This is from an upcoming book project I’m working on. It seemed the right time to excerpt it here.
Although America’s Civil War battlefields are wracked with memorials, few of us take the time to notice the dates that are actually on them. Pay close attention, and you’ll suddenly realize that although the war ended in 1865, only a handful of statues went up in the 1870s and 1880s.
The first major Confederate monument, of Stonewall in Richmond, wasn’t even American in origin. It was spearheaded by an Englishman, executed by an English sculptor, and went up in 1875 with a KKK-organized opening ceremony that didn’t so much as invite the Virginia legislature because it was integrated at the time and the benefactors didn’t want black people there. Construction of most Civil War memorials actually didn’t mushroom until later, thirty years after the last bullet, when the war had calcified into legend and an incredible group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy, or the UDC, arrived to spin that legend into a new definition.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy was founded in 1894 by a young generation of motivated Southern socialites bent on rehabilitating the reputation of their depressed and war-crushed parents. To call these women determined would be patronizing to both their breeding and their brains.
Put simply, the United Daughters of the Confederacy — allegedly powerless, allegedly on the losing side of a bitter war, allegedly merely female — directed the most powerful public relations movement that America has known.
Confederate memorials at battlefields. Confederate names on American street signs. The lone Confederate stone soldier brandishing his gun on prestigious real estate in front of nearly every small town courthouse in the Southeast. They were all UDC projects. You’ve seen plenty of the UDC’s work—there thousands of examples across the landscape—but you probably didn’t read the legends close enough to realize it all originated with them.
The women’s groups’ most salient work was in partisan memorials. Their postcard-ready monuments converted many an ignored field into a shrine of pious pilgrimage. Although UDC chapters often rose from some of the country’s most impoverished districts, they made sure the Lost Cause counterpoint was articulated in the biggest, if not several of the biggest, monuments on the landscape at the nation’s most important historical tourism sites. Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, the Confederate capital of Richmond, and Petersburg were given close attention because of their fame, but all you need to do is you name a Civil War tourist site and you’ll find the UDC canvassed it for top prominence.
The women of the UDC charmed or cajoled funds out of neighbors and politicians alike, and if they found resistance at any level, they would shame their opponents in the local press. “Surely the finger of scorn will not be pointed at Oconee [County] any more,” scolded Marye R. Shelor in her appeal for donations in one South Carolina paper. “It is the only county where the women have not banded together to preserve the history and care for the soldiers… Ask her to do as your father did—offer yourself to your country.” Having a UDC chapter in your town was like living next door to Patty Simcox from Grease. If high society in one county erected a shaft, their jealous sisters in the next county demanded to follow.
The UDC gave its members the handbooks they needed to duplicate approved propaganda in their own communities. Memorials could be ordered from a catalog supplied by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. If your town didn’t have much money, you could order a mass-produced one and the well-placed ladies of the association would charm and hector the appropriate civic leaders until it was installed in a conspicuous location — not in the cemetery where memorials to the dead usually belong, but in public squares where children were likely to see it on the way to school. In Greenville, South Carolina, the stone soldier of one half-hidden memorial was literally held ransom in a nearby barn until the state Supreme Court was pressured into decreeing his roost should be somewhere more prominent. The UDC’s approved sculptors consisted mostly of European-born artists who cared less about causes than commissions, such as Germans Rudolf Schwarz and Frank Teich, and Italian Pompeo Coppini, who openly criticized anything mass-produced. He complained that Confederate societies too often tossed up poor workmanship under the cover of sanctity: “It is easy to influence small communities to give parks or other utilitarian projects for memorials, as the small masses are not educated to art appreciation,” he sniffed.
The UDC’s highest-ranking members were the high-born wives and daughters of the South’s most established men — in typical society style, they referred to each other by their husbands’ names, a not-so-subtle reminder of each member’s connections to local wealth and power. Lacking the ability to vote themselves, the women threw their weight into influence and lobbying. There was nothing unseemly in it. “Honoring soldiers” fell within the bounds of their paternally ascribed role as caretakers of men and children.
This is what the UDC wanted everyone to believe:
Southerners once lived in a harmonious and functional society of whites and blacks working together and they believed in the Constitution as the Founding Fathers wrote it. They died for those principles when the North tried to force them to do things that weren’t in that Constitution. The battle was not directly about slavery but a battle to maintain a state’s rights to preserve its own economic system.
