The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Friday, Sept. 29, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

'A lesson for the living': The group behind Silent Sam and its historical relationship to UNC

Silent Sam unveiling, June 2, 1913

Contributed by North Carolina Postcards Collection, North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Years of collaboration between the United Daughters of the Confederacy and UNC’s leaders led to the 1913 unveiling of Silent Sam. 

That effort on campus played one small part in a states-wide movement led by the UDC that placed Confederate monuments across the South, implemented pro-Confederate textbooks in public schools and attempted to reclaim Civil War history to give it a pro-Southern interpretation, historian and UNC-Charlotte professor Karen Cox said. 

Read more: UNC announces recontextualization of Kenan Memorial Stadium

Cox, who has studied the UDC for years, said the group peaked right before World War I when it reached 100,000 members, seeing its influence decline in the time after. 

However, the UDC still exists, and it met privately with the University this year to discuss Silent Sam’s fate. 

The Daughters make their mark 

“By 1877, all Southern states had reverted back to their old ways, short of slavery,” Cox said. “With that, federal troops were out of the region, and they were not having to deal with Reconstruction, and they could begin to look at this in a different way and craft their own narrative about what happened.” 

When the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction gave Black citizens in the South hope for a new voice, the UDC came to dominate an effort to establish what historians like Cox have called the “Lost Cause mythology” – a revisionist history where the South went to war as a hero defending states’ rights from an oppressive North and slaves were happily led by benevolent masters. 

“A huge part of that Lost Cause mythology is that African Americans were inferior, African Americans were better off enslaved, the Ku Klux Klan was a positive group — even though it was a domestic terrorist organization — and that the Civil War was a just cause that did not have anything to do with slavery,” said William Sturkey, a UNC historian who specializes in the history of race in the American South. 

The UDC erected a monument in 1926 outside of Concord, North Carolina “in commemoration of the ‘Ku Klux Klan’ during the Reconstruction period.” 

At a 1912 speech in Washington, D.C., Mildred Lewis Rutherford, then-historian general for the UDC, told an applauding audience that the Ku Klux Klan had been a necessity “to establish the political supremacy of the white man in the South” when “he had to fight his way with shackled hands during the awful Reconstruction period.” 

One of the keys to the UDC’s long-term success, Cox said, was its unspoken objective: vindication for their ancestors’ roles in the Civil War. 

The UDC viewed children as its most important audience in that pursuit. 

The group, Cox wrote in a 2017 op-ed for The New York Times, sought to “instill in Southern white youth a reverence for Confederate principles,” and it succeeded in “building ‘living monuments’ who would grow up to defend states’ rights and white supremacy.” 

Sturkey said that since the desegregation of Southern institutions in the mid-20th century, historians at large, including the American Historical Association, have worked to correct the glorification of the Confederacy. 

“Their views on the Civil War and the Ku Klux Klan have been just thoroughly discredited,” Sturkey said. “But the one thing is that they have this huge advantage of time over 120 years to promote these views.” 

The UDC carries a low profile today, instructing its members to never speak with media, according to its 2015 Confederate Courier newsletter. But it has not been quiet in its defense of Silent Sam. 

Protecting Silent Sam 

The UDC’s Aug. 23 statement on the monument’s toppling said that permitting the destruction of property without punishment “results in anarchy and the destruction of the fabric of society.” 

“This struggle concerns more than appeasing the feelings of some when they walk past statues commemorating a past that offends them,” the UDC said in its statement. 

This past spring, the University met privately with the UDC to hear its thoughts on the monument, according to emails obtained by WRAL. 

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

Peggy Johnson, current president of the UDC’s North Carolina division, emailed Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Clayton Somers on July 17 about a flyer that she feared indicated planned violence by activists. Speaking on familiar terms, Johnson told Somers she hoped police would be ready. 

Within an hour, Somers responded thanking Johnson and told her police were already preparing. 

“I do appreciate your making sure we were aware,” Somers wrote. “I hope you’re having a good summer and hope to see you again soon. Thank you again.” 

When emailed for comment by The Daily Tar Heel, Somers forwarded the email to Director of Media Relations Joanne Peters Denny, who said Somers was not available. 

Peters Denny said the University has met with a wide range of interested parties in an effort to find a solution to the challenges posed by the Confederate monument. 

“Vice Chancellor Somers met with Peggy Johnson once in the spring of 2018 and, as you referenced, they exchanged emails,” Peters Denny said. “That is the extent of their relationship.” 

Johnson declined the DTH’s inquiry for comment over email, saying her mother was very ill and in the hospital. 

Building Silent Sam 

The UDC’s interest in Silent Sam stems from its role in the monument’s origin. 

In 1908, Annie Hill Kenan, then-president of the UDC’s North Carolina division and sister-in-law of William Rand Kenan Sr., posed the idea for a Confederate monument on UNC’s campus to Francis Venable, president of the University at the time. Venable wrote back to her that the University’s Board of Trustees were “much pleased.” 

“I hope very much that this laudable purpose can be carried out,” Venable wrote in a follow-up letter to Kenan. “You know that more than one thousand of the alumni entered the Confederate service and surely something should be done to perpetuate the patriotism and heroism of these noble sons of the University.” 

Venable echoed the UDC’s Lost Cause message when asking alumni for donations to fund the monument. 

“The ideal commemorated by this monument is one of service and the noble answer to the call of duty,” Venable wrote to an alumnus. “It is not intended as merely a monument to the dead but a lesson for the living.” 

Cox said that being in the UDC gave white Southern women newfound positions of political power and public influence. Many married into wealth and power, or were descendants of Confederate officers. 

Kenan, who planned Silent Sam with Venable for years, fit that mold. Her brother-in-law served on the University’s Board of Trustees until his 1903 death. He also commanded a white supremacist unit that murdered at least 25 Black people in the Wilmington Massacre of 1898. His name is commemorated by UNC's Kenan Memorial Stadium to this day. 

Venable visited Wilmington on Kenan’s invitation on Oct. 15, 1909, hoping to “impress the Daughters of the Confederacy with the worthiness” of a monument project in Chapel Hill. 

In a town still gripped by the white supremacist overthrow it experienced less than a decade prior, Venable seemed to have found Silent Sam’s inspiration through his admiration of a Wilmington Confederate monument that had been built years before. 

“I wrote to remind you of your promise to send me a photograph or design of the monument which we were both looking at in Wilmington, namely, the one with the bronze tablet on the face of the pedestal and the statue of the young soldier above it,” Venable wrote to Kenan less than a week after his visit. 

Using funds from the UDC, the University and alumni donations, Silent Sam’s construction cost $7,500, according to a 1911 University record. Adjusted for modern inflation, the project to commemorate what the Trustees called “the greatest epoch in the University’s history” cost approximately $190,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator. 

Venable later invited Kenan to see the result of her efforts on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus. 

“I wish that you could see the fulfillment of your idea and rejoice with us in the beautiful monument which stands upon the campus.”