Historian Karen Cox confronts Confederate monuments

HISTORY IN THE MAKING: Historian Karen Cox will discuss the history of Confederate monuments at Pack Library on Saturday, May 19. "Toward the end of the talk I'll discuss what historians and others have offered as potential resolutions," she says. Photo courtesy of Cox

When it comes to the discussion about Confederate monuments, historian and UNC Charlotte professor Karen Cox does not mince words: “Monuments are never about who they say they’re about; they’re always about the generation who put them there.” On Saturday, May 19, Cox will address this issue and other key aspects of the region’s history in her presentation, “Confederate Monuments in the Jim Crow South.” The gathering takes place in the Lord Auditorium at Pack Memorial Library.

The event is part of the library’s ongoing effort to foster an open dialogue about the divisive topic, says Zoe Rhine, the forum’s co-organizer and North Carolina Room staff member. She notes that Cox’s talk will be the second program addressing the matter this year. The first took place in February, led by UNC Chapel Hill department chair Fitzhugh Brundage (see “Pack Memorial Library hosts forum on Confederate monuments,” Feb. 1, Xpress). “As always, our goal is to provide information and to add to the overall picture of our community’s history,” says Rhine.

Jon Elliston, co-chair of the board of the Friends of the North Carolina Room at Pack Library, will introduce Cox at the event. Like Rhine, he views the upcoming talk as addressing an important local and national issue. “Our community, like many throughout the South and the nation, has been wracked with questions about how to deal with its monuments to the Confederacy,” he says. “As a center of local history, we took this topic on as one that resonates with our visitors and neighbors, hoping to add some insight to the discussion.”

The Lost Cause

Cox is the author of three books, including her 2003 award-winning work, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture. Founded in Nashville, Tenn. on Sept. 10, 1894, the United Daughters of the Confederacy established a broad agenda intent on commemorating and vindicating the South. The organization, Cox declares, was pivotal in changing the Confederate narrative from one of defeat to one of creating a generation of Lost Cause heroes (see “Asheville Archives: Reimagining the South,” May 16, Xpress).

Part of this was accomplished through Confederate monuments. Their prominent placements before courthouses and town squares, Cox argues, conveyed messages of dominance and white power. “Somehow, it’s all been sanitized,” she says. “People want to say the monuments are just about honoring men who fought and died.” If this were the case, Cox claims, then such dedications should never have gone beyond cemetery gates.

“People do not want to see the connection between the Jim Crow period and these monuments,” Cox continues. But dates are significant, as are numbers: She notes that the rise in monuments parallels the rise in lynchings.

Immediately after the war, between 1865 and 1890, fewer than 30 memorials were erected in the state of North Carolina. Between 1890 and 1930 that number skyrocketed to over 130. Around this same period, the South saw a spike in lynchings. According to the 1919 NAACP report, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, more than 3,000 people were hanged between 1889 and 1918. The overwhelming majority of these victims — 2,522 — were African-American (see “Asheville Archives: ‘A Growing Evil,’” May 15, Xpress).

Memorials and murders are often considered separate matters, says Cox. But the two coexisted and are emblematic of the same time period. “That’s why I’ve worked really hard in my more recent talk to make the connection very clear,” she explains.

A Catechism for the Children

On April 6, 1897 the Asheville Daily Citizen reported that roughly “200 ladies of Asheville … signed a call for the formation of a chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy[.]” The paper included excerpts from the organization’s constitution. Article II declared: “The objects of this association are educational, literary, social and benevolent; to collect and preserve the material for a truthful history of the war between the Confederate States and the United States of America[.]”

Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville
Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville

The North Carolina Room at Pack Library contains a large number of special collections, including items from the local chapter of the UDC. Within the collection is a pamphlet titled “A Catechism for the Children of the Confederacy of the North Carolina Division United Daughters of the Confederacy.” The undated document is believed to have been published in the 1930s. A slim leaflet, it totals eight pages and is designed as a series of questions and answers related to the causes and outcomes of “the War between the States.”

