A reflection on Pittsboro’s Confederate monument from the lens of a Civil War historian

BY NILS SKUDRA, Guest Columnist
Posted 12/27/19

The recent removal of Chatham County’s Confederate monument in Pittsboro struck me profoundly since I had visited the monument on October 20, only a month before this took place.

As a passionate …

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A reflection on Pittsboro’s Confederate monument from the lens of a Civil War historian

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Posted

The recent removal of Chatham County’s Confederate monument in Pittsboro struck me profoundly since I had visited the monument on October 20, only a month before this took place.

As a passionate student of Civil War history, I have traveled to least 53 cities and towns in North Carolina and always endeavored to visit local Confederate monuments and cemeteries containing the graves of Confederate soldiers. I initially developed an interest in visiting Pittsboro when I first learned of its Confederate monument and the Chatham Historical Museum, but my family and I never managed to find the time to take a trip there due to my academic commitments as a graduate student at UNC-Greensboro. However, upon hearing the news that the Chatham County commissioners had voted in favor of removing the statue from its location in front of the Chatham County Courthouse (which houses the Historical Museum), I felt that I now had an urgent incentive to make a trip to Pittsboro and visit the statue in person before authorities removed it. Although the Chatham Historical Museum is normally closed on Sundays, volunteer Cindy Schmidt told me that she could give us a special tour if we came down on October 20, so we made plans with a family friend for a trip that day and promptly drove down to Pittsboro.

Upon arriving in town, I had the opportunity to see the Confederate statue firsthand. The monument featured a Confederate soldier standing erect at parade rest with the inscriptions “C.S.A. 1861-1865,” “To the Confederate Soldiers of Chatham County,” and “Our Confederate Heroes” on the front base of the pedestal. Other inscriptions were featured on each side of the monument, but I was unable to venture up close to read them since there was a metal-barred fence that authorities had placed around the statue, pending a final decision on the statue’s removal. However, I was able to see that there were other Confederate commemorative plaques inside the barrier, including a Jefferson Davis Highway marker.

Observing the statue in person resonated with me very strongly since I knew that it was facing impending removal from the courthouse grounds, and I felt satisfied at having been able to see it firsthand before Chatham County made a final decision on whether to remove the monument.

The experience of visiting Confederate monuments and historic Civil War sites has also been very profound for me because of my background as a transplanted Californian. Born and raised in California, I developed a keen interest in the Civil War from a very young age and began reading voraciously about the topic well ahead of other children in my age range. Having moved to North Carolina three years ago for graduate studies as a History MA student at UNCG, I have found that studying the Civil War takes on a very different nature here in the South since I feel that I’m actually living the history by traveling to historic landmarks such as Appomattox Courthouse, Bennett Place and Bentonville Battlefield and visiting Confederate statues on courthouse grounds or in local cemeteries where Confederates are buried. Because of this experience, together with my encounters with numerous individuals whose ancestors served in the Confederate Army, I recognize how strongly felt this issue is among people who oppose the removal of monuments, though I also can understand the perspective of those who find the monuments controversial and are in favor of relocating them to cemeteries where the statues would seem less likely to attract public protests.

I feel that Chatham County’s removal of the Confederate statue highlights the importance of providing historical context so that members of the public can be educated about their local history. While defenders of the monument have argued that it represents the heritage of Chatham County’s Confederate past, studies by historians on North Carolina’s wartime experience reveal a more nuanced reality: Although Chatham County contributed 2,000 men to the Confederate Army, among whom there were approximately 400 casualties, the county was also one of the centers of internal dissent in the Piedmont.

In his article “Desertion in the Confederate Army: A Disease That Crippled Dixie,” Daniel Franch of East Carolina University contends that in the Piedmont region, the Home Guard encountered “the most resistance from deserters” in Randolph, Moore and Chatham counties, with more than 800 deserters reportedly active in Randolph County. Given this historical background, one of the arguments raised by monument opponents is that Confederate statues represent the Lost Cause narrative of a unified South, effectively obscuring the Southern Unionists and anti-Confederate dissenters who resisted the Confederacy through desertion, fighting in the Union Army or sabotage on the home front.

Among the numerous historians who have commented on the monument debate is the eminent Civil War scholar Gary Gallagher, who has argued in favor of creating new monuments to those who fought for the Union cause while preserving Confederate monuments, citing Charlottesville, Virginia — which witnessed violent riots between white supremacists and left-wing demonstrators over the impending removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue two years ago — as an example.

“Should all [Confederate] monuments go, the opportunity to draw lessons from a valuable interpretive resource regarding Charlottesville’s connection to the Civil War and the conflict’s long-term resonance will disappear,” he states in Civil War Places: Seeing the Conflict Through the Eyes of Its Leading Historians. As an alternative to the removal of Confederate monuments, Gallagher encourages students of Civil War history “to imagine standing near the [Robert E. Lee] statue and seeing, across the small park, a memorial to the U.S. Colored Troops soldiers. What better way to engage with history and memory and the changing nature of historical landscapes?”

I concur wholeheartedly with this perspective since I believe that adding monuments to Southern Unionists and anti-Confederate dissenters would go a long way toward educating the public about how the Civil War was much more complex than a mere sectional conflict between North and South, as it pitted neighbors and even families against each other in areas that were internally divided. For North Carolina, this was especially true in the Union-controlled coastal counties, the Piedmont region and the mountain counties where bitter guerrilla conflict ensued between local Unionists, Confederate loyalists, and renegade bands of deserters that preyed on anyone in their path.

As Chatham County authorities determine what to do with the Confederate statue that they have removed, a careful examination of Chatham County’s Civil War history would be well-considered in light of the arguments raised by individuals on both sides that the public must be educated about history, however much they might differ in their interpretation of that history. If it is decided that the statue will be relocated to a local cemetery containing the graves of Confederate soldiers, it could still serve as a memorial to the dead in such a venue. If Chatham County decides to restore the monument to its original location, the addition of historical signage with information about Chatham County’s Civil War experience would be instructive in providing context. Through this approach, Chatham County authorities could protect the monument while at the same time ensuring that residents can learn more about the multifaceted nature of their local history.

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