Reflections on the Confederate Memorial at Oak Woods
The conversation started in the wake of the Charleston church shooting in June 2015, and got louder after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville Virginia, exploded with violence on August 12, 2017. After Heather Heyer was fatally injured when white supremacist James Alex Field, Jr., deliberately rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, it seemed like everyone was talking about the hundreds, nay thousands, of Confederate monuments and memorials across the country and whether it made sense to remove them.
I didn’t feel part of the conversation, nor did I want to be. The issues involved in it – slavery and its legacy and a Civil War that had morphed into a cultural one — had nothing to do with me.
My father’s parents were Polish immigrants who came to the United States shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. They weren’t here when white Americans were enslaving black ones. They didn’t start or fight the Civil War. If anything, they were seeking to escape the ancient stain of slavery by coming here – the word “slave” is derived from the ethnonym “Slav,” the name for the people of Eastern Europe who were captured and forced into servitude by Spanish Muslims during the ninth century. I was descended from people who were slaves. What to do with Confederate monuments was something the descendents of American slaves and their slavers had to deal with, not me.
Things might have remained there, if I had left it to others to fill in the blanks in my family tree.
In the wee hours of April 8, 1862, a Confederate solider named Henry C. Brigance was captured by Union troops during the Battle of Island Number Ten. Overshadowed by better-known Civil War engagements, the battle was fought for control of the middle Mississippi River valley: Confederate troops under Major General John P. McCown occupied a heavily fortified garrison on No. 10, a one-mile-long sandbar at the base of a double turn in the Mississippi and the tenth island in the river south of its junction with the Ohio. Coming under heavy bombardment, the garrison surrendered after Union gunboats cut off its escape route to the south. Among the thousands of prisoners taken by the victorious Union was Brigance, a thirty-seven-year-old farmer and a private in the Fifty-Fifth Tennessee Infantry Regiment.
Henry was my maternal great-great grandfather.
My Polish Catholic father met my mother, a farmer’s daughter and Scotch-Irish Protestant, while serving at a military base near Kennett, Missouri. They married and moved to Detroit, where I was born, and eventually settled in Pittsburgh. Perhaps because I grew up in the North, I never thought much about my mother’s family roots. After college, a job lured me to Alabama where I tried to ingratiate myself with a colleague by telling him my mother was “from the South.” He politely asked where. Like Mattie Ross in True Grit, my mother proudly hailed from Yell County, Arkansas, but I didn’t tell him that. Instead, I said, “Missouri,” where my parents met, a state no Alabamian worth his spit would consider part of the South. My colleague furrowed his brow and looked at me like I was a completely unregenerate Yankee fool.
Following his capture, my great-great grandfather was taken up river to Cairo, Illinois, and by train to Camp Douglas, a prisoner-of-war camp named for Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, the man Lincoln famously debated and defeated in the 1860 election. Although the camp was named for Douglas, who had lived nearby, other property owners provided most of the land.
Located on the south side of Chicago, Camp Douglas had been hastily constructed to serve as a reception and training center for Union recruits but was soon converted to a POW camp to accommodate the swell of prisoners from battlegrounds in the South. As noted by David L. Keller, managing director of the Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation and author of an excellent history of the camp , Douglas was poorly situated. Built on wet, swampy land close to Lake Michigan, it lacked adequate drainage and proper sanitation. It also was subject to severe weather sweeping in from the lake. When the first prisoners from Island Ten arrived, many of them wearing threadbare clothes and bearing weakened constitutions, they were ill-prepared for what awaited them. Approximately one in six would succumb to exposure, dysentery, smallpox, and other diseases.
Henry C. Brigance was admitted to the prison hospital on April 18, 1862, with pneumonia, an opportunistic disease in an era before the advent of antibiotics. He was released from the hospital on May 7, 1862, only to return three days later. Henry remained in the camp hospital through June 9, and was released briefly before being readmitted for a final time on June 28. On July 13, 1862, Pvt. Henry Brigance joined the ranks of the dead.
