The Confederate Memorial in Forest Park

Southern face of the Confederate Memorial in Forest Park (Photograph by the author in January 2013)

Southern face of the Confederate Memorial in Forest Park (Photograph by the author in January 2013)

The Confederate Memorial in Forest Park has been the target of controversy in recent months. I first learned of the Confederate Memorial in 2012 when I read about it in Lindenwood University’s The Confluence. Before the controversy of this year, I regarded the memorial as no more than an obscure monument, unknown to most St. Louisans. I started writing this entry in April after Mayor Slay suggested it be removed from the park, but I hesitated to post it because I had thought that my gut reaction, always on the side of historical preservation, might be wrong. Following the tragedy in Charleston in June, the memorial was painted with an “X” and decorated with signs reading “Black Lives Matter.” Others, notably Congressman Lacy Clay, have echoed Mayor Slay, calling for its removal. St. Louis Magazine published an article about the controversy last week. I speak as a white St. Louisan, understanding my position of privilege, but also as an individual concerned for the preservation of history in all forms, beautiful or ugly. My fear is that the memorial will become another part of vanishing St. Louis, a piece of the city’s history lost forever. I think in discussing the memorial’s possible removal that it is important to consider the memorial’s origin. The memorial was controversial in 1914, too, albeit for reasons different from those of 2015. The history of the memorial can help us better understand where we stand today.

The Confederate Memorial in Forest Park was revealed to the public on December 4, 1914. Three St. Louis chapters of the Daughters of the Confederacy were in attendance. The monument, created by then-celebrated sculpture George Julian Zolnay, a St. Louis resident, had cost the Daughters of the Confederacy $23,000. There was not immediate consensus about the memorial. Its location, its form, and its message were all debated among the city leadership and the proponents of the monument.

Nostalgia for the Confederacy

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (December 4, 1914)

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (December 4, 1914)

The year 1914 marked almost half a century after the end of the Civil War. Pride in the long-dissolved Confederate States of America was still strong among many, including many St. Louisans, as evidenced by the activity of the Daughters of the Confederacy, the primary benefactors for the St. Louis monument. The chapters of the Daughters of the Confederacy boasted a loyal and well-funded membership. Other groups, such as the Ex-Confederate Benevolent and Historical Society also claimed an active membership. An 1899 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch describes a gathering of 150 people at a meeting place owned by the organization at 16th Street and Lucas Place. The purpose of the meeting was to honor former Confederate leader, Jefferson Davis. Interestingly, Given Campbell, no relation to the Campbell family of Lucas Place, directed the meeting. Campbell was celebrated as a Confederate hero for his part in helping Jefferson Davis escape danger toward the end of the Civil War. Campbell, a Kentuckian, studied law in Virginia before settling in St. Louis to practice. His home at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Lafayette Avenue near Lafayette Square is labeled on the 1875 Compton and Dry map of St. Louis—evidence of his success and fame in the post-Civil War years despite the handicap created by his link with the Confederacy. The effort to not only keep memory of the Confederacy alive, but to celebrate it, was sustained by the activism of moneyed individuals.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (May 30, 1899)

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (May 30, 1899)

The Confederate Memorial was built in an era when general nostalgia for the Confederacy was high. But it is unclear to me how well St. Louisans of 1914 remembered the harsh realities of slavery and the Civil War.  A Post-Dispatch article from May of 1912 describes an interesting St. Louis Memorial Day event: former Confederate and Union soldiers marching together down Lindell Boulevard. The procession started at Grand and Lindell and continued east toward the now razed Coliseum with the Confederates taking the lead. At the Coliseum the procession stopped and the former Confederates opened the line so that the Union soldiers could come to the front. Soldiers of other wars, as well as sons and daughters of dead soldiers, also marched in the parade—some representing the Union, others the Confederacy. The Post-Dispatch’s description of the event is in no way critical; pubic recognition of former Confederate soldiers, individuals, seems to have been an unremarkable happening at that time in St. Louis. Other articles mention similar Memorial Day events. Some St. Louisans even called for the public celebration of a special Confederate Memorial Day. There were undoubtedly those who disagreed with the public celebration of Confederate soldiers, but the parades and gatherings happened nonetheless.

Letters from the People, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (April 19, 1911)

Letters from the People, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (April 19, 1911)

The location of the Confederate Memorial, along what is now labeled Confederate Drive, was not the first choice among its planners, including St. Louis Commissioner of Parks, Dwight Davis. After the end of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, Davis was instrumental in transforming Forest Park into a more accessible public space, creating athletic fields and user-friendly walking paths. Today the tennis courts at Forest Park are named after him. Davis originally asked the Ladies’ Confederate Monument Association, an organization created specifically for the purpose of building the monument, if they would consider constructing a fountain on Government Hill instead, close to where the World’s Fair Pavilion is today. Davis thought that two memorial fountains, one for the Union soldiers and one for the Confederate soldiers, would be more visually appealing. Ultimately, however, the organization chose the location near Lindell Boulevard.

