SG:  Historically, when did the custom of erecting monuments to military figures first begin?

HH: With the Greeks and then the Romans, and even earlier in non-Western cultures. Think of the life-size statues of the armies of Qin Shi Huang in 210 BCE China. Archaeologists have unearthed some 8,000 of these figures, now known as the “Terracotta Army.” The Romans lionized military heroes like Titus, who sacked the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 71 AD and was depicted in the Arch of Titus, a still-standing architectural wonder built in Rome some 10 years later (and kind of offensive to many Jews, although no one even whispers the idea that it should be removed).  Trajan’s Column appeared in Rome about 110 AD.  The French and British likewise honored their military heroes, especially from the 17th century onward. There are probably more Napoleon statues in France than statues of anyone else, anywhere, even though his reputation is coming under renewed scrutiny, too. In the United States, George Washington became the ideal figure for early lionization in both painting and statuary. As first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, to quote General Harry Lee, he deserved monumentalizing. And to his great benefit, he looked the part. The idea of honoring the common soldier in the U. S. was a more recent phenomenon, though one of the earliest American war monuments, which celebrated a naval victory in Tripoli, paid tribute not only to officers like James Decatur, but to enlisted men as well.  Briefly displayed at the Washington Navy Yard and the U. S. Capitol, it now resides at the U. S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. In both the South and North, anonymous, cookie-cutter Confederate and Union soldiers began appearing on pedestals a generation after the Civil War, and as recent scholarship has revealed, their dedication ceremonies inspired Southern communities to spew racist nonsense and Lost Cause claptrap. The phenomenon of focusing on the common soldier really took off after World War I, which inspired countless “Lost Generation” tributes to the doughboys who lost their lives overseas. The apogee, I think, came with the terrific Iwo Jima statue at Arlington Cemetery, based of course on an iconic photograph. Now, the trend is to honor only the common soldier—witness the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials in Washington, the latter designed by my good friend Louis Nelson. I haven’t seen any statues of William Westmoreland or Creighton Abrams—just the grunts who bore the brunt of wartime sacrifice, and this seems perfectly appropriate in a post-heroic age. Officials couldn’t even agree on a military statue for the National Mall honoring Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led the D-Day invasion—they originally wanted to memorialize him as a barefoot boy from Kansas.

SG:  Please give the history of the term “Lost Cause.”  Has its meaning changed through the years?

HH:  I’m not sure it has changed all that much. From the beginning (launched by journalist Edward Pollard in 1866 and fueled by revisionist postwar memoir-writing by Jubal Early and Jefferson Davis) it introduced the myth that the Confederacy failed to win the Civil War and establish independence only because of the superior manpower and materiel of Northern aggressors. The mystique held that Confederate generals were superior, its citizens nobler, its slaves loyal (and better off enslaved), and of course that its states seceded and armed only to preserve liberty and state rights, and not to preserve slavery. Here was a Big Lie before there were Big Lies—fake history easily disproven by the proceedings of the various secession conventions, not to mention Alexander H. Stephens’ “Cornerstone” speech in Georgia.  I think the phrase “Lost Cause” was amplified most loudly, effectively, and shamelessly when Jeff Davis visited Montgomery, Alabama in 1886, 25 years after he had been inaugurated there as the first and only President of the Confederacy. He spoke unrepentantly and defiantly there and, unpopular as he had been during the war, wowed the crowd. Davis proceeded to Atlanta, and from there to Savannah, in a kind of perversely defiant re-tracing of Sherman’s March. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, published in New York, devoted eight pages of coverage to Davis’ tour, and repeated the old man’s call to arms—or what might be called a call to rewrite history: “Is it a lost cause now? Never…a thousand times, no.” So the perpetuation of the false narrative of justifiable treason and unrepentant white supremacy owed much to the revival of Davis’ reputation. Remember, he had reportedly been captured in 1865 in drag—an exaggeration, to be sure—so he came a long way, from ridicule to revival. Maybe it was because he was the only one of the Confederate “big three” (which included Jackson and Lee) to live into the 1880s, and because unlike Lee, Davis was eager to re-fight the war and justify and perpetuate white supremacy. At first a literary movement, it eventually enfolded itself into something approaching a religion, sustained by organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, perpetuated in misleading textbooks, given iconic status through statuary, and emblazoned and emboldened by the offensive (to many) display of the old Confederate battle flag. Historian Rollin Osterweis called the Lost Cause an “expression of the despair of a bitter, defeated people…a lost identity,” but that analysis ignores the Black population whose memory of the Old South was anything but nostalgic.  Historian David Blight came much closer to the centrality of Lost Cause mythology: that of a lily-white South that sought sectional but not racial reconciliation.

SG:  There has been controversy surrounding two (in Washington and Chicago) well-known statues of Abraham Lincoln.  Please comment.