Most of the Confederate dead at Camp Douglas were interred in a potter’s field in the City Cemetery located at the southern tip of present-day Lincoln Park. Buried close to the surface in swampy soil, some were swept into Lake Michigan by the tides. Others were dug up by grave robbers and sold to medical schools.
After the Civil War, Confederate dead were exhumed and re-interred in a mass grave at Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery. The area is known today as the Confederate Mound, and is marked by a statue of a rebel soldier standing atop a thirty-foot granite column. Beneath his feet, bronze markers list the names of 4,243 Confederate soldiers, including Henry’s, believed to be buried there.
Oak Woods Cemetery is located in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Grand Crossing, and the Confederate Monument towers over the grave site of the Chicagoan suffragist and anti-lynching activist Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, a former slave. Olympic hero Jesse Owens and Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, also rest nearby. The national Make It Right Project and the Chicago chapters of Black Lives Matter and Smash White Supremacy have spearheaded efforts to remove the statue. Opponents of the monument consider it an affront to the neighborhood and the African-Americans buried at Oak Woods, an insult renewed every April by men in gray battle uniforms carrying Confederate flags in an annual memorial service for the Confederate dead.
Not to be outdone by critics of the Confederate Monument, some members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans have demanded removal of an abolitionist monument located within shouting distance of the Confederate Mound. Known as the “Ugly Rock” by its detractors, the monument, a black, granite cenotaph, is inscribed to “those unknown heroic men, once resident in the Southern states, martyrs for human freedom, who at the breaking out of the civil war refused to be traitors . . . and stood alone among ruthless enemies” (emphases added), fighting against slavery and disunion. For the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, the inscription on the cenotaph is Yankee salt in the still-festering Southern wound.
The Confederate Monument went up in 1893 during a period that witnessed the frenzied construction of Confederate memorials across the country and the passage of so-called “Jim Crow” laws designed to enforce racial segregation in the era after Reconstruction. Formally dedicated on May 30,1895, the monument was the brainchild of John C. Underwood, a civil engineer, Confederate veteran and the 21st lieutenant governor of Kentucky. Underwood designed the monument and raised funds to construct it. Writing in his foreword to the 1892 “Roster of Confederate Death Buried in Oakwoods (sic) Cemetery,” a pamphlet published to bolster support for the memorial, Underwood made his purpose clear:
To die at any time is the hardest service a soldier can render to his people, but to die in a prison hospital far away from family and friends and be buried beneath soil away from home and in a then adverse section, is the giving of life for the “lost cause” . . . [I]s it then not a noble charity from all, and a sectional duty from comrades and Southern people generally, to contribute as they can afford – to monument American valor and mark the hero remains of those who, almost unknown, in a hostile prison camp, ended their service to the cause in the grave?
The monument was intended to commemorate military service in the “lost cause” of Southern resistance.
“The lost cause” first appeared in a book published the year after the Civil War ended. Written by Edward Pollard, a noncombatant but Confederate sympathizer, The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates was a bugle cry for a new narrative of the war, one that reinterpreted, re-imagined, and retold it from a Southern perspective. As Stephen Vincent Benet described it in his epic poem, “John Brown’s Body,” the war wasn’t about “slavery/that stale red-herring of Yankee knavery/Nor even state’s rights, at least not solely/But something so dim that it must be holy . . .” The legend of the Lost Cause offered a misty-eyed, sentimentalized and quasi-religious view of the war, redefining secession as a reaction to “Northern Aggression” against the Southern way of life.
Thanks to books and movies like The Birth of a Nation (1915), Gone with the Wind (book 1936, film 1939), Song of the South (1946), and Gods and Generals (1998, 2003), and, yes, even history texts, Lost Cause mythology took root. History, they say, is written by the victors, but, as sociologist and historian James W. Loewen has pointed out, “Confederates won with the pen (and the noose) what they could not win on the battlefield: the cause of white supremacy and the dominant understanding of what the war was all about.”
