Ever since Nazis with tiki torches marched in Charlottesville, outraged over a college’s decision to remove a monument of Robert E. Lee, it’s routine now for me to get questions on my tours about the fate of Confederate monuments in Savannah. This being a picturesque southern town which in many respects still looks much the same as it did right before the Civil War, I’m not surprised people arrive here with this question on their minds. So, I’ll lay out all the facts for you right here as well as I can.
First, the short version: we have almost no Confederate monuments to be concerned about in this city. We really only have the one.
Now, it is one of the largest in the country and it’s bang in the middle of Forsyth Park, possibly the most popular recreational space in town. It sounds like we’re making up for lack of quantity, doesn’t it? There is something mysterious about our Confederate monument, though- almost everyone fails to notice it. I do not know why. Perhaps because it’s too tall? You can’t get close to it because of the fence? You can’t ever get a good picture because it’s always backlit? You also can’t get a good picture because the farther you step back to try and capture the whole thing the more trees are obstructing your view? It’s just not a very attractive or photogenic monument and everyone would rather take pictures of the gorgeous, iconic (and totally non-controversial) white fountain just yards away? Hell if I know. But even if it doesn’t announce its presence very well, does that mean we’re not obligated to re-assess its place in Savannah’s landscape?
To the credit of Savannah’s (often ineffective and controversy-shy) City Council, they actually took proactive steps to gauge local sentiment and decide if we should do anything at all. Before I get to the results of those surveys and meetings, let’s put our Confederate monument in context. First, here is what it looked like when first built.
One characteristic that differentiates our monument from so many others around the country that have already been removed is it’s authenticity. So many such statues were built in the early 20th century, a very intentional expression of white supremacy as Jim Crow laws stripped away the hard-fought progress African Americans had won for themselves during Reconstruction. The next wave of Confederate monument building occurred throughout the Civil Rights movement, again as a very deliberate white supremacist backlash against the rights African Americans were fighting hard to win for themselves.
But our statue here was built in 1875. That doesn’t make it ok, but that does make it a genuine artifact of the time period others only allege to represent. Reconstruction hadn’t even ended yet. What also sets our statue apart is it does not commemorate a person or battle or even the Confederate government. It’s not actually a monument, but a memorial to Savannah’s Confederate dead. There’s a large bronze plaque on its eastern face that reads “Blow from the four winds, o breath, and breathe upon these slain that they may live.” It’s genuinely poignant and a little bit eerie. The project was commissioned and the money raised by the Ladies Memorial Association. Just as it used to always be women who prepared dead loved ones for burial, it was a bunch of women who attempted to lay Savannah’s grief to rest. However, they still did so with characteristic southern white woman spleen. The pedestal was carved in Canada and sent down here by boat instead of rail because the Ladies Memorial Association did not want any part of the memorial to touch Yankee soil. Well… it was only ten years after the war after all.
Now, you may have noticed my picture of the monument and the old photograph of it look quite different. That’s because once the thing was all put together back in 1875, everyone found it just a little bit, um, tacky. (Southern white lady grief is very melodramatic.) So, they altered it. They removed both of the carved statues (which are quite nice on their own), closed up the lower alcove and topped the pedestal with a newly commissioned bronze figure, which I think was actually cast in New York. It was a guy who handled that transaction, Charles Coldcock Jones, Jr., if I remember correctly (I might not be). I guess he was less concerned than his female counterparts about besmirching the memorial with Yankee soil. The original statues are pictured below. I apologize for being unable to find better quality images. The figure which used to occupy the lower alcove is “Silence” and the one that used to be at the very top is “Judgement”.
Interesting that “Silence” and “Judgement” were the allegorical figures the Ladies Memorial Association found most appropriate to honor Savannah’s fallen soldiers. Would they be pleased with the loud hysteria of torch-waving Nazis? Would they find it distasteful? “Silence” and “Judgement” are calmly presiding over their respective cemeteries these days. “Silence” was moved to the part of Laural Grove Cemetery that contains Savannah soldiers who died at Gettysburg and “Judgement” is in Laural Hill Cemetery in Thomasville, GA. As for their replacement? The man atop the pedestal is no one in particular. He’s a nameless Confederate private, a tattered Everyman. Seems appropriate for a conflict that is often described as being “a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight”.
