About Monuments and History: Let’s Learn from the Confederate Memorial in Helena

Photo by Don Pogreba, 2015. Memento Park in Budapest
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One of the most interesting places I’ve traveled over the past few years was Memento Park in Budapest, an open-air museum filled with the detritus of Soviet rule over Eastern Bloc countries. There’s nothing the Soviets seemed to enjoy more than depositing gigantic statues of heroic communist workers, soldiers, and statesmen all over the countries they ruled over and there was nothing the people of those countries seemed to enjoy more in the first days of their freedom than toppling those statues. Memento Park is a tourist sight constructed to display those fallen monuments and talk about the time when the people of Eastern European countries had little control over their destinies. As one of the architects of the site noted:

“This park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship.”

If you want to see a Soviet-era statue, this is one of the few places left where you can. In the capitals of former Soviet Bloc countries I visited, there are few of these statues on display other than some very complicated and contentious memorials to Soviet dead from World War 2. I saw empty pedestals and heard stories about how thrilled the people of Prague were when their statue of Stalin went down in the 1960s. Memento Park isn’t just a collection of Soviet oddities; it offers a full educational program about the era and, critically, the purpose of those statues when they were placed by the Soviets.

This summer, I had the opportunity to visit museums in Riga, Latvia, and Vilnius, Lithuania that were constructed on the site of buildings that had previously housed the KGB. As we toured through ruins where men and women had been jailed, beaten, tortured, and even killed, the guides offered both a series of facts about what had happened in those horrific rooms and conveyed the emotions of what it had been like for the people to live under those conditions. We learned about the horrors of the Nazi and Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries, all of us leaving with a much great appreciation for how the events of that time still reverberated in Latvian and Lithuanian society today.

Seeing those empty pedestals, viewing those massive statues, and reeling from the impact of the KGB cells and killing rooms made me even more appreciative of the importance of preserving history, something I’ve always believed in. We absolutely must never forget the terrible moments in our history both remind us of how horrific and inhuman human behavior can be.

Of course, we must preserve our history. Of course, we must, in a democracy, discuss our past. But the Confederate Memorial in Helena did neither. The Daughters of the Confederacy who placed it and hundreds of other memorials around the country were the ones in the business of causing us to forget, hoping that the placement of monuments that obscured the causes of the Civil War would transform our collective memory. And they largely succeeded in that agenda, as evidenced by those who somehow believe that the South was not primarily motivated by slavery despite the words of the very men who led the secession from our country.

Like Soviet statues designed to obscure the brutality of Communist rule and celebrate Soviet soldiers, these monuments served the aims of propaganda, not history.

It’s a red herring to suggest that the people who cheered the removal of the Confederate Memorial Fountain in Helena wanted to destroy history or forget it. Many of us believe that it should be preserved in a museum setting so that it can become a teaching tool, not only about the soldiers who died during the Civil War but about the efforts during the Jim Crow era to whitewash Confederate history. Placed in a museum, in an appropriate context and explained by historians who can dissect the fountain and its motives, the memorial can finally transform from a symbol of a dark time in our history to an educational tool that helps to explain it.

Having visited the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture this spring, I’m almost certain no one is calling for the removal of the slave quarters or Emmett Till’s casket from its hallways. No one wants to remove its displays of racist caricatures, minstrel shows, or lynchings because all of those are presented with context that explains what their purpose was.  None of that was ever in place at the Confederate Memorial at Hill Park and it seems unlikely that a plaque could ever have provided the context necessary to explain it.

The irony of those who celebrate an imagined, ahistorical version of Confederate history suggesting that others want to destroy history is tragically ill-informed. Citing Orwell, as some have while celebrating a piece of propaganda, is as darkly humorous as much of his writing and a tragic reminder that we need to do a better job of educating people about thought control and manipulation.

Let’s stop fighting about this monument and start learning from it, in context and with the guidance of experts.

The director of the Montana Historical Society expressed his concern about the potential loss of history with the removal of the fountain. Let’s hope he can be taken at his word and will offer to take and display the fountain in an exhibit that lets us learn about the Daughters of the Confederacy and the era in which they were constructing these memorials. Perhaps he can organize a fundraiser for the display, given the passionate regard for history that seemed to be lacking when funding for the Montana Historical Society’s funding was under debate this winter, but so on display this week.

Perhaps we can transform a debate that has become increasingly bitter and personal over the past week into a moment in our history we can one day celebrate, when the people of Helena came together to preserve their collective history together rather than letting another skirmish in the American cultural civil war divide us even further.

