Digital Methods and Historical Scholarship

Digital Scholarship

The activist group, Southern Poverty Law Center, conducted a relevant digital humanities study on civil war memorials, and more specifically, confederate monuments, in 2015. The study, which was done in response to the Dylan Roof murders in 2015, found 1,503 public spaces dedicated to the confederacy, which consisted of municipalities, counties, buildings, schools, monuments, parks, military bases and others that were named for its heroes. The researchers note the exclusion of places and symbols (about 2,600) that they deemed more historic in nature such as markers, battlefields, museums and cemeteries. The SPLC also acknowledge the incompleteness of their data; however, their findings and database are an excellent place to start for anyone interested in learning more or beginning research on this topic. They compile data from the National Park Service, U.S. Geological Survey, the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Register of Historic Places, as well as other state government resources and other private database resources.

They use several tableau visualizations to supplement their findings, including maps, pie graphs and chronology graphs. All three types of visualizations are very effective – the maps highlight the concentration of the monuments by location, the pie graphs show the distribution of monument type and the chronology graph show the years the monuments were erected, which is marked by a high concentration of data points at the turn of the 20th century. All three visualization types are effective in organizing and displaying the data for the viewer. Furthermore, as a public tool for other researchers, they provide a nicely organized, and categorically useful table of the data at the end of their study. The data is divided by state and the monuments are given a location (by town), name of the monument, date of erection and monument type. Finally, being an activist group, the SPLC provides a community action guide at the end of their article which outlines ways people can work to successful remove Confederate monuments through legal and activist methods. Overall, this is one of the most effective digital humanities projects on confederate memorials because it is well researched and effective at conveying its findings through visual and categorical methods.

Historical Scholarship

The concept of Civil War memorialization was introduced to near the end of the Civil War. This process was seen as an opportunity to heal from the devastation that nearly tore the country apart. Many of these monuments still stand today, and the changes in generational attitudes towards the Civil War have similarly altered the meaning of these Civil War monuments. Not solely a Southern phenomenon, the memorialization of those who fought and died in the Civil War pervade the North, as well. Cemeteries, battlefields, courthouse, and public places across the country, mostly in the South, all invoke different interpretations of the Civil War.

The last decades of the nineteenth century were heavily influenced by debates about racial equality as well as how race fit into the meaning of the Civil War. As Blight argues, “race was so deeply at the root of the war’s causes and consequences, and so powerful a source of division in American social psychology, that it served as the antithesis of a culture of reconciliation.” Blight further argues that the ritual of memory was initially a spiritual practice – people wished to feel the weight of the sacrifices borne by hundreds of thousands. Very quickly, however, the practice of remembrance developed along partisan lines. As with the three interpretations of the war itself, the practice of memory soon divided into three groups: blacks and their former abolitionist allies, white Northerners, and white Southerners. The lack of agreement on the memorialization practices led to the “dead continu[ing] to mingle among the living” in the form of monuments and other memorials.

In terms of the monuments themselves, John J. Winberry argues that most of the monuments in cemeteries were built prior to 1900, and that almost all of the courthouse monuments were erected after 1900. He offers two explanations for these occurrences. First, it is possible that these courthouse monuments were erected to not only honor the dead, but also the living. Winberry argues that over a quarter century had passed, and people began to see that their fathers, brothers, uncles, etc. were beginning to die off. They viewed courthouse monuments as opportunities to enshrine their memories, as well. Second, it is also possible that these monuments were erected by people who had finally rebuilt their lives and fortunes after the war. In this sense, the memorials were just as much about them as they were their Confederate past.

Winberry breaks down the most common locations of Confederate monuments, although these do apply to many monuments in the North, as well. However, monuments to the Confederacy where overwhelmingly funded by private organizations such as the UDC. According to Winberry, there are four basic locations for monuments in the South: (1) Battlefield monuments commemorating individual units or the troops from a particular state; these were most often erected with state-appropriated funds, (2) Cemetery monuments commemorating the dead; these were the responsibility of the Ladies Memorial Association, (3) Courthouse and urban monuments commemorating those from a particular county; these were typically funded by local contributions and were oftentimes the responsibility of the UDC; courthouse monuments were located on the lawn of the courthouse square, while urban monuments were erected on main streets or in public parks, (4) large impressive monuments built on the grounds of state capitols of the South; these were frequently financed with individual contributions and state appropriations, and there were often more than one monument on the grounds.

The memorialization of Union and Confederate dead in places around the United States has not always been met with positivity. In 1890, Union and Confederate veterans came together at Appomattox, the site of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant, and jointly endorsed proposals for a national park and a national monument. By the 1930s, many Confederate sympathizers had abandoned the feelings of reconciliation, and thus they actively opposed any monument that combined the likeness of Lee and Grant. They argued that any such monument did not commemorate peace but “the subjugation of the South during Reconstruction.” As such, many of the monuments across the nation were either separated or their meanings fought over during the first tumultuous decades of the twentieth century.

The geography of Civil War memory is important in understanding the ways in which the meaning of the Civil War is interpreted. Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh argue that the placement of Civil War memorials help us to understand the “place” of certain groups and classes of Americans in society. The authors create a map that forms what historian Stuart McConnell called the “geography of Civil War Memory.” This geography occurs in the forms of: (1) processions, parades, and public ceremonies that act as theatrical public settings. These settings allow different social groups to portray their interpretations of Civil War memory. (2) The construction of Civil War monuments which have involved physical transformation of public space and the creation and manipulation of a visual public image and perception. (3) Political campaigns that have utilized the iconography of the Civil War to further their public image and perception. (4) Books that have acted as both physical and symbolic spaces for mapping out the contest historical and emotional terrain of the Civil War. As such, Fahs and Waugh demonstrate the complex nature of Civil War memory and its prevalence in our contemporary setting. Civil War memorials still litter the landscape of the United States, and their ever-changing meanings reflect the also-changing generational attitudes towards the Civil War.


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