Election 2020 : What Matters | The Lost Cause Loses | Richard Schramm | curated by Billy Howard

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Shortly after the southern cause became the lost cause, the losers began erecting monuments to the nobility of their loss, festooning town squares with bronze statues—or zinc if they were on the cheap—honoring those sent to defend the southern way. In this case,the southern way was the right for a white person to hold a black person in human bondage, break apart their families, rape their women and children, and otherwise use them for every whim, including hanging them from trees as both punishment and entertainment to the masses.

These monuments, currently toppling across the south, were meant not only as a nod to nostalgia and the bravery of young southern men (sent to be splattered on battlefields for the glory of cotton picking,) but as sentinels to the supremacy of whiteness—standing erect on their stone bases like a big middle finger to anyone of color who might forget their place. Welcome to the south, brother.

Richard Schramm in his stylized portraits of these metal men focuses on the faces, weathered with age, and, ironically dark, a patina matching more the skin tone of the slaves they fought to own than the soldiers meant to be memorialized. Schramm invites us to look closely by producing his images in a desaturated palette that leaves nothing to distract from the expression.

The statues were an attempt, Schramm says, to reshape public memory, and indeed, more than a hundred and fifty years later, history-illiterate loggerheads spout off about heritage, conveniently forgetting the souls of slaves whose heritage is as much the south as their fallen clansmen, or perhaps klansmen. Heritage is a two-way street, but they never see it that way. Why not erect monuments to the more than 90,000 ex-slaves who fought for the Union? They were fighting to actually preserve the United States of America. Fourth of July, not Fort Sumpter. If heritage is the motivation, heroes of a different color, a color more suitable to that bronze patina, should be on those pedestals.

As southern towns begin the task of removing these icons of a lost and traitorous cause from their public squares, Schramm declares: “The Lost Cause is losing. And so is its bronze army.” May they all become the stuff of textbooks, memories, and Schramm’s unblinking portraits, and may a more noble cause replace them. -Billy Howard

 

Tarboro, NC., 1904

 

On October 29, 1904, approximately 2,000 people gathered in Tarboro, a riverport and the seat of Edgecombe County in eastern North Carolina, to celebrate the unveiling of the county’s memorial to its sons who served in the Confederate army.  According to a contemporary newspaper report, the crowd represented every section of the county.  It included about 120 veterans who, along with distinguished guests and around 250 school children, marched in procession from the courthouse to the town commons where the memorial stood, veiled, awaiting a dramatic reveal.  The audience sang hymns and prayed under the direction of local clergymen.  Finally, “pretty piquant little Katherine Wimberly Bourne and Master William Dorsey Pender, Jr.” pulled the cord that “rent” the veil “in twain” as the Edgecombe Guards fired salutes and a band broke into “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.”  Speeches ensued, followed by a benediction delivered by a “true and faithful adherent of the Lost Cause.”  In the climax “’Dixie’ . . .  stirred the audience to enthusiasm.”  The celebrants then dispersed, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that “Edgecombe . . . had at last, in enduring granite, and everlasting bronze, told the generations to come that this county is proud of her sons.”

The Edgecombe memorial still stands, but today it is reasonable to ask a question that just a short time ago would have been unthinkable:  When will it come down?

Be they imposing tributes to renowned generals or more humble memorials to anonymous infantrymen, Confederate monuments are falling.  Brought down by work crews operating under official sanction or by demonstrators fired by outrage, they are disappearing with astonishing and welcome swiftness.  In one rural North Carolina county, commissioners voted in an evening meeting to remove a Confederate monument in front of their courthouse.  It was gone before sunrise.

In celebrations like the one in Tarboro, veils fell from hundreds of Confederate memorials across the South.  When they did, audiences saw in the confident faces of the soldiers on their pedestals testimony to the rightness of the Confederate cause.  They also found reassurance that the values of that cause would forever prevail in the South.  Today, we look at these statues with a completely different sensibility.  We know that the values of the Confederacy did not endure, and we also know that the statues themselves will not as well.  How does that knowledge shape our perception of them?  What do we see in those bronze faces?  With these images, which are part of an ongoing project, I offer my answer to those questions.

