Today we bring you a guest post by R. Boyd Murphree, Project Manager, Florida Family and Community History, Digital Services and Shared Collections, University of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and is also on Twitter @boyd_murphree.
On May 3, 1901, fire consumed Jacksonville, destroying the heart of the city and creating a humanitarian disaster. Viewing the devastation, Gainesville newspaperman and Confederate veteran John W. Tench observed that standing amidst the ruins “but one thing remained to tell of the touch of civilization—the Confederate monument.” As he “gazed upon the bronze soldier on top of the marble shaft,” Tench “smelt the battle smoke” and like Robert E. Lee on the field of Gettysburg watching the slaughter and madness of Pickett’s Charge, the bronze statue looked “with tear-moistened eye upon the desolation beneath, triumphant, but not the victor.”
General Lee and his soldiers lost the Civil War, but the bronze soldier was part of a new Southern army of metal, marble, and granite engaged in a battle to honor, glorify, and promote the memory of the Confederacy, its leaders, and its soldiers. Ongoing controversy in the United States about the appropriateness of maintaining Confederate monuments in public places of honor make this a good time to examine the history of Confederate monuments in Florida, the power of the Lost Cause in the state, and the deep racism that made Florida a leading state in incidents of lynching and other violence against African Americans. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century Florida newspapers available in Chronicling America document these subjects in detail.
Confederate monuments were powerful symbols of the Lost Cause narrative of Southern history. The narrative sought to vindicate the Confederacy as a noble attempt to defend state rights and constitutional liberty rather than a treasonous rebellion dedicated to the defense of slavery that ignited a bloody civil war and ended in the defeat and devastation of the South. Most of the monuments were erected during 1890–1930, the high tide of the Lost Cause movement. The greatest exponents of the Lost Cause were the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and the United Confederate Veterans (UCV), organizations that exerted substantial political influence on Southern legislatures, governors, and local governments.
As a former Confederate state, Florida stood firmly in the Lost Cause camp. Some 5,000 Floridians died for the Confederacy. The state was the scene of small but intense engagements in battles such as Olustee, Marianna, and Natural Bridge. Although the first Civil War monuments in Florida were built to honor Union dead—the United States Army and Navy created monuments at Olustee and Key West—Ladies Memorial Associations (LMAs) funded the building of the first Confederate monuments in Florida during the later years of Reconstruction: the oldest Confederate monument in Florida was erected in Walton County in 1871 (Lees and Gaske, 38).
Until the 1890s, Confederate monuments in Florida were devoted to honoring the war dead of localities. In 1891 Pensacola built the first monument in Florida dedicated to Confederate war dead in general. Still standing in the city’s Lee Square, Pensacola’s Confederate monument is fifty feet tall. An eight-foot-tall-statue of a Confederate soldier stands on the summit. The base of the monument contains four panels, each honoring a different aspect of the Confederacy: war dead, President Jefferson Davis, Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory, and General Edward A. Perry (Lees and Gaske, 67-68).
Pensacola’s monument is significant not only for being the first monument in Florida to honor all of the Confederate war dead. The monument was also the first in the state to embrace the Lost Cause narrative by honoring Confederate leaders and extolling those who died as heroes who perished “FOR A CAUSE THEY BELIEVED TO BE JUST.” The local LMA raised the funds to build the monument; however, by the 1890s, LMAs across the South were consolidating into the UDC, a nationwide Confederate memory organization founded in 1895 and devoted to spreading the gospel of the Lost Cause. The UDC was largely responsible for funding and organizing the creation of Confederate monuments in Florida and across the nation from the 1890s on (Lees and Gaske, 68, 86-87).
One significant exception to this pattern of Confederate monument building was Jacksonville’s Confederate monument, the one John Tench wrote about in 1901. A private donor, Confederate veteran John C. Hemming, not the UDC, paid for the monument, which was erected in St. James Park in 1898—the park was renamed Hemming Park in 1899. The monument stands sixty-two feet and is topped by an eight-and-one-half-foot bronze Confederate soldier. Reliefs on the base depict the following figures: Captain J. J. Dickison, a legendary Florida Confederate cavalry officer; General Edmund Kirby Smith, Florida’s most notable Confederate general, whose statue still resides in Statuary Hall in the US Capitol Building, and whose name was recently removed from the Alachua County Public Schools main administrative building; and both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson (Lees and Gaske, 77-82).
