Daughters of Confederacy ‘Reeling’ From Memorial Removals

Private group largely responsible for spreading Confederate monuments finds itself in uncomfortable spot


When vandals defaced a Confederate memorial at a Los Angeles cemetery last week, retiree Scarlett Stahl took it personally, as if her own property had been damaged.

In a way, it had. She heads the California division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a national organization whose members donated the large stone and bronze monument to Hollywood Forever Cemetery in 1925 and was the driving force behind scores of the Confederate monuments across the U.S. that are now being decried as symbols of bigotry and are being targeted for removal.

“I feel very hurt, like this is not my America,” Ms. Stahl said, choking back sobs as she recalled how she had to authorize having a truck haul the monument away to storage early Wednesday.

Accelerated efforts by cities and activists across the U.S. to remove Confederate monuments in the aftermath of the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., has thrust the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a lineage society, reluctantly into the fray because of its influential role in spreading these memorials often seen as valorizing those who fought to secede from the union.

It is an uncomfortable spot for the private group founded in 1894, and the momentum against the statues is starting to take a toll.

“They’re reeling, the daughters are,” said Susan McCrobie, the current historian and past president of the United Daughters’ Kentucky Division, describing the mood in the organization in recent days.

Mrs. McCrobie said many members felt sadness and disbelief about the deadly Charlottesville rally, where the scheduled removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee touched off the initial demonstrations. They are also upset, she said, that white supremacists had latched on to the monument debate. “The UDC has nothing to do whatsoever with white supremacy,” she said.

The national president of the United Daughters, which is based in Richmond, Va., didn’t respond to requests for comment.

There are more than 700 Confederate monuments and statues on public property in the U.S., according to a 2016 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The United Daughters of the Confederacy was a key organizer and fundraiser behind the majority of them, Mrs. McCrobie said.

A Confederate memorial used to stand near these graves of Confederate soldiers at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
A Confederate memorial used to stand near these graves of Confederate soldiers at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. PHOTO: LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS/ZUMA PRESS

Among the group’s gifts: a 1903 monument in Baltimore that was hauled off in a stealth operation before dawn Wednesday; a 1904 statue in Alachua County, Fla. nicknamed “Old Joe,” which was taken down last week; and the Confederate Memorial Fountain in a park in Helena, Mont., that was removed Friday. They were also behind the huge carving of three Confederate leaders on Stone Mountain east of Atlanta that the Democratic gubernatorial candidate called to be removed after the Charlottesville tragedy.

The Daughters, who must provide “proof of ancestors’ service to the Confederate States of America,” grew out of several Southern women’s associations that formed after the Civil War. Many women were suffering because they had lost fathers, brothers, husbands and sons in America’s bloodiest conflict, which resulted in the heaviest number of deaths on the Confederate side. An estimate of one in three Southern households lost at least one family member, according to the Civil War Trust.

The earliest monuments erected by these women’s groups—from the late 1860s to around 1890—were typically placed in cemeteries as expressions of grief.

But the tone and placement of the monuments shifted at the end of the 19th century. Against the backdrop of rising Jim Crow laws in the south, a wave of more resplendent memorials erected largely through the 1920s were placed prominently in public areas and sought to pay tribute to the Confederate cause and convey white dominance, said Mark Elliott, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy “really midwifed the ‘Lost Cause’ in a lot of ways,” said Brian Jordan, an assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University in Texas, referring to “this specious notion” that the war wasn’t about slavery, that the fight was never fair and that a culture had been lost as a result of the war.

Around 1901, the Baltimore chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy distributed a fundraising letter for the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument—that would be dedicated in Baltimore in 1903—asking for “your cooperation in this labor of love for our ‘Lost Cause.’”

The letter described the Confederate soldier as “the purest, noblest, highest type of Christian warrior that the world has ever produced!”

Carolyn Billups, the president of the Maryland division of the United Daughters from 2014 to 2016, included that letter in her book on Louise Wigfall Wright, who led the fundraising effort for the 18-foot high Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which was one of several that was carted off last week. Ms. Billups said the goal of the monuments always was to honor veterans.

“The ladies were trying to help heal the nation,” said Ms. Billups, who is 65 and said her great-great grandfather served in the 13th Virginia Infantry during the Civil War. Ms. Billups, who said the Civil War was about taxes, not slavery, said she is saddened and angry that the monument was taken down.

There is a push to remove the huge carving of three Confederate leaders on Stone Mountain east of Atlanta.
There is a push to remove the huge carving of three Confederate leaders on Stone Mountain east of Atlanta. PHOTO: ERIK S. LESSER/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

“It pains me, the thought of all the work that went into it to have it erected, the thousands of people who attended the dedication ceremony,” she said. She said she is also extremely sad about the deadly Charlottesville rally. “It’s a tragedy,” she said.

Although the United Daughters of the Confederacy led efforts to build many of the monuments, the chapters largely moved on to quieter endeavors, such as providing scholarships, decorating cemeteries or holding patriotic activities honoring veterans.

But over the years, the inventory of property the Daughters spawned has dragged them into the spotlight.

Last year, Vanderbilt University said it would pay $1.2 million to the Tennessee branch of the United Daughters of the Confederacy group to remove the word “Confederate” from a residence hall. That resolution came after the United Daughters sued, saying the university couldn’t change the name without repaying the group the current value of its 1933 gift of $50,000 toward the construction and naming rights for the building.

The United Daughters felt like they had no choice but to fight Vanderbilt because the university had portrayed the word Confederate as “immoral,” said Douglas Jones, a Nashville attorney who represented the group.

He said such public battles are exceedingly rare for the group, and unlikely in cases where they gave monuments as gifts to public places, with no contracts involved. Nonetheless, the group is alarmed about fresh calls to remove monuments.

“We’re watching everything very closely, obviously,” he said. “And the question we have is, ‘Where does it stop?’”

Write to Jennifer Levitz at jennifer.levitz@wsj.com




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