Is it permissible to defend Silent Sam, the University’s monument to its fallen Confederate alumni, as Delta Upsilon’s pledge class has literally done? Many North Carolinians would not object. The South is their home and honoring rebel veterans is an integral component of their heritage. But these individuals should consider why so many of their fellow Tar Heels abhor the statue.
Silent Sam and its supporters accept two lies. First, by ignoring slavery and portraying secession only as duty to one’s country, Sam obfuscates the clear relationship between slavery and the Civil War. Virtually no historian accepts such “lost cause” narratives. Sam, like the war itself, was born in the spirit of hate. At its christening in 1913, a speaker recalled the proud day he “horse-whipped a Negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds.”
Sam’s second lie is that all UNC alumni supported the Confederacy. Many UNC graduates were indeed wealthy slave owners who supported secession. Sadly, this is often extrapolated to suggest that all white southerners supported the war.
When the war came in 1861, most North Carolinians grudgingly supported the Confederacy; however, North Carolina led the South in desertions. Its mountains were a bastion of unionism and thousands of its residents violently resisted Confederate power. If the University wanted to build a monument to better reflect how most white North Carolinians experienced the war, it could render a gaunt, malnourished, white southern soldier laid prostrate on a battle field, a Confederate officer, scion of the South’s planter class, lording above him.
Why is this narrative of Tar Heel resistance to the white power elite not better known?
Here we arrive at Sam’s cruel genius.
From 1865 through the end of Reconstruction, poor white, black and Republican North Carolinians aspired to create a more equitable society. Again in the 1890s, they united under the fusionist banner, challenging the state’s undemocratic elite by opting for a politics of class and freedom rather than race. The white elite crushed them with a campaign of unrivaled terror.
Unconvinced that violence and state-sanctioned segregation alone could divide blacks and poor whites, groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy worked to eradicate North Carolina’s egalitarian aspirations from public memory. Building “lost cause” statues like Silent Sam became a key tactic in their battle.
Their campaign worked. Writing about the 1970s, historian Timothy Tyson laments that “... the Fusion coalition was defeated so utterly ... crushed by violence and fraud, and then blotted out of the history books, that seventy years later, most North Carolinians could not remember their interracial past and found it hard even to imagine a realistic interracial coalition.”
But our state is not destined to suffer from this amnesia. James Baldwin believed “an invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.”
For the better part of a century, North Carolina has done its best to prove him wrong. The twin lies enshrined in Silent Sam remain shockingly intact. Our generation must disavow, debunk and destroy them.