The unveiling of the monument on June 16, 1898, was a national event. Since April of that year, the United States had been at war with Spain, and Florida ports were the main bases for American troops preparing to invade Cuba. The Ocala Evening Star noted the “hearty meeting and cordial commingling of the old soldiers of both armies” as Union and Confederate veterans joined current soldiers from states across the nation to honor the event as a moment of reconciliation between North and South, now united in a common effort to defeat a foreign foe. The emphasis on national unity eventually became part of the agendas of the UDC and the UCV. Both organizations emphasized their loyalty to the United States and saw public allegiance as fundamental in getting the nation, not just the South, to embrace the Lost Cause narrative as the true history of the Confederacy and the Civil War. In addition, as many Southern politicians realized, if the nation endorsed the Lost Cause view that the Confederacy had fought to defend state rights and not slavery, the federal government was less likely to interfere with the strict system of racial segregation and denial of black voting rights that reigned across the South (Cox, 142-43).
Race, not reconciliation, however, was the determining factor in the construction of the Confederate monument at Olustee, the site of Florida’s most significant Civil War battle. The original Union monument at Olustee was built of wood and used as a temporary marker for a mass grave of Union dead. In 1899, the UDC lobbied the Florida legislature to appropriate money for the construction of a monument to honor the Confederate soldiers who had fought at Olustee. The legislature passed an amended bill that called for the expenditure of $2,500 on a monument that would honor both the Confederate and Union soldiers who served in the battle (Lees and Gaske, 196-97).
Although the UDC was officially for the national reconciliation that such a monument would represent, the fact that up to one third of the Union troops at Olustee were African American made the inclusion of language honoring the Union soldiers unacceptable to the organization. Reporting on the controversy, the Bradford County Telegraph pointed out that “to decorate the graves of negroes along with the graves of the Confederate dead seems impossible for the society.” Bending to the will of the UDC, the 1901 legislature amended the 1899 law to exclude any mention of Union soldiers on the proposed monument, which was dedicated on October 23, 1912. Almost one hundred years later, in August 2011, the issue of race and Olustee returned to the news when the Florida Department of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War proposed the construction of a monument on the battlefield’s state park grounds honoring the sacrifice of Union soldiers in anticipation of the sesquicentennial of the battle in February 2014. Echoing the earlier protests of the UDC, Florida’s Sons of Confederate Veterans opposed the building of a monument to “invading Federal forces . . . that will disrupt the hallowed grown [ground] where Southern blood was spilled in the defense of Florida.” The Union monument was not built (Lees and Gaske, 197-199, 291).
An earlier demonstration of the political power of the UDC and the UCV was dramatically and somewhat comically demonstrated in the US senatorial race of 1904 in Florida. In that election, several candidates vied for the seat, including Florida’s sitting governor, William Sherman Jennings. A native of Illinois who had moved to Florida in 1885, Jennings knew that his Northern background and name, which brought images to the Southern mind of loathed Union general William T. Sherman, would be fodder for his political opponents. When former Confederate general and original head of the UCV John B. Gordon died on January 9, 1904, in Miami, Jennings made it his mission to offer fulsome praise of the general during the heavily reported journey of the general’s body to its final resting place in Atlanta, where delivering one of the many funeral orations, Jennings declared, “Men like Gordon cannot die, they live forever in song and story . . .” (W. S. Jennings Papers).
Following the funeral, the governor ordered 1000 cards of Gordon’s portrait stamped with “Compliments of W. S. Jennings” across the top to send out to Confederate veterans in Florida (W. S. Jennings Papers). Even though the number of veterans was dwindling, they remained a powerful voting bloc in Florida Democratic primaries, where they looked to the candidate who would ensure the continuation and expansion of the state’s Confederate pension system. In 1904, Confederate pension disbursements made up almost 25 percent of Florida’s state government expenditures (Green, 1080-83). As veterans received the Gordon cards, many of them wrote to newspapers about the effrontery of Jennings’s attempt to make political capital from Gordon’s death. The Chipley Banner published a typical example: “What does Jennings care for the old Confederates? Not a blessed thing, except that he hopes to play upon the sentiments that bind them to the memory of their dead chieftan and secure their votes. He is a charlatan, a fakir, a demagogue . . . .” Embarrassed, Jennings lied about his responsibility for sending out the Gordon portraits, denying any role in the matter (W. S. Jennings Papers). He lost the election.