If you’ve heard this capsule ideology before, it’s because the UDC, and a few lesser groups, so brilliantly fused it to the national narrative, erecting it in civic spaces and weaving it into textbooks, that now even astute historians have given it berth. The Daughters’ principles are now known as “The Lost Cause.”
Their re-education drive was as total as Sherman’s War. The UDC brandished wistfulness like a weapon. The ladies held essay contests, fiddling contests, bake sales, concerts, barbecues, rummage sales, and penny drives. The group funded scholarships homes for the Confederate aged, too, but the heart of its mandate was generativity, to inculcate the next generation with the glories of the Old South, so they targeted kids as their most important audience. Through local chapters and neighbor-on-neighbor pressure, it convinced teachers to read only from UDC-approved textbooks that published “true history” (its phrase), and it persuaded school boards to ban books that implied Confederates had erred. They hung portraits of Robert E. Lee to lord over classrooms from Florida to New England.
The UDC always orchestrated unveilings to be the social highlight of the year, if not the decade. Balls were thrown, school was cancelled, Main Streets were draped in red and white bunting, parades were mounted, and one lucky child was selected, with much anticipation and fanfare, to pull the cord that dropped the sheet on the
The UDC invariably mustered young children to lead ceremonies. One UDC motif at countless festivities was the use of thirteen girls, each proudly wearing a sash representing a Confederate state. One unveiling in New Orleans featured a “living” Confederate flag composed of 576 pupils dressed in red and white; and there’s an archive image from Richmond, Virginia, that depicts a throng of very young schoolchildren laboriously dragging a heavy cart carrying a finished statue of Jefferson Davis, looking like a workhouse’s worth of toiling orphans from a bus-and-truck production of Oliver!.
Their poetic rants and abstract vocabulary coalesced against an unspecified danger. They used heightened words of pseudo-heroism— valor, honor, principles, and glory — that noticeably never specified the details of what their team was fighting about. And yet, they passionately believed in the cause of whatever apparently needed to be done, and that the bloodletting was totally worth it.
Few Northerners had the nerve to deride the UDC’s professed mourning— the country had seen enough conflict and was on to conquering the seas — so these activist women were able to steam along unchallenged as long as they laced their insurrectionist teachings with sweet words, carving thoughts in stone to make them seem definite, riding into the history books on a Trojan horse of honor.
The UDC used a Nashville booster newspaper called The Confederate Veteran as its de facto house organ to broadcast and chronicle its assorted drives, folklore, dedications, and condemnations. Members saw it as the perfect place to publish memories that would otherwise be lost to time, which makes it a bonanza, sometimes embarrassingly so, for researchers in Southern history. Annual volumes could top 600 pages of sparingly illustrated fine print. The advertisements contained pitches for temperance products, battle flag pins, and far more damning mail-aways. For many months, this eye-catcher was among its regularly appearing classifieds:
“KU KLUX KLAN.
This booklet, published by the Mississippi Division, U.D.C., to be sold and all proceeds to go to erection of monument at Beauvoir, Miss. (home of Jefferson Davis), to the memory of Confederate Veterans, contains absolutely correct history of the origin of this famous Klan. Price, per copy, 30 cents, postpaid.”
In an article in the December 1910 issue, Mrs. S. E. F. Rose, the division president who published the booklet, boasted that the Veteran had already helped sell the volume in 33 states and China. She also furnished a version of her Klan history that was “in suitable form for school study.” The sales funded a monument arch in Biloxi that was consecrated in 1917. (Her memorial was torn to pieces by Hurricane Katrina, but Mississippians painstakingly reassembled it. You can still go see it. To this day, Harrison County promotes an annual Confederate Memorial Day there. Bring wreaths and a potluck lunch.)
My favorite figure from the UDC, and there were many colorful crusaders, was Mildred Lewis Rutherford, the erstwhile school principal from Athens, Georgia who wrote the impassioned pamphlet defending Captain Henry Wirz of Ft. Sumpter. “Miss Millie,” as she was called, was 10 when the war broke out, and she spent the rest of her life re-living it. Miss Millie was revered throughout Dixie for her scrapbooking skills, and well into World War I, she indulged a queer penchant for wearing the 1850s hoop skirts of a Southern belle. Her mother had run an LMA, the less radical precursor to the UDC. When she died, Mildred took that over and also jumped into the UDC with an intimidating intensity, becoming historian-for-life of the Georgia Division of the group, and prodigiously delivering both speeches and new manuscripts wherever she went.