The memorial got another alteration in 1910. This bust of local Confederate Major General LaFayette McLaws was placed at its base on the north side, along with a matching bust of Colonel Francis Bartow on the south side. Both sculptures had originally been placed in Chippewa Square, but were removed to make way for the Oglethorpe monument in 1910. I guess it made sense to everyone at the time to cluster all the Confederate-themed stuff in one place, so off to Forsyth Park Bartow and McLaws went.
All that brings us up to the modern day. So, Nazis protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue and murdering people in Charlottesville led to nation-wide soul-searching about the old Confederacy and our current relationship to it. Savannah began it’s own introspection and realized, perhaps with some relief, that we hardly have any offending statues to fret about. We really love to avoid unpleasant conversations and difficult decisions in this city. But what to do about the one really big statue in Forsyth Park? The local news stations interviewed people, there were Letters to the Editor, etc. A few people getting reflexively defensive, a few people breathing fire in their enthusiasm to tear the thing down. But the reaction from most people was kind of a shrug, at least as far as I can tell. The City Council released an online survey to get some local input. The fact it was only accessible online makes me suspicious of its value in correctly representing Savannah’s demographics. Feels like a choice likely to bias the sample.
The result the City got was one that favored inaction, Savannah’s favorite kind of action. I was not surprised at all. The City still had plans to add some additional explanatory signage to the monument and they kicked around the idea of allowing McLaws and Bartow to join their Confederate brethren in Laural Grove Cemetery. Both men are buried there anyway. I thought it was a moderately satisfying option. All those plans got scuttled earlier this year, however, by the Georgia state legislature. They passed SB 77, which you can read here. TL;DR a bunch of good ‘ole boys got real nervous and felt the need to reassert their dominance over the narrative. Feels familiar. Everyone’s always gung-ho for “local control” until those localities indicate they might do something the legislature doesn’t like. We very nearly ended up with a statewide ban on plastic bag bans a few years ago because Tybee Island considered banning single-use plastic bags. The state legislature was going to prohibit a small seaside town from banning a type of litter that is particularly damaging to its local ecology. That was real micro-manage-y of them. Tybee City Council ended up not quite passing that ban anyway, but it was a revealing affair.
So, what now? We can’t (legally) do a whole lot at this point, even if we wanted to. What outcome would I have favored? I don’t personally feel one way or the other about our Confederate Memorial. It can stay or it can go. I feel absolutely sure that if someone were able to magic the whole thing out of the park silently in the dead of night, it would take days for most people to even notice. Again, it’s surprisingly easy to forget it’s there. The cost of total removal would have been steep, seeing as it’s so big. We can’t just throw a rope around it, pull it down, and truck it away in a pickup. I think it would have been appropriate to send McLaws and Bartow over to Laural Grove Cemetery. Some people get very huffy about any alterations and claim that’s “rewriting history,” but didn’t past Savannahians disrespect the monument’s original message when they moved the busts of those officers down there in the first place? We would just be putting things right and restoring the site to its original state.
Ideally, I would like to see the City work harder to promote Laurel Grove Cemetery to locals and visitors. It’s a far more appropriate and instructive memorial to the human cost of the Civil War, though it is often outshined by it’s more famous cousin, Bonaventure Cemetery. The City laid out Laural Grove in 1853. It is divided into two halves: white folks got buried in Laurel Grove North and black folks (slave and free) got buried in Laurel Grove South. Most of Savannah’s dead Confederates are in Laurel Grove North, the people they once owned buried nearby in the south section. The Cemetery contains white and black conscripted men, white men who joined up of their own volition, and the handful of free black Savannah men who volunteered for Confederate regiments (yes, there were a few). Laurel Grove is far more complex and representative a memorial than a single statue can ever be. Next time you visit Savannah, instead of letting your eye glance briefly over a monument that’s too tall and always backlit and thinking that’s the most we have to say about the Confederacy and the Old South, take a short drive over to Laurel Grove and let the dead tell you a more detailed story.