Governor Jennings’s encounter with the power of Confederate memory was brief and harmful only to his political ambitions. For black Floridians, the activities of the UDC and the UCV, especially the building of Confederate monuments and the emphasis on the Lost Cause, reinforced the demeaning and often deadly Jim Crow system of racial segregation and domination. The most horrible aspect of the enforcement of this regime was lynching. Florida had the highest per capita rate of lynching in the nation. Between 1890 and 1930, the period when most Confederate monuments were built, 195 African American males and five African American females were victims of lynching in the state (Bailey and Tolney, 230). Alachua County had at least twenty lynching deaths, the second highest number in Florida. Only neighboring Marion County with twenty-one had more (Adrien).
Alachua County’s history of racial violence and Confederate past came to a head in the spring of 2017, when the county commission voted to remove the county’s monument to its Confederate war dead from its location in downtown Gainesville (Tinker). The UDC dedicated the monument, known to longtime residents as “Old Joe,” in 1904. Standing eighteen feet tall, the monument supported a six-foot tall bronze and copper statue of a Confederate soldier holding a musket. Inscriptions at the bottom included language honoring the Confederate war dead as well as the Lost Cause: “THEY COUNTED THE COST AND IN DEFENSE OF RIGHT THEY PAID THE MARTYR’S PRICE” (Lees and Gaske, 88-91). In August 2017, the local UDC chapter removed the monument to Oak Ridge Cemetery near Rochelle (Caplan). Alachua County’s engagement in the Confederate monument controversy was a small but locally significant episode in the ongoing national debate over Civil war memory.
Citations and Additional Sources:
Adrien, Claudia. “Lynchings in Florida? It was a Problem Here, Too,” Gainesville Sun, September 3, 2005. Accessed October 2, 2017: http://www.gainesville.com/news/20050903/lynchings-in-florida-it-was-a-problem-here-too.
Bailey, Amy Kate and Tolnay, Stewart E. Lynched: The Victims of Southern Mob Violence (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
Caplan, Andrew. “Confederate Statue Removed from Downtown Gainesville,” Gainesville Sun, August 14, 2017. Accessed on October 2, 2017: http://www.gainesville.com/news/20170814/confederate-statue-removed-from-downtown-gainesville.
Cox, Karen L. Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003).
Green, Elna C. “Protecting Confederate Soldiers and Mothers: Pensions, Gender, and the Welfare State in the U.S. South, a Case Study from Florida,” Journal of Social History, vol. 39. No. 4 (Summer, 2006), 1079-1104.
Lees, William B. and Gaske, Frederick P. Recalling Deeds Immortal: Florida Monuments to the Civil War (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014).
Tinker, Cleveland. “County Votes to Offer ‘Old Joe’ to United Daughters of the Confederacy,” Gainesville Sun, May 24, 2017. Accessed October 2, 2017: http://www.gainesville.com/news/20170523/county-votes-to-offer-old-joe-to-united-daughters-of-confederacy.
Also see the William Sherman Jennings Papers at the University of Florida: http://www.library.ufl.edu/spec/pkyonge/JenningsWilliamS.htm. The Jennings quote about General Gordon comes from Box 1, Speeches, 1895-1905, p. 168. For Jennings’s order of the 1000 portrait cards of General Gordon see John A. Brice to W. S. Jennings, January 16, 1904 in Box 17, Correspondence 1904 January, p. 28. Jennings’s disavowal of the Gordon picture scheme is in Jennings to A. L. Woodward, undated, Letterbook (Personal) 1903-December-1904 July, p. 264
This post was edited in February 2019 to note that “up to one third of the Union troops at Olustee” were African American not “the vast majority of the Union troops at Olustee were African American” as was originally stated.