HH:  The controversies—and the public mood in each locale—strike me as entirely different, requiring separate explanations and approaches. In Washington, some are uncomfortable with The Freedman’s Memorial or Emancipation Group, Thomas Ball’s bronze statue, paid for entirely by African Americans, dedicated in 1876 by Frederick Douglass, and unveiled by President Grant. It shows Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, hand outstretched, lifting to freedom a half-clothed Black man. But is the enslaved man kneeling or rising? There’s the issue. The image of a subservient man of color, semi-naked to imply inferiority, upsets people now, and upset some people in 1876—including Douglass, as historian Jonathan White has shown. During the George Floyd protests in the capital, crowds tried to haul the statue down, and failed only because the authorities defended it, and then fenced it up. The district’s Congressional observer, Eleanor Holmes Norton, has called for its removal. The mayor of Boston ordered the removal of the copy unveiled there a few years later, and no one is sure where or how it is being stored. But my friend Edna Greene Medford, historian at Howard University, wants the original to stay just where it is.  What people forget is that the image of the kneeling (or rising), half naked Black man was once the symbol of the abolitionist movement—in both England and the U. S. The image actually appeared on the masthead of William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, as Sidney Blumenthal and others have reminded us. I admit I’ve gone back and forth more than once on this statue—but I hope passions cool and we can take our time considering its fate carefully, reassessing it both as a work of art and an expression of admiration that Lincoln once universally evoked among people of color. As for the Chicago case, nothing I’ve heard in the last four years of debate over public statuary has disheartened or mystified me more. We’re talking about a genuine masterpiece, Saint-Gaudens’ standing Lincoln in Lincoln Park, one of the greatest American sculptures. The rationale for putting it on a watch list? That Lincoln’s onetime racial attitudes make people uncomfortable today. What a travesty—and what a tragedy if Chicago doesn’t backtrack, admit it made a huge error in inviting people to re-examine masterpieces of enduring historic and artistic value, and reiterate its pride in this great tribute to the American dream. Ironically, the Saint-Gaudens is one of the “second generation” Lincoln statues—that is, created after the boom in Lincoln tributes that followed his 1865 murder. Rather than depict him as an Emancipator, as many early sculptures did, it showed him as a statesman giving a speech. Does any American of any background dispute the fact that Lincoln was the greatest writer and orator among our presidents? Not to mention that he composed some of the greatest words ever written to celebrate American opportunity? Talk about the stark difference, to paraphrase Lincoln, between little noting and long remembering!


SG:  Do you see a difference between removal of physical items such as statues and objections to retaining names of historical figures on schools, military bases, etc.

HH:  As someone who worked in an art museum for 23 years, I just don’t like the idea of destroying worthy sculptures because of changing tastes, updated historical perspectives, or evolving community demographics. Yes, I didn’t mind when angry citizens destroyed statues of Saddam Hussein (even if American troops helped). But I was pained when the Taliban destroyed the 1,500-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas with explosives in 2001, simply because they were built by people of a different faith. (Now authorities are creating replicas to attract tourists to Afghanistan!)  And I like to point out that the people of Leningrad preserved the city’s extraordinary statue of Czar Peter even when the Communists ruled—lovingly protecting it when the Nazis lay siege to the city. I do think statues, like everything else, require periodic re-evaluation—and in some cases even removal and replacement—but I just hate the idea of destruction and demolition. I prefer the solution reached in Budapest, where worthy statues of unworthy people are displayed in a kind of garden of villains.  As for the names on schools, they too are worth re-examining from time to time. It took much too long to change the name of Calhoun College at Yale. But removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from the public policy graduate school at Princeton punishes him for his bigotry without acknowledging his progressive reform agenda.  As for removing Lincoln’s name from a school in San Francisco because of the Minnesota Indian executions of 1862—which he actually minimized in defiance of political pressure to hang hundreds of Native people?—that seems misguided. Thankfully, the school board has punted—at least for now. As for military bases, I do think it’s high time to remove the names of Confederate generals from U. S. military installations. There was never any excuse for honoring the likes of Braxton Bragg and John Bell Hood—and now I think it’s imperative to rename them for military men who did not take up arms against the United States to defend slavery.

SG: What is the answer to the debate over national memory—in both the classroom and the public square?

HH: In a word: thoughtful study and appropriate caution, and an acknowledgment that there’s never going to be a final, definitive decision about these matters. Meanwhile, I’d hesitate about destroying anything that we may later regret obliterating. Yet the process of re-examining our past, acknowledging mistakes, admitting the centrality of slavery to the early republic, and celebrating unsung heroes whom we’ve long ignored, can be uplifting, not threatening. Sometimes a statue may have to come down, but so did King George III when its time had come and its symbolism seemed too oppressive. As for the classroom, I think we’re deep into a period of overheated action and equally overheated reaction. I think the 1619 project was a deeply flawed document, riddled with errors and omissions—but also useful because it opened eyes to neglected history. I think the response by some local school boards that have moved to ban lessons about slavery is disproportionate and insulting. Talk about cancel culture! Equally blind was the so-called patriotic curriculum championed by Donald Trump, along with his proposed outdoor garden of heroes, which struck me as grandiose, dismissive, and superfluous. Over all, it’s time to understand that American history and national reputation are not like the plaques at the Baseball Hall of Fame: once enshrined, always enshrined. History and memory never have a fixed, final date when we sign off in perpetuity on our heroes and villains. Reputations remain open to interpretation, analysis, and, let’s face it, change. And the fact we can conduct such re-evaluations freely, without fear of reprisal, is as powerful a monument to our democracy as any statue ever built…or taken down.

Harold Holzer serves as Director of Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College.