The history and future of Confederate monuments

As debate over the takedown of Confederate monuments continues, 60 Minutes examines why and when the statues went up in the first place

It's hard to forget the violence that broke out in Charlottesville, Virginia seven months ago when hundreds of white supremacists showed up to protest the proposed removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee, a Confederate hero of the Civil War.  What happened that weekend re-ignited a national debate about what to do with some 700 other Confederate monuments in towns and cities across the country, mostly in the South. We decided to take a closer look at these monuments and were surprised to learn not just when they were built and why, but who wants to tear them down, and who doesn't. We began in New Orleans where the culmination of Mayor Mitch Landrieu's crusade to remove four Confederate monuments looked more like a military operation than a construction job.  

When the city of New Orleans removed a giant statue of P.G.T. Beauregard, a Confederate general who ordered the first shots fired in the Civil War, they did it in the dead of night. Construction crews wore bulletproof helmets and vests.

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Workers prepare to take down the statue of former Confederate general Robert E. Lee, which stands over 100 feet tall, in Lee Circle in New Orleans, Friday, May 19, 2017.

Gerald Herbert / AP

And police snipers were stationed on rooftops nearby. Mayor Mitch Landrieu says it was impossible to find a local company that would take the job.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu: When we put the thing out to bid, the one contractor that got-- showed up had his life threatened. He had his car bombed.

Anderson Cooper: His-- his car was actually--

Mayor Mitch Landrieu: His car was actually fire-bombed. Death threats were comin' in. And so, I couldn't find a crane. I could not find a damn crane.

Anderson Cooper: In New Orleans, you could not get a--

Mayor Mitch Landrieu: In New Orleans. I couldn't find a crane in Louisiana.

Mayor Landrieu finally found a contractor from out of state and last spring after years of legal wrangling, took down four Confederate monuments. The last one removed was a 16 and a half foot bronze statue of General Robert E. Lee.  It had stood for 133 years.

Until last may, when to the cheers and jeers of onlookers the Confederacy's most celebrated military hero was hoisted off its 68-foot pedestal.

"The whole point was to convince people that actually they won, and even in their defeat, it was a noble cause."

Mayor Mitch Landrieu: In a city that I represent, that's 67% African-American, to have a young African-American girl pass by that statue and look at it every day, I ask myself, "Am I really preparing for her-- a really good future? Is she feeling like she's gettin' lifted up by the government or is she being put down?" I mean, I think the answer's pretty clear.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu: Really what these monuments were, were a lie.

Anderson Cooper: A lie in what sense?

Mayor Mitch Landrieu: Well, in the sense that-- that Robert E. Lee was used as an example to send a message to the rest of the country, and to all the people that lived here, that the Confederacy was a noble cause. And that's just not true.

Mayor Landrieu agreed to show us what's become of Generals Lee and Beauregard – they've been gathering dust for nearly a year.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu: That-- that's the first time I've seen 'em there.

Anderson Cooper: Is that right?

Mayor Mitch Landrieu: Uh-huh. Yup. They're pretty daunting.

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New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and correspondent Anderson Cooper observe the statue of Robert E. Lee, temporarily standing in a secluded shed

CBS News

Hidden away in this hastily built plywood shed in a location we were asked not to reveal.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu: And you can see, they're in the Civil War gear, the-- the military monuments. You know, they're there to revere them for their military service in propagation of the Civil War.

Anderson Cooper: You look at these monuments. You wouldn't know the Confederacy lost.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu: Well, that was the whole point. The whole point was to convince people that actually they won, and even in their defeat, it was a noble cause. And of course, the whole point of this is to-- is to confront history.  I mean, this wasn't an LSU-Alabama football game where it didn't matter who won and lost, and you just got braggin' rights. I mean, we were talkin' about millions of people enslaved, 600,000 American citizens were killed, and they were trying to destroy the country.

The statues will likely end up in a museum never again to be displayed on public property in the city of New Orleans.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu: I really did want to make a definitive statement, as a white man from the South, as the mayor of a major American city at the dawning of the 21st century, that it's not unclear anymore about what the Civil War was about and who won, and what the values are that we should really revere.

After the removal of the statues in New Orleans, and the violence in Charlottesville, cities, universities, and activists across the country began re-thinking what Confederate monuments said about their values.  Several were removed in Baltimore and also in Austin, Texas. In Durham, North Carolina protestors tore down a statue of a Confederate soldier outside an old courthouse.

No state has more Confederate monuments to revere or revile than the commonwealth of Virginia. In Richmond, the capital, there's a contentious debate about what to do about five prominent Confederate statues on Monument Avenue.

Julian Hayter: All these years later, the Civil War, in many ways, is still contested ground. This is contested ground.