The legend of the Lost Cause not only birthed historical revisionism; it spawned a companion movement to build monuments to the Confederacy, its heroes, and its martyrs. The dedication of Confederate monuments and other iconography began almost immediately after the Civil War ended in 1865 and continued well into the 1960s. Today, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 1,747 Confederate monuments, place names and other symbols bedizen public spaces all across America.
My great-great grandfather’s name appears in John C. Underwood’s roster as “H. C. Briggs” and on one of the bronze markers at the base of the Confederate Monument as “H. C. Briggance.”
Whether he is actually buried in the Confederate Mound is a matter of some speculation: According to Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation managing director David Keller, the bodies of as many as half of the prisoners who died at the camp by April 1863 are unaccounted for. The names of those buried in the Confederate Mound did not appear on the grave site until the bronze markers were affixed to its base in 1911. Owing to poor record keeping on both the Union and Confederate sides, who can say for certain who actually rests there? In my great-great grandfather’s case, they could not even get the spelling of his name right.
There is, however, no need to speculate about my great-great grandfather’s motives for fighting on the Confederate side. His ancestors were Cumberland settlers attracted to western Tennessee by the promise of cheap land. In the early 1800s, the Brigance clan settled in the southern part of Henderson County near the Hardin County line, occupying territory that had once served as Chickasaw hunting grounds before the Native-American tribe was forcibly removed and set off on a perilous journey across the Trail of Tears. Beneficiaries of racial genocide, the Brigances graded and farmed land taken from the Chickasaws.
It is commonly and mistakenly believed that men like my great-great grandfather were impressed into military service to fight on behalf of wealthy plantation aristocrats who owned many slaves, and that the typical Confederate soldier did not own slaves himself. Slave ownership, however, was more prevalent than many think. One-third of all white families in the pre-Civil War South owned slaves, and a majority of white southern families owned slaves, had owned them, or expected to own them.
Henry’s father, Clinton Brigance, was a slave owner. The Slaves Schedule of the 1850 U.S. Federal Census lists him as the owner of a forty-five year-old-black man. By the time of the 1860 Census, Clinton Brigance owned four slaves – two black women, ages forty-four and twenty-six respectively, and two children, a boy, age eight, and a girl, age three. Each slave counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of determining the number of representatives Tennessee could send to Congress, but did not count enough for the census taker to list his or her name.
The first name of one of his slaves is known, but only because Clinton Brigance mentioned her in an advertisement published in the Nashville Union and American on September 10, 1854. The ad offered a reward for her capture and return under the Fugitive Slave Act:
For a negro Woman named MARY, that was either conveyed off or run away from me on the 2nd night of June last. She is about 30 years of age, black complexion, she is rather low and heavy built; some of her fore teeth out, smart and active, and if I am correctly informed, will shortly be confined, and will likely make her way back to Sumner county, where she was raised, near Gallatin, and where she has some children now living. I purchased her of Mr. Boyd the 17th of last May, in Nashville, as the property of George Hutchinson. The above reward will be paid to any person that will apprehend and confine her in any jail or otherwise so that I can get her, or fifty dollars will be paid if she is delivered at my house, in Henderson county, Tenn., near Shadyhill P.O.
The ad ran a second time on September 23, 1854. It is not known if anyone replied to it. Mary’s fate is, likewise, unknown.
The peculiar institution of slavery flourished in Henderson County, Tennessee. By 1830, the county boasted a population of 7,294 whites and 1,447 blacks, only five of whom were free.
By 1860, the ranks of the enslaved had more than doubled, swelling to a total of 3,099 with a cash value well into the millions. Like his neighbors, my great-great grandfather Henry Brigance benefited from an agrarian economy that depended on and profited from slavery. Henry lived on his father’s land, and, as his oldest son, stood to inherit his father’s property, including the human beings he had enslaved. Thus, it is unsurprising that he answered the call to serve in the Confederate Army when recruiters came to Henderson County, a secessionist hotbed, in the fall of 1862. Henry Brigance enrolled in the Fifty-Fifth Tennessee Infantry Regiment just four days before Christmas and was mustered in shortly thereafter.
