Silent, Violent, Racist Sam

SilentSam

Students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are getting a little uncomfortable with “Silent Sam,” the statue on campus (right) that commemorates UNC students who died fighting in the Civil War.

According to an article by Lana Douglas at the The News & Observer:

The Real Silent Sam movement hopes to spark dialogue and provoke critical thought about the meanings behind the monuments and buildings of Chapel Hill. It hopes to provide the public with information that goes beyond standard narratives.

Members of The Real Silent Sam movement have lots of opinions about what should be done about the statue. Some think it should be removed. Adding a more detailed plaque or moving Silent Sam was compared to the removal of the Confederate flag from a public building by [UNC alumnus Aleck] Stephens, “(It’s) not necessarily promoting amnesia, it’s just simply saying, ‘We don’t want to represent ourselves as being a part of something that is not true to our values now,’ ” he said.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy erected the statute widely known as Silent Sam on campus in 1913. It is a monument to the 321 UNC alumni who died in the Civil War. More than 1000 people from the school left UNC to fight in the war.

Several other Southern colleges have debated Confederate symbols on their campuses.

Part of the trouble here is that the actual history of the South includes a lot of incidents of rather dubious moral legitimacy. But history is ugly; the fact that the statue provokes debate is a good thing. That’s why people go to college, to confront ideas.

But would it really be beneficial to remove the statue? Make no mistake; the Confederate States of America existed primarily to preserve slavery. The students who left UNC to fight for the Confederacy were doing so to support the continuance of slavery. Many of them were from families who owned slaves. The United Daughters of the Confederacy was mostly composed of women from families who owned slaves before the war and probably looked back with pleasure on that time.

But that’s just the way it is. Leaving that out, leaving no monument to the men, doesn’t seem like an improvement on the current situation. That’s the thing about wars, they’re offensive. But it was certainly an important part of the character of the university, and it’s well worth noting.

Last week someone taped a sign to the statue that read, in part:

This memorial to Confederate soldiers who left the university perpetuates an incomplete and inaccurate history – one that intentionally neglects the vast number of North Carolinians who opposed secession and the Confederacy. The original supporters of this monument, both town and university leaders, were motivated by racism and were colluders in a statewide campaign to establish white dominance.

Well okay, but the monument doesn’t honor the original supporters of the monument; it honors the soldiers who died. They were fighting—some 40 percent of the student body, the highest percentage of any school in America, during the first half of the 1860s—for the right to preserve slavery. And they lost.

But they were still young men in college. People loved them and they died. Of course it’s an incomplete picture; monuments always are. But inaccurate, how?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer