The tall, thin Confederate soldier in the center of Statesboro fits a historic pattern for monuments built on the losing side of a war while it is still in the memory of the living, notes the coordinator of Georgia Southern University’s public history program.
Completed in 1909, the monument primarily honored the soldiers who died in the war rather than the living veterans, and women led the effort to build it.
“They were the big monument builders,” said Associate Professor Michael S. Van Wagenen, PhD. “Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the veterans themselves but it was the women’s groups who did these.”
The United Daughters of the Confederacy, or UDC, specifically the Statesboro Chapter, began a fund drive in early summer 1908 to build a monument on the Bulloch County Courthouse grounds. Dedicated on Memorial Day, April 26, 1909, the statue of a soldier with his rifle held in the stance known as “parade rest” stands at the top of a marble column 25 feet tall. This information is from “Statesboro: A Century of Progress: 1866-1966.”
That local history book, completed in 1969 by the publishers of the Bulloch Herald, drew from its files and those of the Statesboro Herald’s other predecessors, the Bulloch Times and the Statesboro News, dating back to 1901.
The public history program Van Wagenen coordinates at Georgia Southern is for graduate students interested in museums, monuments and other ways that history is preserved by and presented to the public.
He wrote a book, “Remembering the Forgotten War: The Enduring Legacies of the U.S.-Mexican War” about views from the winning and losing sides after that 1846-1848 war. For perspectives gained from the legacy of the Civil War, Van Wagenen cites “Dixie’s Daughters,” about the UDC, by Karen L. Cox of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and the work of David W. Blight of Yale University.
“Many of the ideas are the same, regardless of what war you’re looking at,” Van Wagenen said. “When you’re commemorating a war in which your side lost, your monuments tend to focus on those who died, because they are the ones really beyond reproach. The surviving veterans of a war that you lose become evidence of the fact that you lost.”
So, at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century, the North had more of a focus on its Civil War veterans as heroes, but the South glorified its dead.
“The women were in this unique position to step up and become the vehicles of this public memory of the South,” Van Wagenen said. “The vast, vast majority of these monuments you see, in town squares and so forth, are from the UDC.”
After the women started it, the Bulloch County monument drive did receive backing from the veterans. “Statesboro: A Century of Progress” quoted a 1908 letter to the editor from Jacob Rocker, adjutant of the local Confederate Veterans chapter, who appealed to “sons and daughters of Old Johnnies to take an interest in the Cause.”
Van Wagenen, while emphasizing that he is not advocating for or against any drive to remove the monument from the square, also ventured to talk about what happens to disfavored monuments.
“I think we could look at, for example, the fall of the Soviet Union and the various Communist regimes of the Warsaw Pact,” he said.
Some nations did destroy the old monuments. But others preserved them, placing them in special parks. One example is Grutas Park in Druskininkai, Lithuania. Another is Memento Park in Budapest, Hungary.
“In destroying them, you’re destroying history, and I don’t support that at all,” Van Wagenen said. “But what they will do is create a less public space. And I’m not saying that ours needs to be moved to a private park setting, I’m just saying that other countries have chosen that as an option.”