The pamphlet’s final two Q&As read as follows:

“80.Ques. Were the sufferings of the South ended by the surrender?
Ans. No; they suffered from poverty, negro rule, and military domination.

81.Ques. What organization was formed, to protect the whites from negro rule?
Ans. The Ku-Klux Klan, organized by Gen. N.B. Forrest.”

Examples such as this catechism point to the broader influence of the UDC. For Elliston, this is an important component of the ongoing conversation and a prominent point in Cox’s book, Dixie’s Daughters. “She gets to the root of it all,” he says. “Including how one of the UDC’s primary missions was indoctrinating the ‘living monuments’ — children who would carry on the message of the Lost Cause.”

Hungry for history

In addition to her books, Cox has written on the subject of Confederate monuments for a number of national media outlets, including CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Huffington Post. She considers these contributions an important aspect of the modern-day historian’s work. “The idea of the historian as a scholar-activist, you might say, is that we know the material better than anybody else,” she explains. “We can provide the context and understanding about topics. … It’s a way to offer a more informed narrative.”

Cox adds that her intention is not to single out or slam an individual culture. “I don’t give Northerns a pass,” she states. “They were as racist as the next person. … They turned their back on the issue of race, in terms of the way the South was handling it.”

When it comes to Confederate monuments, Cox believes all sides need to come to the table. She insists the country “has a moral responsibility to discuss it.” The issue, she emphasizes, is not about whether these monuments ought to be destroyed; the issue is whether they should be removed from prominent public locations. “These are spaces shared by everybody in the community,” she declares. “It’s offensive to some people.”

But in order to have a constructive conversation, Cox continues, community members must know their history. Too often, she states, the least-informed individuals are the loudest ones leading the debate. Fortunately, Cox says, people seem hungrier than ever to look into the country’s past. “There are a lot of people open to learning,” she says. “They don’t know the history, but they’re willing to hear it.”

WHAT: “Confederate Monuments in the Jim Crow South”

WHERE: Lord Auditorium at Pack Memorial Library, 67 Haywood St. avl.mx/4ji

WHEN: Saturday, May 19 at 2 p.m. Free


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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21 thoughts on “Historian Karen Cox confronts Confederate monuments

  1. boatrocker

    Funny, ain’t it?
    -Each wave of confederate loser of the war monuments correspond exactly with a resurgence in the KKK.
    Late 1880’s/early 1920’s/early 1960’s.

    -In order to nullify the ‘states’ rights’ argument, which was only used after the war… read on…
    yeah, it is a Wiki source drawn from CSA VP Stephens’ primary source ( a speech) and thus nope
    to ‘revisionism’ or ‘fake news’.

    -Funny how Goebbels, Hirohito, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Qadaffi strangely don’t have monuments nowadays.

    -Sure, big fan of monuments here. Just not for the losers or traitors to America.

    Cute the alternative facts based on online ‘research’..

  2. Stan Hawkins

    What seems to me to be the main point of this article is that once again, the true history of our country is under attack again. The “progressive whistle”has just blown.

    Extrapolating dates and periods to connect the “alleged” nefarious motives of the citizen’s representative government offials, of lets’ take Asheville for example, in the period depicted is very easy to do sitting behind some posh desk or speaking to some swanky event.

    To say, “these monuments are not about memorializing, perhaps our dead ancestors, and are about the evil “racist” thoughts going on in the minds of elected officials of Asheville ” (paraphrased) takes no more that five minutes of thought.

    On the other hand, what if:

    1. Our duly elected by (citizens) officials during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s did indeed want to honor our fallen ancestors?
    2. Our duly elected by (citizens) officials during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s did indeed have the best of intentions on their minds in providing leadership to coalesce a people moving forward to rebuild the south?
    3. Our economy in Asheville and other southern locales was so decimated during and for 25 after the war between the states, that it was only with an approved economy and the generosity of even northern friends that we were able to afford to allocate money to memorialize with monuments our fallen ancestors?

