Silent Sam and Inconvenient History

All across the Southland today efforts have been mounted by “woke” social justice warriors—in most cases spearheaded by violent and destructive mobs composed of radicalized Millennials—to tear down or at least remove all monuments to Confederate veterans. But removing monuments to those who fought and died in 1861-1865 is just a first step in a broad national effort, a national campaign to rid America of all symbols of an “inconvenient history” which does not further a cultural Marxist totalitarian agenda—a troublesome history that does not confirm and affirm an imposed redefinition of our history to fit the latest fanatically progressivist narrative.

Thus, in New Orleans, in Memphis, in Charlottesville, and in Chapel Hill we have witnessed frenzied and continuous assaults by noisy mobs directed at memorials to those veterans, followed by pusillanimous reactions from local authorities. The attacks on those monuments, which have stood for many years in public spaces, are a reminder that the impetus to rewrite our history is not just an academic exercise, but rather a significant aspect of an immense ideological war being waged in America.

The objective is to completely recast history, to sanitize it, as it were,  or even erase it, so as to buttress and offer support for the now-dominant current progressivist template: if the history—if the facts—don’t support your view, well, then, just change the history, change the facts. Veracity be damned. Countervailing research, which is an obstacle in this process, is denied or explained away, or increasingly, decried as “racist” or an example of hated “white supremacy.” 

Consider the case of the monument to the “boy soldiers,” known as “Silent Sam,” which until August 2018 stood on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). Brought down in August 2018 by a violent mob composed of members of Antifa, “Smashing Racism,” and other assorted Marxists, debate over the monument’s fate has swirled heatedly since then. The vast majority of citizens in every poll favor keeping our monuments in their original locations, but this has not deterred the small groups of Leftist fanatics.

North Carolina has a Monuments Protection Law (G.S.100-2.1), enacted in 2015, admitting only a few exceptions for monument removal or change of location. But that law lacks a specified civil or criminal penalty for its violation and depends on the respective governing authority whether or how it will be enforced.

In 2018 the North Carolina Department of Administration, acting at the behest of Governor Roy Cooper (D), attempted to have the three impressive Confederate monuments on Capitol Square in Raleigh removed to the Bentonville Battlefield. The effort was rebuffed by the North Carolina State Historical Commission, and those monuments remain on the square.

However, the situation for monuments on county courthouse grounds (subject to the purview of county commissioners) and at UNC (governed by its Board of Governors) is different. In most cases, it was the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) who donated monuments to North Carolina counties, and it is they who are presently involved in appeals relating to local efforts in Chatham County and Winston-Salem to rid those jurisdictions of monuments to Confederate veterans. Those legal efforts are ongoing.

The UNC case is more complex—and more heated. After the toppling of “Silent Sam” both the North Carolina UDC and Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) vigorously demanded that it be returned to its original location at McCorkle Place on campus, a decision that fell to the university Board of Governors (BOG). The board, fearing the kind of protracted violence and demonstrations which the school had witnessed during 2018 into 2019, wished to see the monument located elsewhere, and several alternate solutions were proposed—none of which satisfied anyone.

A thorough judicial and legal review of the situation by the SCV’s legal counsel and the fact that only a minority of the twenty-four members of the BOG favored returning Silent Sam to its original location, stymied all efforts to restore the monument. Because of this impasse serious negotiations between the SCV and the board were undertaken, a total of nearly nine months of discussions.

Last November 2019 the SCV, acting also for the UDC, and the board announced an approved settlement: the SCV would take possession of the monument and move it to a new location (not in proximity to a UNC system campus); in turn, $2.5 million, from donor funds, would go to a trust to administer and properly display the monument in its new location; $74,499 would eventually go to the UDC.

Although the social justice radicals were outraged and immediately launched a plethora of lawsuits and media attacks intended to reverse or halt the settlement, and some members of the SCV also felt the arrangement was a surrender of sorts, “Silent Sam” was saved and preserved from uncertainty and probable obscurity  (which would have certainly happened otherwise). In the future it will once again be proudly displayed with appropriate curation and protection, for all North Carolinians to see and understand what it symbolizes.

Was this an ideal solution to what had happened seventeen months ago in Chapel Hill? Is this the model that should be followed elsewhere? No, it was not: the situation—the circumstances of this particular case of “Silent Sam”—was unique. But the result is that the monument has been saved. And that is critical and significant in an age where every monument, every symbol, every marker to “inconvenient history” is met with hysterical outcries for removal, banning, or destruction.

Our civilization—our inheritance—is perishing for lack of stouthearted defenders who are prudent and think strategically. Too many of those supposedly on our side are fainthearted and fear for their reputations and media attacks, or perhaps possess little understanding of the powerful forces we face. A particular battle, a specific case, may not always be won immediately, completely and outright; sometimes strategic success, even a strategic (if temporary)  redeployment may be necessary—to permit us to survive when greatly outnumbered and to allow us to fight, and win, another day. 

I use the example of the Seven Days battles outside Richmond in 1862; General Lee did not win a complete victory over George McClellan, but he did save the Confederate capitol. Strategically, he and his small army lived to fight another day.

So will defenders of our heritage.

About Boyd Cathey

Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations. More from Boyd Cathey

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