I’m ready to donate for a new exhibit. Let’s make it happen, Helena.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

6 Comments

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  • Excellent post, Don. I’ve had to walk back some of my earlier comments on the fountain. Since I like statuary, and since it was a fountain and not Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis, I said just get rid of the plaque that praised the Confederacy and replace it with an accurate historical description of the Jim Crow era.

    I mentioned this to my wife and she dismissed my suggestion. “You’re a white man,” she said (she’s part Blackfeet) “you have no idea what a symbol like that means to African-Americans or other minorities.”

    She is, as is oft the case, right. So, it needs to come down but I like your idea of putting it somewhere in a historical context where people can learn from our despicable treatment in the not too distant past of non-whites.

    • The Grand Army of the Republic was a fraternal society for ex union soldiers. I,m fairly sure it is inactive now since the death of the last member.

  • The heck with making a new interpretive exhibit. I could care less. The bozos who run Helena had two years to come up with a lousy interpretive sign, and they could not do that.

    How about replacing the fountain, liberal do-gooders? It was a great place for my dogs to get a drink while taking a walk around town on a hot summer day.

    Put your money where your mouths are, progressives. Replace the fountain!

  • As a Historian, student of History, a Southerner and Veteran I understand both positions about your statue however I would like to point out a few Historical facts in my research that I think the good people of Montana need to know about in order to have all the information relevant to your monument.
    You have heard from the Native American Caucus and the Western Cultural Inc. foundation on their opinions of the monument. I have also quoted the President of the Western Cultural Inc. Dan Hall below but first let us go back and look at History and not opinions for a moment.

    Here is an quote from the Sons of the Confederacy web page about the dedication.( there is a copy of this as well in the Billings Daily Gazette archives from that day)

    “The 5th of September, 1916, was made memorable in the city of Helena, Mont., by the presentation of the Confederate memorial fountain as a gift from the Winnie Davis Chapter, U. D. C. (United Daughters of the Confederacy),” the magazine wrote. “It was in 1903 that this Chapter began its work for a Confederate memorial, and in this it was aided by other Chapters of the State. So on the evening of September 5, in the glow of the low Montana twilight, an interested throng gathered to witness the unveiling ceremonies.”

    The historical accounting of the Montana statue from its beginning shows it’s fundraising began in 1903, a full 12 years before the KKK even existed.
    It is of interesting note that the people of Montana have been “historically misled” as the Ku Klux Klan was not even founded until 1915. In the dialogue surrounding the memorial that it was dedicated by the Daughters of the Confederacy who were affiliated with the KKK and instrumental in spreading supremacy ideals as given by the Western Cultural Inc and the Native American Caucus is in truth historically inaccurate.
    Not sure about you but I find it hard to believe the DOC celebrated white supremacy and the KKK by putting up your fountain when the KKK wasn’t even founded for another 12 years, yes? Hmm. To give full disclosure the D.O.C. cited in History books mainly after 1920 about the work the KKK did for the widows and orphans of Confederate soldiers but you need to read for yourself and make up your own mind about the DOC in that time period. However for the purpose of this discussion we are only referring to the Montana memorial.

    Why a confederate memorial in Montana? Google Confederate Gulch and Diamond City History
    .
    Why was this memorial dedicated? It was dedicated to the dead soldiers of the confederacy buried in Montana. Many forget that in 1915 most Civil war veterans were in their 70’s. Demographic and census records will show that death rates of these veterans were at the same rate we are losing our WW2 vets today. Not to continue an idea of supremacy but to honor the men rapidly filling graveyards is why many(there are exceptions) of these memorials were dedicated. You look at the inscription for confirmation. ‘A Longing Tribute to Our Confederate Soldiers.’ Upon ‘By the Daughters of the Confederacy in Montana, A. D. 1916.”

    A memorial to the dead buried in Montana. That’s it, end of story. Montana and about a half a dozen other Union states received memorials from the DOC as signs of reconciliation and hope for the future of our nation to bind the wounds of the Civil war. The complete History of the Montana memorial is quite a different story from hatred, supremacy, slavery and racism cited by recent articles. The DOC was tasked in making and raising the money for these memorials as no statues would be raised to the dead soldiers from the Confederacy. These were their husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers they were remembering. Not white supremacy.
    Also of Historical note that the memorial was designed by a native Helena resident. Here is the bio:
    Architect George H. Carsley, the monument’s designer, was inspired by a memorial fountain erected in Washington, D.C., in the memory of two heroes of the Titanic disaster. Erected at a cost of $2,000, the Confederate memorial used native Montana granite.