    You may be able to shoe horn your message in a back door way in text books and the like. But, as long as there is a citizenry with the right to vote out city and county elected officials, you are likely to find a not so warm response coming from “individual” free thinkers. Go sell that non-sense some where else, respectfully of course.

    • Thomas Calder

      Thanks for the comment Stan.

      You write: “as long as there is a citizenry with the right to vote out city and county elected officials, you are likely to find a not so warm response coming from ‘individual’ free thinkers.” I agree. The right to vote is paramount. But that’s where our country’s history gets complicated. Feel free to read some of our past articles on this subject. I’ve included links below.



      • Stan Hawkins

        Thanks; I will check out those links. My apologies also I noticed a few grammatical flubs in my spell checker from earlier.

      • Stan Hawkins


        You have referenced a history that all North Carolinians should know. This is why I believe it is important to leave our history in place so that future generations can draw from that knowledge.

        In your Cox article, a professed historian / activist (which is she), you reference that she draws a conclusion that the rise in racial tensions are directly connected to the increase in the construction of memorials in North Carolina.

        Unless I missed it, your article nor Cox gives no deference to the idea that many governmental officials firstly, were short of revenues for many of those same years that would enable the construction. Secondly, unless I missed it, Cox nor your words show deference to the idea that there may have been some elected officials that simply wanted to honor their city and county fallen ancestors. And finally, to invite a conclusion into the history books or to our debate with such narrow thinking that would cause a person not prone to verification, to conclude that the KKK and racist politicians erected those monuments is “a bridge too far.”

        That said, I concur that our state has a goodly amount of sordid history. There is no denying that. But, isn’t the reason we seek to learn from history, other than hopefully not repeating the mistakes, that we will know our past, where we come from, and whether we have overcome obstacles?

        We can pretend we live in a world where there are no documentaries, and where we delete or edit certain documentaries because certain people are offended. Does it really help the Black American to serve up a side of speculation to help them understand their history? That seems elitist and disrespectful to anyone interested in this topic.

        Who gets to make the call as to what is offensive? To hear about someone who calls themselves an “activist historian” should be a cause for alarm for those that believe in free independent individual thought. If the citizens of Buncombe want to take down lets’ say the Vance Memorial, then lets’ have ourselves a vote. I’m good either way.


        • Thomas Calder


          Thanks for the follow-up. Cox argues that you can’t isolate the rise in lynchings and rise in monuments. They both convey a message of power (which I will get back to).

          She addressed the financing of these monuments at her talk at Pack Library (something she and I did not directly discuss). The UDC raised funds. In some cases local municipalities pitched in, as well. The latter also donated many public spaces, where many of these monuments still stand today.

          This is one of the main points of Cox’s argument. If these monuments were meant to honor the dead, keep them in the cemeteries. By placing them in prominent public locations, you’re making a statement. That statement, paired with the steady rise and constant threat of being lynched, contributed to the power dynamic of the Jim Crow South.

          When you suggest people are trying to pretend history didn’t happen, I can’t help but think about the role of the UDC in the education of the post-Civil War generations, as well as the creation of the Lost Cause narrative. We have an article about this that will be available online tomorrow morning.

          Based on her presentation I can tell you Cox would agree with your statement that local communities need to decide on the fate of these monuments. But as she noted in her talk, the state of North Carolina forbids the removal of monuments from public property. In this way, no meaningful conversation can truly be had.

          Nevertheless, I do appreciate this conversation. I also appreciate you reading Xpress.

