At the center of Raleigh is the North Carolina Capitol building, in the midst of Capitol Square, surrounded by more than a dozen monuments to the memory of statesmen and soldiers. The most recent installation (1990) is the North Carolina Veterans Monument, while the tallest memorial is the monument erected “to our Confederate dead” in 1892, and the only monument referencing women is the 1914 statue honoring the North Carolina Women of the Confederacy. The Raleigh-Durham area has seen several intense protests against Confederate monuments over the past several years, resulting in the toppling of the Robert E. Lee and “Silent Sam” statues in Durham and Chapel Hill, but this past August the special “Confederate Monuments Study Committee” of the North Carolina Historical Commission voted that the Capitol monuments should stay in place, despite the request for removal from North Carolina governor Roy Cooper and the Committee’s own opinion that the statues are “an over-representation and over-memorialization of a difficult era in NC history.”
I would have to agree with that characterization, particularly of the Women of the Confederacy statue, which depicts a woman as a mother-historian, reading the heroic tales (I presume) of war to her sword-bearing son. The towering Confederate Dead statue nearby (which was very difficult to photograph) features anonymous soldiers and a rather simple message of honoring the dead, and so is perhaps not as confrontational as a statue of an individual and identified Civil War soldier, though there is also a monument to Henry Lawson Wyatt, purported to be the first Confederate soldier killed in action, on the Capitol grounds. In announcing its decision to let these statues stand, the state Commission called for additional interpretation, “to provide a balanced context and accounting of the monuments’ erection in their time in political history” as well as the erection of additional monuments honoring the contributions of North Carolina’s African-American citizens. I did not see such context, nor equal monumental representation, but we are less than a year out from this ruling and a long-term effort to establish an adjacent “Freedom Park,” designed by architect Phil Freelon, the leader of the design team for the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture, appears to have accelerated over the past year.
As I wandered around Capitol Square this past weekend looking at all of its installations with my historical and decidedly northern (even more decidedly Massachusetts) perspective, I had the most visceral reaction to a monument which wasn’t even mentioned in the recent debate over Confederate memorials in North Carolina: that dedicated to Samuel A’Court Ashe in 1940. Ashe obviously lived a full life and was revered by many in his native state, but all I could see when I read this plaque was heroic defender of Fort Wagner. Just a few weeks before I was wandering another hallowed ground, Salem’s Harmony Grove Cemetery, where I saw the graves of several men who served with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the first Civil War military unit comprised of African-American soldiers to be raised in the North. The soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th distinguished themselves during the assault on strategic Fort Wagner, which guarded the entrance to Charleston Harbor, at great cost, losing 281 men on July 18, 1863: 54 confirmed casualties (including commanding officer Robert Gould Shaw), 179 wounded, 48 simply lost, while the Confederate troops inside were reportedly “maddened and infuriated at the sight of Negro troops.” Their sacrifice confirmed their promise of hope and glory, in the words of Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, and was memorialized later by the Augustus Saint-Gaudens monument on Boston Common (1897), Robert Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead”, and the 1989 film Glory. Ashe, the defender of Fort Wagner, has much to say about the war and its commemoration, as his long post-war career was characterized by prolific writing (and Confederate commemoration advocacy) both as a newspaper editor and historian. In his History of North Carolina, he makes no mention of the Massachusetts 54th at Fort Wagner, but only of “the splendid heroism and devotion of the North Carolina troops”, and his “historical” analysis of the causes of the Civil War focuses almost exclusively on the policies of an “unpatriotic” Abraham Lincoln, whom he never refers to as President: it is not true, as Lincoln said, that without slavery there would have been no secession. It was the absence of the spirit of compromise on the part of Lincoln and his party that brought about secession in 1861….Secession would have been averted if Lincoln had copied the example of his patriotic predecessors. But he made his anti-slavery feeling his ‘paramount object’ instead of his desire to save the Union. He was revered as “that stainless leader of the Lost Cause” in the 1940 address given at the dedication of his monument. Frankly, I don’t want to read anything more about or by Mr. Ashe, and the next time I am in Raleigh I will give his memorial a very wide berth.