Special report: Confederate History in the Pine Belt

Published: Oct. 5, 2017 at 7:00 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 6, 2017 at 7:30 AM CDT
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PINE BELT (WDAM) - We've seen fierce debate over Confederate monuments across the South, and beyond. Some people want to tear them down. Some people revere them.

We're not getting into that argument in this story.

What we are doing, is taking some time to dig into the history, just the facts, to get some perspective and better understand how these monuments came to be.

A statue of a Confederate soldier has stood watch over downtown Laurel for over a hundred years. He has many brothers of stone in many other towns far and wide. They've been around longer than anyone can remember. Who built them, and when, and why?

For answers we turned to the history department at the University of Southern Mississippi, where professor Susannah Ural teaches courses on the Civil War era.

"The motivation is remembrance," Ural said. "The question is who is doing the remembering, and what do they want to remember."

She says about a century ago, around the 50th anniversary of the Civil War, Confederate monuments were being erected in many places, often thanks to the efforts of veterans groups and women's organizations.

"But you also have to remember in the North they were erecting monuments as well, where women are making sure monuments are going up these different communities," Ural said. "When I lived in Vermont, every little town has a monument to soldiers from Vermont. So this was very much a national movement."

The monument in Laurel is dated 1912, 47 years after the Civil War ended. It is inscribed to "the memory of our fallen heroes."

"The difference in the South is the way the memory is shaped, very much as what's referred to as the Lost Cause. It's this very noble kind of sacrificial fight against overwhelming forces. Often there's no mention of slavery at all. It's kind of the sacrifice of people who are in favor of small government as opposed to big government, these kinds of classical references. Often the monuments are very much to the soldier as opposed to any kind of major political leaders."

Professor Ural's former student Lisa Foster recently earned her master's degree in history. She's been researching the Confederate monument that stands in downtown Hattiesburg.

"It was erected October 12, 1910," Foster said. "It was put up by the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy."

The county did help them pay for it. They spent $3,600 to help them erect the monument.

"It was also the united Confederate veterans reunion here in Hattiesburg, so you have veterans come in from all over the state, probably some out of state too," said Foster.

The engraving reads "to the men and women of the Confederacy." But whom does that mean exactly?

"When you look at this county, which was Perry County in 1860, it wasn't a solid Confederate county," Foster said. "In fact the county didn't even vote to secede at the Mississippi secession convention. You had unionists, you had deserters. It doesn't include the slaves; there were 738 slaves in the county at the time. So who they're actually talking about when they say 'the men and women of the Confederacy' is a really complex question that needs to be asked."

The tranquility of these monuments is separated by half a century from the anguish of America's bloodiest conflict.

"What ends up happening is the years go by," Ural said. "The message very much softens, and people come together on this common memory of sacrifice and honor, as sometimes you see veterans do after wars, you know when you see American veterans going back to Vietnam and wanting to meet some of the guys they fought against. It's a fairly common thing, a romanticization of a war effort. History often is made far less complicated and often far rosier than it was.

"And I think one of the great things that's coming out of this monument discussion is people are really wanting to dig into the past, and wanting to have folks like me meet with current members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, students meeting with them and everybody kind of coming together to figure out: our history is absolutely fascinating, and these monuments don't always capture that."

Both Foster and Urul will be taking part in a discussion about Confederate monuments. It's coming up October 9 at 5:15 pm in USM's Liberal Arts Building.

It's sponsored by the Center for Human Rights at USM. Anyone is welcome to attend.

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