  3. Phillip Williams

    Mr. Calder, One of the things I have a question about in this campaign to purge the public landscape of questionable monuments is – Where does it stop? You say above that community monuments to the dead belong in graveyards, but they aren’t safe there – for instance – https://abcnews.go.com/US/confederate-monument-georgia-cemetery-damaged-police/story?id=51995333 and http://www.wkrn.com/news/photos-confederate-monument-vandalized-at-mt-olivet-cemetery/1077135110 and http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/counties/wake-county/article52846530.html

    Those are just three examples on the very first page of a google search. Here was a site in Maryland where a monument to dead NC troops was defaced – even though it was located on the historical site where the incident commemorated took place. http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article203707029.html

    And it hasn’t stopped with people or events related to the Confederacy or slavery – take this one in New York to President Theodore Roosevelt – the most progressive man to occupy the White House up to that time – and the first to invite a black man, Booker T. Washington, to dine there: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/26/arts/protesters-deface-roosevelt-statue-outside-natural-history-museum.html

    Or how about this one to President William McKinley in California – McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901, was a Union officer during the Civil War, but apparently has statue “offends” certain people: https://nypost.com/2018/04/04/the-statue-smashers-go-after-mckinley/

    Or that of Francis Scott Key in Baltimore – apparently because the seldom-sung third verse of the National Anthem contains the word “slave”: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-statue-20180115-story.html

    I could go on and on – Baltimore also removed a statue of US Chief Justice Roger B. Taney – Taney was neither a Confederate nor a slave owner (he inherited several and immediately manumitted them – providing pensions to those who were too elderly to work) – but he wrote the 7-2 majority decision in the Dred Scott case of 1857 – he was sitting as the US Chief Justice at his death in 1864 while the War still raged.

    A statue of Stephen Collins Foster was removed in Pittsburgh the other day – Foster was neither a slave owner nor a Confederate – nor even a Southerner – he was a songwriter from Pennsylvania who actually gave a voice to those who had none at the time and his songs conferred some humanity and dignity to the Southern blacks who inspired many of his songs.

    By removing everything that could possibly offend anyone and by making broad statements of opinion as fact, irresponsible politicians, journalists and modernist academics are condoning, empowering and validating vandals- and encouraging particularly spineless behavior by organizations all across the social spectrum – a good example is the Episcopal Church’s decision to remove a plaque in Brooklyn that marked where Robert E. Lee planted a tree when he was still a junior US Army officer stationed there in the 1840’s. That is just frankly carrying things to ridiculous degree.

    And yet these very people have the crust to suggest that folks like myself and Mr. Hawkins are “reading too much into things” – when they themselves are claiming to know the thoughts and motives of people who died before their grandparents were born.

    • Thomas Calder

      Defacement of public and private property is an issue that goes beyond monuments. If the question is how do we prevent vandalism, your guess is as good as mine.

      I don’t know enough about the local issues surrounding the decisions to remove the Taney or Foster statues to offer any thoughtful comment.

      Location and context is the driving force behind the movement to remove certain Confederate monuments.

      The thoughts and motives behind the erection of these Confederate monuments cannot be entirely known, I agree. Remarks offered by keynote speakers at the unveiling of these monuments, however, can offer us insight. Cox shared some of these in her talk. I plan to look further into these addresses on a later date.

      Thanks as always and please, call me Thomas.

      • Phillip Williams

        Thomas, as a lifelong student of history, I have watched the monument issue ever since the Confederate flag debate following the Charleston murders. I stated then that I didn’t see a problem in removing the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia from public buildings and civic spaces – I opined that it was only appropriate for historical displays. I don’t own a battle flag, nor do I display any representation of one on my person, vehicle or property. I remember being slightly amused and amazed at some of the activist comments at that time – demanding that the one on the SC State House property be lowered to half mast after the Charleston murders – suggesting that the honors and etiquette accorded to our National Flag be applied to a long-defunct battle flag.

        I also predicted then that it would not stop with removal of the flag – and it hasn’t. And I do attribute at least a part of the current vandalism to the irresponsible words of professors, journalists and politicians – some immature minds have taken this endorsement of “cultural cleansing” as license to do as they please – and it has happened repeatedly with little or no consequence to the vandals – even when they are caught in the act.

        Mr. Robbins mentions Nathan Bedford Forrest – but he, like just about everyone else, had a complex history – and his racial attitudes did evolve especially toward the end of his life – and he did distance himself from the KKK later on. Does this “redeem” him in the eyes of history? That I cannot say. But to remove every public vestige of his memory removes him from the visible historical conversation. And there were people who not only wanted to “dethrone” him by removing his statue, but also by digging up the remains of him and his wife and relocating them to a “less public” location. All at taxpayer expense, of course.

