Montana Free of Confederate Monuments

By Jared Hammer on September 7, 2017

Since the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville on August 12, which resulted in the death of equal rights activist Heather Heyer, a nationwide debate about the removal of Confederate memorials was sparked. City officials across the nation have deemed these sites to be too dangerous to keep on display, due to their notoriety for attracting racial hate groups.

Critics of this trend, including President Donald Trump, are calling the removal of the monuments an attempt to erase history. Supporters, however, are challenging the legitimacy of such history, as there is strong evidence to show that the memorials are more so a part of a racially divided agenda — an attempt to shape public memory in a way that better favors the soldiers of the Confederacy.

This debate made its way north to my community in Montana, when city officials from our state capitol of Helena, MT decided to remove a fountain dedicated to the soldiers who died fighting for the Confederacy. On August 18, less than a week after the events in Charlottesville, the city went ahead with its plan in spite of protesters who arrived at the site in an effort to save the monument.

Suddenly, there was a lot of hubbub from local Montanans about the significance (or lack thereof) of the memorial, many of whom arguably, did not know about the memorial prior to the event. Admittedly, neither did I. During the Civil War, Montana was not even a state and naturally had very little to do with the ideals of the Confederate South. With this in mind, the existence of such a memorial in Montana is all the more bizarre.

Dedicated in 1916, the fountain was installed by an architect hired by The United Daughters of the Confederacy, who along with their counterpart, The United Sons of the Confederacy, are responsible for a vast majority of the Confederate monuments in the United States. (

Rather than accept the removal of the monument, which was disassembled and moved into city storage, there was a strong call for the monument to remain untouched. Those who wished the city keep the memorial argued that the fountain can be used as an opportunity to learn from our past rather than run away from it. However, this begs the question: What is the history being preserved by this fountain?

Dedicated in 1916, the fountain was erected in tribute to the fallen soldiers who fought for the Confederacy. It is the only Confederate monument in the treasure state and is thought to be the northernmost Confederate memorial in the States. The fountain was put in place by members of The United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group that openly supported the Ku Klux Klan at the time. The UDC’s motives behind the memorial were framed as an effort to honor the dead and unite the North and South, but critics still say the fountain, and other Confederate monuments like it, were put up with ulterior motives.

Historian William Fitzhugh Brundage wrote an elegant argument that most Confederate memorials were put in place as resistances to equal rights movements for African American citizens. According to him, the monuments are more akin to racist propaganda than the actual history they supposedly stand for. He notes that there was a large influx of monuments being erected after the reconciliation of the North and South, as well as during the imposition of segregation laws.

Alongside this correlation, Brundage also points to the extreme number of Confederate monuments in comparison to monuments erected for the soldiers of the Union. In addition, he also calls attention to the fact that many Confederate monuments were mass produced, and that records of dedication speeches given at some of the memorials were blatantly racist. These reasons are among many other indicators that Confederate monuments were not erected for the sole purpose of honoring fallen soldiers, but rather to give the impression that the racist ideals of the Confederate South were noble rather than abhorrent.

The role of these monuments in American society has largely served their intended purpose, as numerous conservatives are still disillusioned by the idea that the Civil War was fought over ‘state rights’ and that slavery was merely a back seat issue. Historians, however, generally agree that ‘state rights’ is merely a gentler way of phrasing ‘a state’s right to own slaves.’ The Civil War was, and always will be about slavery. No amount of reframing can change that. Truly, it is painfully ironic that people are arguing that the removal of Confederate symbols is a loss of history when the purpose of such monuments was an attempt to shift history in the first place.

Propaganda does, however, have its own place in history, which is why many would like to see these monuments moved to museums. There, historians can provide the proper context for viewers to understand and learn from them. In their current state as public memorials, many of which lack context, these monuments are memorializing the wrong side of history and offer little educational value regarding the Civil War.

Those concerned with preserving history should also be aware that removing Confederate memorabilia is also history in the making. Future generations will have the opportunity to learn about the monuments, and why our society has finally begun to take them down and remove them from public areas. I have little hope that each and every monument will be removed from public spaces, as the fight to remove larger monuments like Stone Mountain will be hard won.

The monuments that our society decides must stay would at the very least benefit from signage or some form of addition or modification to provide context that is more equipped to educate. It’s fairly uncertain whether these kinds of measures will take place, especially in areas of the south where these monuments are in the highest concentration, but it’s something we should be working towards. In the meantime, I have one new reason to be proud of Montana: Confederate monument free since ‘17.


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