Anderson Cooper: This is ground zero of this debate.

Julian Hayter: Absolutely. In large part because it was the capital of the Confederacy.

Julian Hayter is a historian at the University of Richmond.

Julian Hayter: Monument Avenue is not just a national tourist attraction, but an international tourist attraction.

Monument Avenue is like a Confederate walk of fame. There are the generals: Robert E. Lee and his horse traveler; "Stonewall" Jackson; and J.E.B. Stuart; the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis; and finally Matthew Fontaine Maury, a somewhat more obscure figure who tried and failed to start a Confederate colony in Mexico.

Julian Hayter: Those monuments, in many ways, are part and parcel of what we call the Lost Cause.

Anderson Cooper: The Lost Cause. What does that mean?

Julian Hayter: The Lost Cause, quite frankly, is just the Confederate reinterpretation of the Civil War. It's created almost immediately after the war ends by Confederate leadership. it was hard for a lot of people, in my estimation, to believe that their ancestors died and-- and fought for an ignoble cause. 600-and-some-odd-thousand people died in the Civil War. Which is more Americans than died in the second World War. And people had to make sense of that.

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Correspondent Anderson Cooper speaks with Julian Hayter on Richmond's Monument Avenue

CBS News

Believers in the Lost Cause who raised money to build monuments in town and cities across the country were often veterans or their widows and children. Lost Cause ideology portrayed Confederate soldiers as heroes defending states' rights against northern aggression, and downplayed slavery's role in causing the war.

The first Confederate statue on Monument Avenue wasn't built until 1890, 25 years after the Civil War ended. The last one went up in 1929.  

Anderson Cooper: You've written that these statues serve white supremacy.

Julian Hayter: Sure. And that, by the way, is a critical component of the Lost Cause. The idea that African Americans were not only happy slaves, but they were unprepared for freedom. The idea that African Americans were helpless-- after the Civil War. And in that way it represents the continuation of the ways that whites think about-- black folks' intellectual abilities-- not just during slavery, but shortly thereafter.

In the years after slavery was abolished and the Civil War ended, what became known as Jim Crow laws were passed that made African Americans second-class citizens. 

Julian Hayter: There are laws that-- disenfranchise African Americans from their-- the 15th Amendment's right to vote. There are laws that restrict their movements. They represent, more broadly, the attempt to-- to reassert control over African Americans after the abolition of slavery.

Anderson Cooper: and these monuments are part of that?

Julian Hayter: Oh, absolutely. They're just as much a part of Jim Crow as they are of the Civil War and slavery. That's when they were built. They were built in the 20th Century. Very few people seem to-- to understand-- that these monuments were built during-- during segregation.

Mayor Levar Stoney:  The monuments are just a symbol of the effort to ensure African Americans stayed maybe not in physical bondage, but in bondage in political and economically in this country and in this city.

Richmond's mayor, Levar Stoney, created a commission last June, on the future of Monument Avenue.

Mayor Levar Stoney: those who chose to erect those monuments and the figures who are glorified in those monuments-- they made some serious attempts. to ensure that-- people who look like me would never hold any political office ever in Virginia.

Anderson Cooper: With Charlottesville were you surprised at how many people were willing to come out and show their true colors, show their Nazi flags?

Mayor Levar Stoney: I think it woke a lot of people up not just here in the Commonwealth of Virginia, but around the country.

There have been protests in Richmond over the future of Monument Avenue.  The city has already spent more than half a million dollars on security. Mayor stoney says he wants the statues taken down.

Mayor Levar Stoney: it is for me the greatest example of nostalgia masquerading as-- as history.

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Richmond's Monument Avenue

CBS News

Anderson Cooper: It's not real history?

Mayor Levar Stoney: It's-- well, it-- it's the fake news of their time.

William J. Cooper: Well, he and I just disagree. They're a part of history.

William J. Cooper says removing Confederate monuments is a mistake. He was a professor of history at Louisiana State University for 46 years and is a past president of the Southern Historical Association. 

Anderson Cooper: One of the things that-- Mitch Landrieu said that stuck in my mind, he said there is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence for it. And that-- that these statues are revering a false history.

William J. Cooper: Well it's not a false history. It's not a false history. The monument was put up there by real people who had real beliefs. Maybe we don't like their beliefs. But one of the things that-- b-- bothers me most as a historian is what I call "presentism," judging the past by the present, figuring that we are the only moral people, that nobody else-- could be moral if they didn't think like we think.

Anderson Cooper: When you hear people m-- saying that these-- these-- these monuments celebrate white supremacy-- 'cause that's-- that's sort of the common refrain.