        Speaking as a Soldier, I would not go so far as to have even called Bedford Forrest a traitor – at least not in the traditionally accepted sense of the word. He was not a United States Soldier, Sailor, Marine or public servant prior to the War and as such, had sworn no oath of commission, enlistment or inauguration – he was a speculator, gambler and businessman – and enlisted along with many others in his State, to do what he perceived as his duty.

        It is interesting to note that the CSA would have been minus 4 States had President Lincoln not issued his call to arms – North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Arkansas were “on the fence” as it were – all with Unionist governors and a strong Unionist element in the population. Some people invariable throw up Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone Speech” as if the scrawny, sickly, bitter Stephens spoke for all Southerners.

        Here is an interesting tidbit that illustrates the complexity of the Civil War and its effect on Appalachia in particular – The gent in the picture, Mr. Ronald Putnam, former NC Veteran’s Service Officer in Asheville, NC, was approached a few years ago by a young lady seeking a government marker for her great-great grandfather’s grave. She said that he had served in the 2nd NC Cavalry Regiment, CSA – he was only 15 or 16 at the time – and became a Methodist minister after the War. Ron, a resourceful researcher, contacted the NC State Archives and asked them to search the Muster Rolls for a Samuel Sexton in the 2nd NC Cavalry. There was nobody by that name in the regiment. HOWEVER – the 2nd Mounted Infantry – United States Army – did have one Private Sam Sexton – a North Carolinian serving in a US regiment that was made up of Unionists mostly from Western NC and Eastern KY and TN.


        A bit of a surprise for the family to find that Grandad fit for the Yankees! And a further illustration of how very little modern people actually know or can claim to read the minds and hearts of people who died long ago – as the writer William Faulkner once observed “The past is a foreign country.”

    • Peter Robbins

      Looking for a limiting principle? Use an intellectually disciplined approach. List those Confederate statues, monuments, etc., that you think should be removed and identify the characteristics that make them , but not others, problematic. I’d start my list with the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest that was recently dethroned in Memphis. I don’t think many people would defend that one. Then we can empower local communities to adopt your criteria (or my criteria or their own criteria) to make decisions for themselves about what to keep, what to move and what to get rid of. Get the pencil-pushers in Raleigh off our backs. We can all join in a rebel yell for that.

      • Phillip Williams

        Intellectual discipline and “limiting principles” don’t seem to be major factors in the decision to vandalize something. It appears that the motivations vary. For some it is emotion, for some it is self-righteousness and “outrage” directed at people long dead and events long past. And in some it is just a desire to destroy or deface something – anything.

        • Peter Robbins

          So ask the library to invite a professor of vandalism history to address your issues. You’re getting a little off-topic.

  4. Phillip Williams

    One incident in particular that took place when this movement first started was the vandalism of the Peace Monument in Atlanta shortly after the Charlottesville, VA incident. The Peace Monument was erected in 1911 after a series of “friendly invasions” by former Confederates visiting the North and GAR veterans visiting the South, and the statue commemorated these reconciliation efforts, not any battle, or regiment or individual Soldier or leader. The statue depicts a Confederate Soldier being guided to lay down his rifle by an angel holding an olive branch…….Yet a mob full of self-righteousness and a desire to destroy things tried to topple it, spray painted it and broke it in places…..

    Professor Cox and her like-minded colleagues put me in mind of Mark Antony’s speech in “Julius Caesar” act 3 scene 2 – when the citizens of Rome are swayed by clever eloquence to go and hunt down the conspirators who murdered Caesar only moments after celebrating his death – coming across a poet named Cinna and learning his name is the same as one of the conspirators, they decide to kill him – and when he pleads “I am Cinna the Poet!” one of the mob yells “Tear him for his bad verses!”

    • Thomas Calder

      Did you attend Cox’s talk? She was very explicit that she was not arguing for the removal of all Confederate monuments. Nor was she advocating vandalism.