His brother, John, also volunteered. John Dixon Brigance served as a private in the Twenty-Second Tennessee Cavalry under Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and may have participated in the 1864 Fort Pillow Massacre, the Civil War’s My Lai. At the fort, Forrest’s men overwhelmed a garrison held by Union soldiers, approximately half of whom were recently emancipated slaves, and slaughtered hundreds of the fort’s defenders after they had laid down their arms and were in the act of surrendering. General Forrest later went on to become the first Grand Wizard of the nascent Ku Klux Klan, but John Dixon Brigance did not survive the war. On August 20, 1865, he died of dysentery in a Nashville prison hospital. He was twenty-nine years old.
At least one member of the Brigance clan kept fighting for the Confederate cause after the war had ended. Henry and John’s youngest brother, Jourdan, refused to accept the South’s defeat. Jourdan Brigance led a band of guerillas that terrorized Henderson County, preying on those who had remained loyal to the Union cause, pilfering from their homes, stealing their property and committing cold-blooded murder. Henderson County residents rose up against the outlaws, and, according to a local history, surrounded the Brigance home, where Jourdan was hiding. When he refused to come out, the vigilantes carried his mother, then old and feeble, from the house and set it on fire. Forced to leave the burning house, Jourdan Brigance was captured, led to a nearby tree, and hanged. The posse also shot him several times for good measure.
As a descendant of immigrants who were reviled from the moment they arrived on these shores, I was ignorant of this history. I did not understand, in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ words, how malleable our conception of whiteness is; the Irish and the Italians, for example, were not considered white when they came here, but today they benefit from white privilege and the structural inequalities racism and the peculiar institution of slavery created and perpetuated.
In our times, the phrase, “white guilt,” has become what Chicago scholar Richard M. Weaver called a “devil term,” one that evokes a tyrannizing image while carrying extremely negative connotations. The phrase is most often used derisively by blacks and whites alike to express contempt for white liberals rather than as an acknowledgement of what the Germans, mindful of their national responsibility for the Holocaust, call vergangenheitsbewältigung, the struggle to overcome the past. Malcolm X scornfully referred to the “guilt complex that exists in the conscious or subconscious minds of most white people in this country” as if it were a psychological fact while disdainfully dismissing the idea that white emotions matter. The conservative political commentator George F. Will once described white guilt as a “form of self-congratulation,” a way for liberals to “showcase their innocence to racism.” It seems to me that both of these analyses strike very wide of the mark. As Coates has said, “white guilt is the guilt of power and recognizing that that power is being used in an unjust way – and you’re a part of it.”
In 1888, Fredericksburg, Va., artist John Elder painted “After Appomattox,” which shows a pensive Confederate veteran standing amid a devastated landscape in the aftermath of Lee’s surrender to Grant. The soldier is unarmed; his gaze is downcast; a canteen hangs on his hip and he literally holds his hat in his hand. The painting is the basis for a seven-foot-tall statue erected in Old Town Alexandria in 1889 and John C. Underwood used it as a model for the Confederate Monument he designed for Oak Woods. Three bas-relief images on the pedestal complete the narrative Underwood wanted to tell: the first, “The Call to Arms,” shows a group rallying for the cause, the second, “A Veteran Returns Home,” shows a soldier arriving at a ruined cabin, and the last, “A Soldier’s Death Dream,” shows a fallen soldier and his horse on a battlefield.
As monuments go, it is less imposing, perhaps, than the statue of the Confederate rifleman who stands atop a forty-five-foot obelisk at Confederate Circle in Nashville’s Mount Olivet Cemetery, where John Dixon Brigance is buried, and less of a flash point than the bronze equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee that sparked the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Confederate Monument at Oak Woods hasn’t received the national attention of the Charlottesville statue, which was shrouded in black after Heather Heyer’s death and remained covered until a judge ordered the shrouds removed last spring. And unlike the Nashville monument, which was painted over with graffiti denouncing white supremacy in February 2018, it has been immune to acts of vandalism, owing perhaps to heightened security that has kept it under guard from dawn to dusk. Since the Charlottesville rally, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has spent millions of dollars paying for private security to protect Confederate monuments at eight VA-run cemeteries, including Oak Woods. This is on top of the cost of managing and caring for those cemeteries, which are under federal stewardship. The Confederate Monument at Oak Woods may have been constructed with private funds, but city taxpayers pay for its upkeep.