William J. Cooper: when you say "celebrate white supremacy"-- that's not incorrect. I mean, they do celebrate white supremacy. But they weren't put up to celebrate white supremacy.

Anderson Cooper: Really? I mean--

William J. Cooper: No, they were put up to celebrate the Confederacy.

Anderson Cooper: But if the statues do celebrate white supremacy, should they be up today?

William J. Cooper: Well, should Mount Vernon be up today? Should we go burn Monticello down tomorrow? Certainly, Thomas Jefferson believed in white supremacy.

Anderson Cooper: you're saying this is a slippery slope?

William J. Cooper: That's a very slippery slope.

Julian Hayter: I would say the difference, the critical difference between Washington and Jefferson and Lee, and men like Lee, is that while Washington and Jefferson were com-- complicated individuals-- and by our standards-- thought about ideas in-- in an entirely anachronistic way-- they also baked in the Constitution the components that allowed people to dismantle-- the slave system. They built as much as they destroyed. I cannot say the same thing for the Confederacy.

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Professor Hayter was appointed by Richmond's Mayor to the commission that's going to make recommendations on what should happen on Monument Avenue.

Julian Hayter: There are 75 million people in the south who are the descendants of-- Confederate soldiers. And who I am to tell them that-- they cannot celebrate their ancestor in a particular way? But I also have ancestors who were the victims of the slave system, and I see no reason why we can't find a usable way to tell two stories, or tell multiple stories

Anderson Cooper: That tell the truth.

Julian Hayter: Not a romanticized version of the truth. where people are trying to absolve themselves-- from the deep inhumanities of-- of what the Confederacy stood for, but people who are willing to face down history for what it is in-- in all its ugliness, and all its beauty.

Anderson Cooper: do you believe the statue should be removed?

Julian Hayter: No. I'm a historian, and-- I think that the statues should stay with a-- footnote of epic proportions.

Anderson Cooper: Essentially you're suggesting

Julian Hayter: I'm suggesting we do a little bit of historical jujutsu. I'm-- right? I'm suggesting we use the scale and grandeur of those monuments against themselves. I think we lack imagination when we talk about memorials. It's all or nothin'. It's leave 'em this way, or tear 'em down. As if there's nothin' in between that we could do to tell a more enriching story about American history.

Historians call it recontextualization, the addition of signs or markers with information about when and why the statues were built to help people see old monuments in a new light.  

Anderson Cooper: So, you'd like to see signs or placards or historical--

Julian Hayter: Anywhere--

Anderson Cooper: Lessons somewhere--

Julian Hayter: Anywhere around here, right.

Julian Hayter: --around here. Perhaps even on this sidewalk.

Anderson Cooper: So that as people approach the statue--

Julian Hayter: They can read the story of--

Anderson Cooper: And they can understand the context--

Julian Hayter: Absolutely.

Anderson Cooper: --in-- in which it was built--

Julian Hayter: Absolutely.

Anderson Cooper: --and the reason it was built.

Julian Hayter: Yep you could have-- a glass placard here and etched into that glass placard would be a story. And then when you look through it, you can still see the Lee monument, but you see it through the lens of a more accurate historical depiction.

In the most recent poll about Monument Avenue, more Richmond area residents said they preferred some form of recontextualization, over keeping the statues as they are or removing them.

Anderson Cooper: So someone walkin' down Monument Avenue today, what kind of a view do you think they would get about slavery, about the Civil War?

Julian Hayter: I don't think they'd get much of a view at all.

The only representation of an African American you'll find on Monument Avenue is a statue of Richmond native and tennis great Arthur Ashe. He's surrounded by children and holds a stack of books in his right hand and a tennis racquet in his left.

Julian Hayter: It was unveiled in 1996 in some ways as a proverbial middle finger to the other monuments. And believe me, this town exploded when they told the public that they were gonna build the-- the Arthur Ashe-- statue on Monument Avenue.

Anderson Cooper: A lot of people didn't want it built.

Julian Hayter: Oh, no.

No matter what Julian Hayter and the monument commission he serves on recommends, it might not have much impact.  Unlike in New Orleans, the Confederate statues here may be protected by state law, and the Republican-controlled Virginia General Assembly is unlikely to approve major changes anytime soon.

One person who that might have disappointed is Robert E. Lee. Before he died in 1870, he was on record opposing the building of civil war monuments in the north and the south. "Wiser," he once wrote, "not to keep open the sores of war."

Produced by Keith Sharman and Erin Horan.

  • Anderson Cooper

    Anderson Cooper, anchor of CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360," has contributed to 60 Minutes since 2006. His exceptional reporting on big news events has earned Cooper a reputation as one of television's pre-eminent newsmen.