      Again, the issue of certain Confederate monuments is location and context. Cox’s talk included a Q&A. All sides had the opportunity to offer thoughts and raise questions. Many did. That was the point of the event: to converse.

      • Phillip Williams

        Unfortunately, Dr. Cox does not hold the only opinion or perspective on this issue – the viewpoints and ideas for solutions are as varied as on any other issue. There are plenty of more aggressive schools of thought – with some rather harsh and vehement rhetoric directed not only at the memorials and the people of the past, but at those who hold a different opinion than they do.

        A nationally prominent example was Mayor de Blasio’s “hit list” for statue removal in New York – and his formation of a rather sinister-sounding “committee” that would determine whether any statue, plaque or historical marker was “worthy” of remaining on public property.

        I was not able to attend Dr. Cox’s talk – last weekend I was TDY to Fort Leavenworth, KS which, ironically, sits right where some of the historical issues that brought about the Civil War came to a head. I have been stationed in Texas since the end of September, so it is difficult to justify a 1,600 mile trip to sit in on even the most informative or fascinating forum.

        • Thomas Calder

          Correct. There are many views on this matter and various ways of expressing these views. Some people offer free community talks, others form committees, some vote in laws that prohibit the removal of public monuments, others carry tiki torches. I appreciate the comments, Phillip. Have a good day.

          • Peter Robbins

            By the way, good story. Usually, advance stories in newspapers don’t say much, and this one was a refreshing exception.

  5. Phillip Williams

    Thomas, I disagree. If vandalism is of a specific type, done by specific groups, to specific monuments, then how does the issue of vandalism go “beyond” monuments?? Besides, there are plenty of recent examples of official removals of Confederate monuments from cemeteries – https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/21/us/confederate-monuments-cemeteries.html



    Some folks have even started in on removing Confederate monuments from battlefields like Gettysburg – the author of this particular article seems to thing that they “overwhelm” the battlefield there – kind of odd, that, being as how out of 1,328 monuments, markers and memorials at Gettysburg, less than 100 of them are Confederate, and a couple – including the Soldier’s National Monument (the oldest on the battlefield, erected in 1869) and the Masonic Friend to Friend Memorial (one of the newest, erected in 1994) depict or honor Soldiers on both sides.



    So, regardless of Dr. Cox’s opinion that monuments to the dead should be confined to cemeteries or the thoughts of some that battlefields are appropriate places, there are plenty of others who think that they don’t even have a place there with the battles or the dead they were erected to commemorate.

    So again, I ask you, where do you it will – or should – stop??

    • Thomas Calder

      Hello Phillip,

      Communities will have to decide. Conversations will have to take place. I don’t know what else to tell you. I can’t see into the future. I do agree with Cox: location and context matters. Obviously, others see it differently. And so it goes.

      Take care.

      • Phillip Williams

        Thomas – my apologies – in my last sentence I left out the word “think” – I didn’t intend to ask for a prediction, but only an opinion. My own point was that I fear that the removals, relocations, demolitions or vandalism has not stopped with monuments in civic spaces – nor has it stopped with monuments related to the Civil War or slavery – and I think that is a sad thing from an historical standpoint.

        Attention and conversations are already turning to burial grounds and battlefields – and as you believe the issue of vandalism goes beyond monuments, I believe that at very least graveyards/cemeteries and battlefields should be beyond the reach of community or governmental decisions.

        Anyway, this conversation has been beaten to death repeatedly for several years now – and folks will eventually do whatever they’re going to do, whether I like it or not. I very much enjoy your historical articles and always appreciate your civil conversation and well-thought-out responses and remarks. Thanks and have a safe, enjoyable Memorial Day.

      • Peter Robbins

        I agree with Thomas and Stan: let communities decide for themselves on the basis of consensus values. But they can’t do that in this state until (a) the General Assembly grants them that power and (b) they hold robust discussions where a hundred flowers — and even a few poisonous weeds — can bloom.

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