    Jim Crow Era? Hmm, Jim Crow laws were placed in effect by the state and local governments to reinstitute the “black codes” found before the Civil war and mainly in the Southern states. Here is the ones that went into effect in Montana:
    Four Jim Crow laws were enacted in Montana between 1871 and 1921. The school segregation act was repealed in 1895. A 1909 miscegenation law prohibited marriage between Caucasians and blacks as well as Chinese and Japanese.
    1871: Education [Statute] Children of African descent would be provided separate schools.
    1897: Voting rights [Statute] Excluded “any person living on an Indian or military reservation” from residency, unless that person had acquired a residence in a county of the state and is in the employment of the government while living on a reservation. Without residency, a person could not vote.
    1897: Residency [Statute] An 1897 statute excluded “any person living on an Indian or military reservation” from residency, unless that person had acquired a residence in a county of MT and is in the employ of the government while living on a reservation.”
    1909: Miscegenation [Statute] Prohibited intermarriage between whites and Negroes, Chinese and Japanese. Penalty: Misdemeanor, carrying a fine of $500 or imprisonment of one month, or both.
    1921: Miscegenation [State Code] Miscegenation prohibited. Nullified interracial marriages if parties went to another jurisdiction where legal. Also prohibited marriages between persons of the Caucasian and Asian races.

    Also to note is the Native American Caucus has also called for the removal. Interesting how the Native American representatives left out their own extensive history of slavery between warring tribes(chattel slavery) and the contributions of the 5 Civilized tribes as allies to the Confederacy. It is also noted in Historical fact that the American Indians adopted European slavery as noted by the 5,000 African American slaves transported on the Trail of Tears as well as the fact that slavery of African-Americans continued on Indian Reservations for several months after the Civil War had ended.
    Hmm, curious as to what dog they have in this hunt?( I think we know now)

    Don’t see any references to memorials or statues in there in any of those Jim Crow laws. Just segregation laws that we thankfully evolved from in Montana.

    Certain supporters for removal of our Civil War memorials and statues have clouded the facts with their own “identity politics” of revisionism that blur historical fact in order to further divide our country and promote a radical agenda while “claiming” reconciliation. Extremist groups on the left and right are an ever growing threats in our communities that we must ever remain vigilant against.
    In closing I would like to address the assessment of the Montana Confederate memorial according to Dan Hall of the Western Cultural ,Inc in Missoula as noted above. Mr. Hall stated that the fountain was a monument to white supremacy. Regrettably in today’s society “cherry picking” History for political advantage in a year where politics has been anything but “business as usual” is becoming common place in the dialogue on this subject. Regrettably our leaders are listening to people who are only giving half the story. Historians across this nation are now being held to the task to provide correct Historical data to support suppositions and rhetoric as many are being discovered to be incorrect, misquoted or flat out lies about the History of the American Civil War.
    Here is his quote from the Billings Gazette in the Aug 11th article.
    “Dan Hall, president of Western Cultural, Inc. in Missoula, has been a historical archaeologist in Montana for 30 years. Reached by phone Friday, he said the fountain needed to come down and that many who protest its removal do not understand the true history behind it.
    “When you look at the context, that’s when you come to the conclusion that thing has to go.”
    Hall said the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who put up the monument in 1916, “were very slick” in concealing their mission of spreading the message of white supremacy and Lost Cause beliefs.” Hall also stated that the Daughters of the Confederacy promoted a revisionist History.”

    Considering the simple fact of history that Daughters of the Confederacy started raising the funds in 1903 for the fountain and the KKK wasn’t even founded until 1915 pretty much wipes out the KKK and white supremacy ties to the Montana fountain doesn’t it. It also begs question; “Who are the ones using “identity politics” and trying to implement a “revisionist History”? Mr. Hall, I think we all look forward to a clarification of your statement as well as your source listing on your information on the memorial fountain. Please explain what “context” you are referring to and how you came to that assessment with source listings. My sources are listed below.

    In closing here is the inscription on the memorial fountain dedicated to the dead men of the Confederacy laid in eternal rest in the quiet earth of Montana.

    ‘A Longing Tribute to Our Confederate Soldiers.’ ‘By the Daughters of the Confederacy in Montana, A. D. 1916.

    Just screams racism and white supremacy doesn’t it? LOL.

    Thank you for your attention to this post.

    Sources:
    Son’s of Confederacy
    Daughters of Confederacy
    “History of the 5 Civilized Tribes”
    Marquette University of Law
    Louisiana Tech University College of Arts and Sciences
    University of Alabama College of Arts and Sciences
    The Billings Gazette
    Native American Caucus
    Western Cultural Inc. Mizzoula, MT.

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