- Civil War Canon: Sites of Confederate Memory in South Carolina by Thomas J. Brown
The battle over Civil War memory had, until recently, been subject to an uneasy truce. This armistice ended in June 2015 when a gunman entered a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine African Americans during Bible study. The alleged perpetrator’s social media accounts included white supremacy rhetoric and a picture in which he held the Confederate battle flag. In an astonishing development, South Carolina’s governor and legislature agreed to remove the Confederate flag from its honored place near the statehouse. As a result of this tragedy, a new phase in the battle for Civil War memory began as Confederate flags and monuments across the nation came under attack. In a well-timed study, Thomas J. Brown, a professor at the University of South Carolina, assesses Confederate memorial sites. Instead of undertaking a systematic examination of Confederate memorialization in South Carolina, Brown chooses specific places in the state’s commemorative landscape, including Magnolia Cemetery, several John C. Calhoun statues, Fort Sumter, and the CSS Hunley, and assesses their evolution in the decades since the end of the Civil War.
Because he examines these landmarks across time, from the period immediately after the war until the present, it should come as no surprise that Brown “excavates the foundations of Confederate landmarks to reveal a shifting, contested collective memory” (p. 1). According to Brown, much of this contest occurred because “successive generations of South Carolinians negotiated different forms of modernity,” which explains much of the difference he finds [End Page 691] across the decades (p. 5). What is surprising is the extent to which he asserts that race is not as dominant a concern in Civil War memory as one might believe. Instead, Brown argues that “[r]acial politics are a necessary but not a sufficient explanation for the changing contours of Confederate commemoration” and suggests that class and gender are critical to understanding the transformation of the Confederate landscape (p. 6).
Brown’s study is extremely well written and engaging. However, his introduction may not do justice to his nuanced assessment of the relationship between race, class, gender, and Civil War memory. Moreover, Brown sometimes inserts himself into the narrative in a distracting way, as in his discussion of Magnolia Cemetery. Despite these issues, Civil War Canon: Sites of Confederate Memory in South Carolina is an enormously valuable study. Specifically, the last chapters make a significant contribution to understanding the recent evolution of the Lost Cause in South Carolina and elsewhere. The governor’s willingness to lower the Confederate battle flag immediately after the shooting reflects a development Brown has identified in recent flag battles: elite men and women seem to abandon this symbol of the Lost Cause. Similarly, his examination of the many interpretations of the CSS Hunley demonstrates the evolution of Confederate memory. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the doomed submarine represented a reminder of southern martyrdom and devotion to the Lost Cause. More recently, it has become emblematic of a “steampunk” Confederacy technologically ahead of its time (p. 236). Overall, I highly recommend this book, particularly the later chapters that focus on aspects of Civil War memory that have not been examined by other scholars. The relevance of this study is demonstrated by the ongoing battle over Civil War memory. As I write this, a statue of Jefferson Davis has just been removed from the landscape of the University of Texas at Austin, another reminder of the evolving nature of the Civil War canon.