While every statue in every town has a different origin, taken together, the roughly 700 Confederate monuments in the United States tell a national story. Many of these commemorations of those on the losing side of the Civil War are a lot newer than one might think.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which maintains a list of these monuments, the memorials are spread over 31 states plus the District of Columbia—far exceeding the 11 Confederate states that seceded at the outset of the Civil War.
Most of these monuments did not go up immediately after the war’s end in 1865. During that time, commemorative markers of the Civil War tended to be memorials that mourned soldiers who had died, says Mark Elliott, a history professor at University of North Carolina, Greensboro.
“Eventually they started to build [Confederate] monuments,” he says. “The vast majority of them were built between the 1890s and 1950s, which matches up exactly with the era of Jim Crow segregation.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s research, the biggest spike was between 1900 and the 1920s.
In contrast to the earlier memorials that mourned dead soldiers, these monuments tended to glorify leaders of the Confederacy like General Robert E. Lee, former President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis and General “Thomas Stonewall” Jackson.
“All of those monuments were there to teach values to people,” Elliott says. “That’s why they put them in the city squares. That’s why they put them in front of state buildings.” Many earlier memorials had instead been placed in cemeteries.
The values these monuments stood for, he says, included a “glorification of the cause of the Civil War.”
White women were instrumental in raising funds to build these Confederate monuments. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, founded in the 1890s, was probably the most important and influential group, Elliott says.
In fact, the group was responsible for creating what is basically the Mount Rushmore of the Confederacy: a gigantic stone carving of Davis, Lee and Jackson in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Its production began in the 1910s, and it was completed in the 1960s.
By then, the construction of new Confederate monuments had begun to taper off, but the backlash to the Civil Rights Movement was spreading Confederate symbols in other ways: In 1956, Georgia redesigned its state flag to include the Confederate battle flag; and in 1962, South Carolina placed the flag atop its capitol building. In a 2016 report, the Southern Poverty Law Center said that the country’s more than 700 monuments were part of roughly 1,500 symbols of the Confederacy in public spaces.
Protesters and city officials have gradually taken down statues in multiple towns and cities. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that, as of February 2019, at least 138 Confederate symbols had been removed from public spaces since 2015.
More statues were targeted following protests over the police killing of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, on May 25, 2020. On June 9, 2020, protesters toppled a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia. And Governor Ralph Northam announced earlier that month that he planned to order the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond—a former capital of the Confederacy—to be removed.