At the time of this review, Americans have defaced, reviled, and removed Confederate monuments. Confederate Civil War Memory—the Lost Cause—and its ties to white supremacy made these artifacts twenty-first-century targets of protests against racism and police brutality. Scholars have studied Civil War memory at length, but these two new books provide an extraordinarily valuable perspective on these objects at this unique juncture of history, memory, and current events. Maurantonio’s Confederate Exceptionalism examines contemporary manifestations of the Lost Cause, whereas Brown’s Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America assesses both United States and Confederate Civil War monument design in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Although valuable separately, together these studies provide insight into how distinct disciplines approach the same controversial issue.
Maurantonio focuses on one epicenter of current Civil War memory struggles—Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. She argues that Monument Avenue represents “a three-dimensional setting for the display of Confederate exceptionalism” (120). She explicates this description of the setting as “fusing elements of the Lost Cause ideology and American exceptionalism [that] nostalgically remembers ‘the South’ through an amalgam of embodied and textual practices that alternatively embrace and revise the Confederacy’s racial history” (2). Modern Confederates, rejecting the prominence of racism and slavery, remember instead a multicultural Confederacy; critical to their assertion are those black Americans who support the Lost Cause. Maurantino’s study has two great strengths. First, it demonstrates a mastery of the historical scholarship about Civil War memory that relates to her subject. Second, it brings the methods of communication analysis to “historical” questions that need fresh thinking; her chapter about “Confederate” cookbooks is a revelation. Notwithstanding the strength of Maurantino’s argument, it brings to mind Anderson’s notion of an “Imagined Community.”1 Readers might find this theory valuable as they contemplate the rendering of a Confederate nation that is completely imaginary.
Maurantonio looks at one group at one time, but Brown examines both Confederate and Union monuments to identify their common elements. After examining these artifacts from the Civil War era to the immediate post–World War I era, he contends that the evolution of monument design reflects the militarization of America. Brown's extraordinarily comprehensive analysis of these monuments includes a nuanced assessment of the artistic trends that shaped their design. As part of his assessment, he examines broader phases of memorialization, including the common-soldier monument, the general’s monument, and various other constructions, such as the arch erected in Brooklyn, New York. His richly illustrated volume allows readers to evaluate the commentaries that accompany the images of the artifacts. His assessments of these monuments include a discussion of the artists and their influences.
Although Brown’s book is an invaluable addition to Civil War studies and art history, its argument about American militarization is not totally convincing. The arch movement seems to have had little effect on Confederate monuments. Instead, the evolution in monument design may reflect those who approved these designs or veterans of the Civil War mourning their dead; elite northerners at the turn of the century could well have had their own agendas and artistic sensibilities. In fact, Brown finds evidence of Americans’ unease with war in the Civil War monuments designed after World War I.
This critique in no way detracts from Brown’s magnificent study. In fact, both studies are invaluable. Maurantonio examines a single phenomenon to see why it is exceptional. Brown examines disparate artifacts made by different people at different times to see what they might have in common. Despite their differences, both studies lend timely insights into an ongoing struggle about the legacy and memory of the American Civil War.
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York, 1983).