Take a tour of the NC Capitol's Confederate monuments
Posted August 26
Updated August 28
Raleigh, N.C. — The white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., this month renewed a decades-old debate over Confederate monuments across the country, intensifying calls to remove the memorials from public spaces.
Although statues in Durham and on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have become flashpoints for protesters in recent weeks, the old State Capitol grounds hosts four monuments to Confederate causes and soldiers erected between 30 and 75 years after the end of the Civil War. They stand among about a dozen other memorials commemorating presidents, governors and veterans of several wars.
Susanna Lee, an associate professor of history at North Carolina State University, says the Civil War monuments downtown are different than those built to memorialize individual soldiers in graveyards, several of which can be found just blocks away in Oakwood Cemetery. As political campaigns of white supremacy gained ground in North Carolina and across the country, memorials like those at the Capitol spread.
And they were built directly in public spaces, outside centers of government power.
"That association and placement shows their more overt and political intention," said Lee, who often takes her classes to tour the Capitol structures. "They were sort of a declaration of who is in charge now."
Here's a closer look at the Capitol's Confederate memorials and the context that accompanied their public unveilings.
Capitol Confederate Monument
West side of the State Capitol square on Salisbury Street
Dedicated: May 20, 1895
This 75-foot-tall monument is dedicated "To our Confederate Dead" and recognizes that North Carolina troops were among the longest serving in the Civil War – the "First at Bethel, Last at Appomattox." During the unveiling ceremony, Col. Alfred Moore Waddell spent a good deal of his public address defending the right of the states to secede from the Union. He denied that the South went to war for slavery – it was "the occasion, not the cause of the war," he said.
"(Slavery) was an institution, guaranteed and protected by the Constitution, as exclusively within the control of the State, and when the equality and reserved rights of the States were attacked by interference with it, there was just ground to believe that other preserved and guaranteed rights would be assailed, and the equality of the States destroyed," Waddell told the crowd.
The memorial's unveiling came at a time when Southern Democrats and their white supremacist campaigns began reversing the short-lived political victories of progressive Republicans in the South in the wake of Reconstruction.
With the reclamation of that power, Lee said, came the ability to control the narrative about the causes of the Civil War.
"These monuments being placed outside of courthouses and capitols was a declaration and claiming of public space," she said. "By their positioning, it was a sanctioning of this interpretation."
The Capitol monument's design, an obelisk topped with a "common soldier," was typical of monuments of the time.
"The common soldier monuments were meant to be a stand-in for all Confederate soldiers," Lee said. "It's different from the earlier memorialization of Confederate generals."
Even the memorial's tall stature was common, Lee said, meant "to symbolize the great deeds they performed for the people."
Henry Lawson Wyatt Monument
Northwest corner of the State Capitol square
Dedicated: June 10, 1912
This statue commemorates Henry Lawson Wyatt, the first Confederate soldier killed in fighting during the Civil War at the Battle of Bethel on June 10, 1861. In his speech commemorating the monument, Edward Joseph Hale uses Wyatt's example to praise North Carolina for its contributions to the war effort and decries "the uphill fight which North Carolina waged in the struggle for recognition of her merits."
It's a struggle, in racial overtones, he implored his audience not to take for granted.
Lee says there was good reason for the perceived slight against the state.
"North Carolina during the Civil War was seen as having a lot of deserters," she said. "There was the sense that North Carolina should vindicate its reputation as being loyal to the Confederacy."
The memorial's design differentiates it from others built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Unlike the looming presence of the Confederate monument just yards away, Wyatt's likeness sits much closer to the ground – and the viewer.
"Your relationship with that monument is much more personal," Lee said.
Monument to North Carolina Women of the Confederacy
South side of the State Capitol square on West Morgan Street
Dedicated: June 10, 1914
The monument to the North Carolina Women of the Confederacy commemorated the wives and daughters left behind in the South while men went off to fight the war. In the 1914 dedication of the monument, Daniel Harvey Hill praised the strength of Southern women who picked up the slack in the absence of their male counterparts, calling each home's mistress "the greatest slave on the plantation which moved at her command."
Women weren't without aid, as Hill noted in his address at the dedication. He praised the "noble fidelity" of the slaves who stayed with their owners and called it proof of "the kindly relations that existed between the white families and colored families on the plantation home" – and often-repeated theme of the time.
Lee said the women's monument is interesting because of the debate about its design. Originally, plans depicted a woman and a little girl, who was eventually swapped out for a boy holding a sword. The final version reflected the traditional role for women in raising children with a sense of duty.
"They don't vote, but one of the ways they contributed to the nation was by creating good citizens," Lee said.
Samuel A'Court Ashe Monument
Northwest corner of the State Capitol square
Dedicated: Sept. 13, 1940
More a memorial to the man than the cause of the Confederacy itself, this plaque commemorates Samuel A'Court Ashe, a Confederate soldier who survived the Civil War to become editor of The News & Observer and a prominent North Carolina historian. The monument was dedicated on the 100th anniversary of his birth and notes that Ashe lived "a life which has enriched the South and the nation."
In understanding memorials like this one, Lee said she draws a distinction between Confederate leaders and Confederate soldiers, especially at a time in the South when sympathies toward the Union carried consequences.
"He happened to be a Confederate," Lee said of Ashe. "It was hard to not be a Confederate."
Lee notes that other statues on the Capitol grounds also have ties to the Confederacy – officer and North Carolina Gov. Zebulon Vance – as well as the subsequent campaign of white supremacy led by the then-ruling Democratic Party – Gov. Charles Aycock. Even in the case of Henry Lawson Wyatt, Lee said his Capitol monument can either be seen as a memorial for an individual soldier or a stand-in for something much more.
"When we talk about these monuments and their meaning in present day, it's complicated," Lee said.
As with all historical memorials, Lee said the discussion about where they belong must take into account the context in which they were erected, what they represent – and how they're interpreted today.
"Taking down a monument doesn't erase history," Lee said. "History took place whether or not there was a monument to depict it."