She was a prolific thinker, building a successful career writing UDC-approved school textbooks such as The South in History and Literature, a reader making a not-altogether-unreasonable case for the strength of Southern writers, plus ample detours into the political inculcation of Southern children: “This is the story: The South never violated the Constitution, That instrument conceded to each State the right to conduct its own affairs. The Constitution was violated by the North, as the many amendments necessary after the war proved.”
By 1911, Miss Millie was appointed the Historian General of the entire UDC for half a decade. Activism was one of the only ways a respectable woman such as Miss Millie could flex political muscles. In fact, many LMA (Ladies Memorial Association) and UDC members were stridently progressive when it came to gender roles. Rutherford was one of the few UDC members not to go by “Mrs.” followed by a husband’s name (she never married). She believed female students should be permitted to achieve the same educational goal as males, yet at the same time she lobbied against suffrage for women. Why should she need to vote when she already had the power to change the landscape wherever she wished?
In 1918, Miss Millie made the papers when she was thrown off a train for carrying excess baggage. It seems she was trying to force the railroad’s African-American porters to lift her trunks full of 70 400-page scrapbook volumes of white, pro-slavery Southern history.
As with much of the UDC’s teachings, Miss Millie’s impoverished logic scored high with schoolchildren and at historical tourism sites where visitors learned about the Civil War for the first time. One of Mrs. Rutherford’s most ethically acrobatic speeches was delivered at the UDC national convention in Dallas in 1916, in which she assured her adoring public: “What progress has the negro made in those fifty years? He has as a race, note that I say as a race, become disorderly, idle, vicious and diseased… There is no doubt that the negro finds his truest friends in the South, and that, too, with no social equality ideas to upset him.” Miss Millie was a maiden aunt with venom in her heart.
In time, the UDC’s commentary was taken as documentary. The perfidious arguments of Miss Millie and countless like hers caught fire, and not just in the South. In 1906, a T.H. Mann of Norwich, Connecticut wrote a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Georgian: “The best thing for the negro as well as the white man is that the relative inferiority of the negro man should be recognized definitely and clearly in every relation of life,” wrote the flatteringly named Mann, proving for the millionth time that our passions as patriots too often trample our feelings as humans. His sentiments were not unique among his fellow Northerners.
On May 20, 1895, Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell delivered the dedication speech of the Confederate Monument in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“The accepted history of the late war, like the previous history of the United States, has been written by Northern men, and a Southerner, reading it, cannot help recalling what Fronde said about history generally: namely, that it seemed to him ‘like a child’s box of letters with which we can spell any word we please. We have only to select such letters as we want, arrange them as we like, and say nothing about those which do not suit our purpose.”
His complaint was an early analog to the modern lament of the “lamestream media,” and it confirms that the proponents of the Lost Cause depended on the establishment of a separate network for their memorialization. Not a minute later, Waddell followed his North-baiting with this weightless protest: “Let no man say that in discharging this duty I am digging up sectionalism. I utterly disdain any such desire or intention, and I could not if I would, for they are things now buried.” As you can see, it was a masterpiece of plausible doubletalk that allowed divisive ideas to fly under the radar, and it was typical of UDC doctrine.
Nearly every UDC monument was carefully inscribed with classical tropes and honor keywords so as not to arouse the ire of federalist busybody censors while still notifying Southern sympathizers that they weren’t alone in their simmering resentment. By hiding their platform behind the language of exaltation, they perfected a form of defensible legalese that partisans still employ on TV news talk shows today.
In Appomattox, Virginia, the site of the Confederacy’s Waterloo, more suspiciously phrased glory:
“Here on Sunday April, 9, 1865
after four years of heroic struggle
in defense of principles believed fundamental
to the existence of our government
Lee surrendered 9,000 men the remnant
of an army still unconquered in spirit
to 118,000 men under Grant.”
“Still unconquered” was a bald signal of unbowed anger, and it came attached to a few more digs justifying the slaughter and dooming America.
In other words, says the monument placed virtually in the shadow of the surrender site, the Confederacy was right to kill and they’d do it again. The UDC’s handiwork wasn’t so much an epitaph or an apology as it was a coded temper tantrum in metal.
In Monticello, Florida, their veiled poetry is a classic case of saying one thing and meaning another, painting images that suggested that everyone at Shiloh had stopped to admire how snazzy the boys looked as the Minié balls tore through them. The plaque on the Confederate memorial there tells you much of what you need to know about the United Daughters’ objectives—and the image rehabilitation they orchestrated, with almost unparalleled success, in American history.