Stepping Stones

Florence’s Lost Cause

June 19, 2016

In the city of Florence at the Lauderdale County Courthouse, there is a monument memorializing the fallen soldiers of the Confederate States of America. It was built through the efforts of the Ladies Memorial Association in Florence and unveiled in April of 1903. It features a Confederate soldier in a private’s uniform, standing upon a base above the words “C.S.A 1861-1865, Deo Vindice.” Deo Vindice was the motto of the CSA, Latin for “God will vindicate.” Below this are the words “In Memory of the Confederate dead from Lauderdale County, Florence, Alabama.” Further below are the following inscriptions: “The manner of their death was the crowning glory of their lives,” and “Glory stands beside our grief.” The soldier is clearly done fighting; his knapsack is on the ground, and he is reattaching his bayonet, looking to go home, a somber look on his face.

8619172272_77e6dc0c9f_bAs a northerner, I first dismissed this statue as Lost-Cause triumphalism, built by people who wanted to feel proud of their heritage. The Lost Cause of the Confederacy is the belief that many white southerners held around the turn of the 20th century that the Confederacy fought bravely against impossible odds. The “cause” of the war was righteous, but it was “lost” with the end of the Civil War. This ideology romanticizes the antebellum South, celebrating its virtues of chivalry, agriculture, and wealth while downplaying slavery, the very exploitation of black labor that made these virtues possible. Up north, there are many ethnic festivals celebrating the heritage of America’s diverse ethnic and racial groups. There are social clubs, statues to prominent members of a certain group, and some parts of my hometown have even erected street signs in the native language of that pocket’s inhabitants. Celebrating one’s heritage, however, is very different from these Lost Cause memorials, and we should be careful to distinguish between the two.

Heritage may be defined as the traditions or beliefs that are part of the history of a group or a nation. An Italian festival features cuisine and customs commonly associated with Italian-Americans in a celebration highlighting the uniqueness of Italian culture. Lost Cause memorials are both more complicated and more troubling than such a simple celebration of heritage. In order to celebrate the Confederacy, as this statue does, one must also celebrate its values, without which the Confederacy would have never existed: the righteousness of slavery and white supremacy. Some may argue that states’ rights to operate with autonomy from the federal government was another value, though this argument was also mobilized to legalize slavery and, later, Jim Crow in Southern states. Celebrating the Confederacy means celebrating these values; the two cannot be separated.

The statue’s location also sends a strong message about Florence’s investment in Lost Cause ideology. If the statue were simply a memorial to Confederate dead sitting in a cemetery, it would be far less problematic, but it sits outside of the city courthouse at the center of downtown Florence. Attaching the years of the CSA and its motto evokes a more sinister meaning. “God will vindicate” is a particularly noxious addition. The form of the statue itself connotes peace, but the words evoke darker imagery. The inscriptions on the shaft include a quotation found on many CSA monuments throughout the South and is attributed to Jefferson Davis, president of the CSA: “The manner of their death was the crowning glory of their lives.” Both inscriptions, including “Glory stands beside their grief,” indirectly glorify a cause that we now universally accept as unjust: the defense of slavery.

The monument raises an important question about history, ancestry, and heritage: can white southerners honor their dead without honoring the cause for which they died? The answer isn’t clear, but there are some alternatives. One can embrace a sense of heritage without distorting history to match one’s pride. We can find meaning in moving forward together as a region and as a nation, grappling to overcome past inequities. The Ladies Memorial Association chose to justify their pride in their heritage through a distortion of their own history, one in which the Confederate States of America was vanquished by the Union but vindicated by God. No monument to the horrors of slavery was erected. No acknowledgement of the cause of the war provided. No attempt to reconcile the past with the future. Just a monument to a de-contextualized lost cause, rooted deep in human bondage.

The monument is difficult to overlook: it stands next to arguably the most important civic building in Florence. Why not have the most important part of our heritage next to the most important building? Why not celebrate the city’s impact on early settlement in northern Alabama, it’s prehistoric settlement, or its complicated role during the Civil War? (The city actually changed hands between Union and Confederate troops more than 40 times during the war.) We could have celebrated its one-time industrial prowess or its ongoing impact on the American music scene. We could have celebrated the combined and complicated history of people of all races living in Florence.

It would be great to see a monument to the slaves of Lauderdale County, a visible reminder of the infrastructure that enabled the Confederacy to exist. This is unlikely to happen, and its equally unlikely that the current statue will come down. But perhaps the statue’s removal is not the best solution, either. The Confederacy existed; slavery existed; the Lost Cause interpretation of history existed (and still exists). We need to embrace it as a symbol of struggle and the triumph of American ideals over forced servitude and racial inequality. The legacy of slavery continues in this country and in our communities. The memorial is a visible reminder of that legacy; removing it will not remove the legacy.

Educating our community about the Confederacy, about our complicated history, and about how we might reappropriate the statue with a different understanding will help us all to reach a better understanding about history and move forward together. The Confederate States of America was a failed attempt at instituting and continuing anti-American principles in America. Its death was necessary, not just for slaves, but for our American principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to be realized. The CSA monument in front of the Lauderdale County courthouse is a reminder that our history is one that is not wholly on the side of freedom and liberty. It should serve as a reminder both of where we have been as a nation, and where we need to go.


© 2016 Brian Murphy

Originally published by Project Say Something, History & Race in Florence, AL, 2016, All rights reserved.

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Brian, with wife Katie Owens Murphy and daughter, Addie

~Brian Murphy

Brian is a Master’s student in UNA’s Public History program with a special interest in race and discriminatory housing practices. He hopes to bring his research in local history to bear on issues that continue to impact the Shoals community.