It is important to discuss such a controversial memorial in the context of the time it was built. The St. Louis Confederate Memorial was not an anomaly; in June 1914 President Woodrow Wilson unveiled the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. Wilson and other presidents have sent flowers to the memorial in Arlington on Memorial Day. The effort to build the St. Louis memorial was part of a national movement concerned with celebrating the memory of the Confederacy. This movement had started before the turn of the century. In June 1891 a Confederate memorial was unveiled in Fredricksburg, Virginia to a crowd of 5,000. It was not a somber event; guns were fired in salute and a band played “Dixie.” The Fredricksburg memorial is very militaristic. Each of its four sides is carved with a depiction of a different object of war: muskets on the west side, sabers on the north, a cannon on the east, and a fortress on the south. The St. Louis memorial, in contrast, was designed to be humanistic, de-emphasizing any militaristic reminders of war typically found on Confederate memorials. Although there was much support for Confederate memorials at the time, many St. Louisans were aware of the possible implications if the memorial was perceived to be celebrating the Confederacy. The same year that the St. Louis memorial was unveiled, work was being planned for a Confederate monument like no other: the world’s largest high-relief, a depiction of Jefferson Davis carved into the side of Stone Mountain in Georgia.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (January 16, 1916)

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (January 16, 1916)

The work, certainly impressive, is an irrefutable celebration of the Confederacy. Work began on the Stone Mountain monument in the 1920s and would remain under construction for five decades. The St. Louis memorial, however, is simple in design. It is thirty-two feet tall. Relative to other Confederate memorials it is, in a word, tame. On its southern face, there is a bas-relief featuring a young man with his mother holding on to his right arm and his wife on his left; a boy holding a flag stands in front. The northern face is carved with quotations honoring the “soldiers and sailors of the Southern Confederacy, who fought to uphold the right declared by the pen of Jefferson and achieved by the sword of Washington.” A carefully chosen quote by Robert E. Lee reads, “We had sacred principles to maintain and rights to defend for which we were duty bound to do our best, even if we perished in the endeavor.” The Daughters of the Confederacy evidently subscribed to the idea that the Civil War was caused by a disagreement over states’ rights, not the institution of slavery.

The memorial was the only monument in Forest Park which required a city ordinance. Despite specific instruction to not include explicit Confederate imagery, Zolnay’s original design, as selected by the Confederate Monument Association, was rejected by the St. Louis City government because it contained a depiction of a Confederate flag. One of the councilman said of the rejected design, “I feel it would be flaunting the Confederate flag in the face of Union men to authorize the erection of this monument in Forest Park. It would be opening an old wound.” Another councilman who had voted in favor of the design seemed surprised by the reaction to the Confederate flag. He said, “You might as well preclude from a museum a picture of a historic occurrence because a Confederate flag appears in it.” Zolnay begrudgingly modified the design so that no Confederate flag was pictured.

African American Life in 1914

In a discussion of a memorial, it is important to discuss the experience of African Americans in St. Louis at the time. It was probably unlikely that many African Americans lined up for the public unveiling of the monument. Racial tension in 1914 was approaching new heights in St. Louis as the percentage of black residents slowly but steadily increased. More black Southern families were migrating north, moving to large cities in search of better-paid work and safer environments for their children. In the South, African Americans were still subject to intense racism, only able to take low-paid agricultural jobs. St. Louis and East St. Louis, however, were already rich with industry in 1914, offering plentiful manual-labor jobs, which African American men coming from the South were happy to take. Better paid work, especially union work, offered black men not only the promise of better food and housing, but the chance of meeting and working alongside white workers in an egalitarian work environment. However, not all white St. Louisans were comfortable with the notion of racial equality. In 1916, less than two years after the unveiling of the memorial, white St. Louisans passed a segregation ordinance at a ratio of three to one. In 1917, a violent race riot would occur in East St. Louis with a death toll of two hundred. It is doubtful that the experience and feelings of African Americans were considered when the Confederate Memorial was planned.

It is my opinion that the removal of the Confederate Memorial, a memorial that was mostly unknown and overlooked among St. Louisans until Mayor Slay’s announcement, will do absolutely nothing to help or prevent the civil rights injustices suffered by people of color in the United States. But it will further impair the access we have to the history of our own city. The memorial should be left as a reminder of how far we have come since 1914, the year of its unveiling, and since 1964, the year it was rededicated. I propose an alternative to removal: a competing monument, celebrating African American history, should be built nearby. The purpose of the Confederate Memorial should be evolved from remembrance to education.


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