Book Review: Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America


by Thomas J. Brown

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019. Pp. xii, 366. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 1469653745

Memorializing War and the Shaping of Memory 

Monuments have been in installed in what is now the United States since the colonial era. And they have been demolished for just as long. In July of 1776, after the reading of the Declaration of Independence, citizens of New York tore down a monument of King George III, and used the metal to mould bullets to fire at his troops. Many Americans in earlier times, viewed statues and other monuments as not necessarily well-suited with to a republic and democracy.

In the case of the Civil War, monuments began going up throughout the United States – North and South – during the war, after it, and on well into the mid-twentieth century, ostensibly to commemorate those who served and sacrificed. But many such memorials erected during the Jim Crow era, from the 1890’s on through the period of the Civil Rights movement, were raised to “remind” African Americans of the superiority of the white race and their status as second-class citizens, while stressing the “Lost Cause” that supposedly was the reason for the war itself, rather than the defense of slavery.

The militarization of monuments has not only influenced remembrance of the Civil War but also that of the Revolutionary War and World War I. This turned soldiers and revered national leaders into military symbols not worshiped in a religious way but certainly revered by many Americans. People used these iconic-like monuments to transform the support of public opinion of industrial capitalism, racial and labor order, and white supremacy. People supported the nation’s military institutions and historic leaders as symbols of American history and the American way of life.

Commemoration of the Civil War and other conflicts became a way to show the entitlements of soldiers, their heroics and what they fought for. Most every town and city built monuments to men who fought, especially in the Civil War. Particularly in the South monuments were not only placed in town squares but also in front of state capitols and court houses. These were not only commemorating historic events and figures, but were also a visual aid to remind people who was in charge. Powerful private organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy guarded the memories of their ancestors and loved ones. These women fought as hard over the memory of the soldiers who had battled to establish a new country as had the soldiers themselves. This organization and others worked to confirm a social and racial order in the U.S. that lasted for decades, to help resist the changes that were coming to many immigrants of different religions and ethnicities.

In recent decades, many monuments have been created dealing with African Americans, to show their importance in the United States, particularly in helping win the Civil War. In Washington a monument has been created to memorialize the 180,000 African American men in the Army and their 20,000 comrades in the Navy, both for their significant turnout and bravery, and also to remind us of their important contribution to the Union victory while helping bring about their own freedom and an end to slavery.

Brown shows the connection between theme and time line, as he addresses the different types of memorials – what may be termed “soldier monuments”, “leader monuments”, and “victory monuments” – and how certain individuals and organizations helped bring them to pass, to maintain ideas that supported their beliefs and way of life.

The best part of Brown’s book is the epilogue. He asserts that the controversies of today over Civil War monuments and memorials can be traced to the revival of building new such structures in the United States in the late twentieth century. The renewed interest in Civil War monuments, and whether they should be torn down or modified or moved to cemeteries and museums, makes this volume relevant and worth the price of purchase.

Reading Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America, a volume in the UNC series “Civil War America”, will help scholars, students, and laymen better understand these statues and memorials as art as well as message and meaning and what should be done about them.

Our Reviewer:  David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. He earlier reviewed The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War, Civil War Places, The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863, America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War, The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation, A Republic in the Ranks, An Environmental History of the Civil War, and Arguing until Doomsday.



Note: Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America is also available in hardcover and e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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