As historian Rachel Coleman recently observed in Medium, “[t]he Confederate Monument in Oak Woods Cemetery is no simple historical marker. Instead, it is a product of period efforts to shape historical memory.” It was, as Coleman notes, “conceived of, designed, and dedicated by white supremacist Confederate veterans and organizations,” many of which also raised money to defend members of the Ku Klux Klan from prosecution by the federal government. As conceived by John C. Underwood, the monument apostrophized the Lost Cause and the ideology of human trafficking.
Still, Coleman, like many other historians, is reluctant to call for its removal. By tearing down Confederate monuments, historians Ethan J. Kytle and Bain Roberts maintain, we risk erasing how they reinforced racial inequality in the past. “As historians of memory, we worry about the unintended consequences of sanitizing the commemorative landscape,” Kytle and Roberts wrote in the The Atlantic. “Historical monuments are interpretations of one era but artifacts of another. Confederate and pro-slavery memorials embody, even perpetuate deeply flawed narratives of the Old South and the Civil War. Yet they also reveal essential truths about the times during which they were erected.”
Removing them would “constitute a distortion of history, of memory, in its own right.” The answer, for Kytle and Roberts, as for Coleman, is to supplement and contextualize them with more accurate historical monuments and markers.
To a certain extent, this has been and is being done. The black cenotaph at Oak Woods was placed there in reaction to the dedication of the Confederate Monument in 1895. Erected the following year by Thomas D. Lowther, an abolitionist in the Old South who was forced to leave his Florida home for his anti-slavery views, the cenotaph has been arousing the visceral rage of the Sons of Confederate Veterans ever since.
More recently, Chicago organizers raised $300,000 to erect a sculpture in honor of the legendary African-American activist and writer Ida Bell Wells-Barnett. The sculpture will be located, not at Oak Woods where she is buried, but in Bronzeville, the Chicago neighborhood where Ida Wells once lived and where Camp Douglas once stood.
Organizers also succeeded in their efforts to rename a major downtown Chicago street after her, changing the name of Congress Parkway to Ida B. Wells Drive. The change came after an initial effort to rename Balbo Drive for the African-American suffragist and activist failed. Balbo is named for the fascist General Italo Balbo, leader of Mussolini’s Blackshirts. Balbo also has a statue named after him, one that stands in Chicago’s Burnham Park, and that has resisted calls to have it removed since the end of World War II.
The Confederate Monument at Oak Woods, like Confederate monuments everywhere, visibly exposes the flaw in the argument that Civil War monuments are interpretations of one era and artifacts of another that reveal essential, if uncomfortable, truths about the times when they were erected, and that any talk of removing them is somehow an assault on collective memory. The problem is that the Confederate Monument is itself an act of erasure, an attempt to fictionalize history, if not to deny it. It makes no sense to speak of sanitizing a commemorative landscape that is filled with monuments that already whitewash the past.
Confederate monuments are not just objets d’art, nor are they just artifacts from another era, another time and place; they are racist symbols that reveal painful truths about present-tense America, about ourselves and our unwillingness to learn from the past and free ourselves from it.
The Confederate Monument at Oak Woods commemorates the Lost Cause, the wrong cause, the monumental evil that was slavery.
For that reason, if no other, the monument should come down.
Michael Zimecki is the author of a novel, Death Sentences, published by Crime Wave Press. He is a recipient of a Golden Fedora Poetry Prize from the international crime fiction magazine, Noir Nation. His nonfiction has appeared in Harper’s, The National Law Journal, College English, and Cleaver Magazine, among other publications. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife, Susan.