“It’s so central to the preservation and strengthening of the nation as a whole and raised issues that we still have not completely resolved today,” said William Barney, a UNC history professor who’s an expert on the antebellum South.
The themes have arisen nationwide and across UNC’s campus in recent months — namely race relations and whether to recontextualize history.
UNC activists, particularly members of The Real Silent Sam Coalition, have protested the honoring of Civil War-era individuals on campus — including the naming of Saunders, Hamilton and Aycock buildings in honor of Ku Klux Klan supporters, as well as the protection of the Silent Sam statue, which pays homage to Confederate soldiers.
Chloe Griffin, a UNC senior, explained efforts to rename Saunders as an effort to contextualize history, rather than erasing it from memory.
Griffin said she finds few problems with culturally appropriate recognitions of the Civil War.
“You can remember your past without wanting to be like it,” she said. “I don’t have a problem with people wanting to commemorate the end of the Civil War as long as it’s not in some weird, romanticized way that diminishes that racism is still an issue.”
But reflecting on the anniversary of the surrender, Barney said he does not think any approach to remembering the Civil War and simultaneously being culturally sensitive could convey the nuances behind its history.
“It would have to be a response that would recognize the bravery and sacrifice of everyone who was caught up in the war,” Barney said.
With or without a building named after Civil War figures or Ku Klux Klan members, UNC history professor Harry Watson said he would continue to remember them.
“I can’t forget them; I’m too busy worried about them and their legacy,” he said. “No way I’m going to forget who William Saunders was or what the Klan was or General Julian Carr, who gave the speech at Silent Sam’s dedication. I think of him at least once a week since I live in Carrboro.”
Still, the overall memory of the Civil War is likely to decline, said Fitzhugh Brundage, UNC’s department chairman for history.
“I don’t think the memory of the Civil War is likely to be (revived) time and time and time again,” he said. “It’s just likely going to recede.”
Brundage said each generation can dictate its historical commemorations.
“We can choose to commemorate the Civil War, but that doesn’t mean we have to honor the artifacts from the commemoration of the 20th century,” he said.
Watson drew a distinction between remembrance and the continued presence of Confederate symbols.
“You can’t say what the real meaning of the Confederate flag is because there’s a different set of meanings for every person who ever waved one or, you know, for every person who ever got one waved at them,” he said.
Brundage said Confederate flags exhibited in the South are contextually significant. Seeing the stars and bars painted on a garage in rural Guatemala, for example, lacks the same political meaning.
But there are unwelcome Civil War antiquities, Watson said, such as disenfranchisement through voting restrictions — which critics say is occurring in North Carolina and nationwide.
“I really thought that there were certain things that were done, settled, finished and over with,” he said. “But I guess I was wrong.”