What Charlottesville Tells Us About Silent Sam

On Saturday August 12th, a white nationalist rally protesting the planned removal of a Confederate monument in Charlottesville dissolved into violence that left three dead and many injured. The circumstances that led to this tragedy bear an uncomfortable resemblance to events that took place less than two years ago at UNC, when Confederate heritage supporters rallied to defend Silent Sam. Then, as now, counter-protestors rallied and directly confronted those assembled to defend the monument.

No one was hurt at UNC in 2015, but what happened in Charlottesville shows how close we are to the edge. As much as I fear that our campus could become the next lightning rod of racist and fascist violence, I fear more for the future of our University if we do nothing. Charlottesville only makes the stakes clearer. Our community is actively imperiled by the revisionist history that Silent Sam represents. Silent Sam should be removed from the center of campus because it validates the worldview of the far right and perpetuates racist narratives within our own community.

Silent Sam was a gift to the University of North Carolina from the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Installed in 1913, nearly fifty years after the end of the Civil War, the statue is an example of a ‘lost cause’ monument. Built between 1895 and 1935, these memorials elevate the Confederate soldier as the model of citizenship and frame the conflict as one that ennobled those who participated.[1] Crafted in white society experiencing the upheaval of emancipation, the lost cause narrative reassured Southern whites by supplanting the dishonor of defeat with a romanticized image of a confederacy in which brave young men fought and died against a tyrannical Northern aggressor with superior resources. The narrative frames the tremendous casualties of the war as a sort of martyrdom: a noble sacrifice cleansed from complicity in slavery and upheld as an example of civic virtue.

The placement of a lost cause monument at the center of UNC’s campus is intentional. These monuments were erected in front of courthouses and by busy thoroughfares to purposefully enshrine a positive narrative about the Confederacy within the public life of the South. Formerly in front of the County Courthouse, the Confederate monument pulled down by Durham protestors on August 14th is another example. On UNC’s campus, Silent Sam’s message continues to be heard. You need look no further than The Daily Tar Heel to see the lost cause narrative within our public discourse.

In the fall of 2015, when the Real Silent Sam Coalition and local Black Lives Matter activists called for the statue’s removal, DTH published several letters to the editor in the statue’s defense. One letter, titled ‘Silent Sam Represents Sacrifice, Not Hate,’ describes the monument as “a reminder of the willingness of [Confederate soldiers] to sacrifice their lives for their community, society and families and [sic] their courage, tenacity and fortitude.”[2] Another letter supposes that removing the memorial negates “all who had fought and died in vain and the civilian lives of Southern women that were raped by the Union soldiers that pillaged, stole and burned anything that they could not steal.”[3]

I do not deny the atrocities of the Civil War. The problem lies within the insidious nature of the lost cause narrative, which is a project of historical revisionism cloaked in the disguise of honoring the dead. The lost cause narrative succeeds when it obscures slavery from public memory of the Civil War. It succeeds when it ennobles the Confederate soldier and denies his defense of slavery. Every step we take towards this narrative is a step away from historic fact and further erodes the shared understanding of American history that we need in order to have a conversation about race.

Further, as an imagined student of the University, Silent Sam is a particularly potent symbol, both in the eyes of the white men and women who see the image of their ancestors, and in the eyes of the people of color who see him as their oppressor. Silent Sam embodies the myth of white innocence in the past, as boldly stated in the letters to the editor written in his defense. By the same token, he embodies the myth of white innocence today. The controversy around Silent Sam holds a mirror to the campus community, and we might not be flattered by what we see.

The University’s discomfort around acknowledging white supremacy tacitly legitimizes the support of Confederate monuments. More than the continuance of the lost cause narrative, this is why the University should remove the statue. Carolina’s trend of downplaying and denying the damage of white supremacy in the past and today must end. The stakes are too high—Charlottesville shows us exactly what arises from the spread of these messages.

For a place like the University of North Carolina, living up to the values of diversity and inclusion is going to include difficult and uncomfortable moments. Removing Silent Sam would send a clear message about the University’s commitment to these values. As long as monuments to the lost cause remain on our campus, the lost cause narrative remains in our community. Now, more than ever, we need to populate our sacred ground with monuments that truly speak to our principles.

Feature image photo: 2015 Silent Sam protest. Photo by Brittany Jordan, UNC’s Campus Y.

[1] Thomas J. Brown, interviewed by Frank Stasio, “Flags, Soldier Statues and Civil War Memory,” WUNC, an affiliate of National Public Radio, (12 November 2015), http://wunc.org/post/flags-soldier-statues-and-civil-war-memory#stream/0.

[2] Dr. Edith Bernosky, “Letter: Silent Sam represents sacrifice, not hate,” The Daily Tar Heel, (10 November 2015), http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2015/11/letter-silent-sam-represents-sacrifice-not-hate.

[3] Danny Knowles, “Letter: Remove all war memorials or none,” The Daily Tar Heel, (24 August 2015), http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2015/08/letter-remove-all-war-memorials-or-none.

Libbie Weimer completed a master’s in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC Chapel Hill with a specialization in Land Use and Environmental Planning in 2016. She is interested in the connections between energy production, water quality, and environmental justice. Weimer currently splits her time between academic research, GIS consulting, and documentary filmmaking.