Between roughly 1880 and 1920 memorials like the one in Tarboro were erected on village greens and courthouse squares throughout the South and the North.  Known as common soldier monuments, they typically consist of a pedestal surmounted by a standard, catalogue-ordered figure of an infantryman at parade rest, the butt of his rifle planted between his boots, his hands clutching the barrel at chest level.  Conceived as a universal American type, he is, of course, white.  Perhaps as a nod to the living veterans who would have seen the statues, the figures are generally not of young soldiers but rather older men who, when the bronze was tawny and smooth, must have appeared to be in their prime.  Viewers may be struck by the extent to which the statues look alike.  This similarity is, in part, a function of economics—foundries could churn out standard models cheaply—but it was also the deliberate choice of monument sponsors. According to art historian Kirk Savage, locals wanted to suggest that their hometown hero participated in the larger, collective fight for their cause.  Monument builders, North and South, enlisted their soldiers in bronze battalions.

Both Union and Confederate monuments honored veterans living and dead, but in the South the memorials did additional work.  Largely through their domination of civic space, they signaled that the antebellum white supremacist elite, dethroned by the Civil War and Reconstruction, was back in political and cultural control.  The old masters accomplished their political restoration by terrorizing and disenfranchising the formerly enslaved and by essentially reimposing slavery through the passage of Black codes.  They frightened whites to their side by raising the specter of what one Southern newspaper called the “vampire” of “Negro rule.”  Culturally, they prevailed through a relentless effort to reshape public memory according to the ideology of the Lost Cause.  This rewriting of history touched on everything from the superiority of Confederate generals to the saintliness of Southern women, but at its heart was the assertion that the Civil War was a conflict over sovereignty and independence, not slavery.  And in any event, Lost Cause adherents argued, slavery, as practiced in the South, was not the horror described by abolitionists but rather a benign institution that civilized the enslaved but not so much that they could be afforded their full rights as citizens and their full dignity as human beings.

As the description of the Edgecombe ceremony illustrates, Confederate apologists set their monuments squarely in the context of the Lost Cause.  In effect, the memorials reinforced outdoors what was being taught, preached, published, and legislated indoors.  Critics, chief among them Black journalists, raised objections, but the Lost Cause won.  Well into the twentieth century, in the South and beyond, it was the accepted version of the Civil War and Reconstruction and provided moonlight that obscured the brutality of Jim Crow.

Now, however, the South has changed.  It is vastly more complex and diverse than it was when the Confederate monuments went up.  They can no longer be said to represent its values and thus can no longer justify their claim to the cultural high ground, if they ever legitimately could.  Historical awareness is replacing nostalgia, and Americans are attacking racism with renewed passion.  The Lost Cause is losing.  And so is its bronze army.

Because of their standardized design, common soldier statues have received little critical attention.  Even in the South, where their fate is hotly debated, no one is citing their artistry as a reason to retain or remove them.  Yet as the statues that stood atop Confederate monuments get carted off to undisclosed locations, the moment has arrived to look closely at them, fully aware of the role they played in promoting white supremacy.  Decades of sun, rain, wind, snow, and ice have pitted and discolored their “everlasting bronze.”  And while their granite pedestals have endured, the cultural foundations that undergird them have eroded.  Visually and symbolically they are not the same statues that Southerners prayed over at celebrations like the one in Tarboro.  The South’s resolute defenders, once vigilant against invaders, have weathered into old soldiers, haunted by the prospect of their final defeat.

BIO:

Richard Schramm has been taking pictures for forty years, but until his retirement he was unable to devote his full attention to photography.  Now he is able to put his eye to a viewfinder nearly every day, and with the help of courses at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies he has framed some interesting shots.  In 2018 The Oxford American published a portfolio of his work in its “Eyes on the South” series, and in 2019 South X Southeast Photomagazine featured a collection of his images.  His photos have been selected for inclusion in the South Carolina Picture Project and have appeared in exhibitions at the Frank Community Gallery in Chapel Hill, NC; the South x Southeast Gallery in Molena, GA; the Southeast Center for Photography in Greenville, SC; the Praxis Gallery in Minneapolis, MN; the Dickerman Gallery in San Francisco, CA, and the Glasgow Museum of Photography in Scotland.

For my portfolio on Confederate monuments I used a Nikon D-70, practically an antique, fitted with a Nikon AF-S 70-300mm lens.

  1. Paul Bernish
    | Reply

    A wonderfully revealing historical analysis. One might hope for the time when this lesson is taught in schools.

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