I spent a couple hours in the Library of Congress website reading newspapers to get a sense of why Confederate statues were erected in the first place. This is from a speech by General S.D. Lee (no relation to R.E. Lee) dedicating a statue to Jefferson Davis in Yorkville, S.C. and, yes, that’s the photo of it today.
We are here today to honor the memory of Jefferson Davis; to lay the cornerstone of a monument to one who needs no monument in our generation beyond that of the hearts of his countrymen. But I would think it due to erect one that posterity may know the reverence felt for the great leader of a cause that failed.
It is ﬁtting that he should rest here in Virginia—that greatest of all States, the battle-scarred producer of warriors and statesmen—— ﬁtting that he should rest here among her immortals. But for her generosity in ceding her vast territory to the Union, Kentucky would have still been hers, and he would have been born her son. Many presidents, statesmen, soldiers lie in Virginia soil——from Washington to the present time—none greater than Davis, but more fortunate.
Fame has no trumpet for failure. The world hears not the voice of the vanquished. Yet his glory might teach us strange things of men who failed and causes that are lost.
Others have ably treated the Southern view of the controversy; their argument is submitted to impartial history. Sufﬁce it to say, on this occasion, that the war has settled that secession is impracticable, and the amendments to the Constitution have adjusted all other differences. The Southern people have fully accepted the results—they accept the present, and loyally commit themselves to the future. Neither shall I attempt to recount his life, for it is a part of history. The record is made up. If we protect it from falsiﬁcation while we live, the verdict of history will not shame our posterity when we are dead. Today we meet, and the past and present join hands. Looking around me, viewing the faces of the fair women and brave men before me, I realize that the past is behind me—that this is the living present. I feel the influence of the new hopes of the new generation to which you belong. Our task is to commit into your hands what our failing hands cannot much longer hold—the sacred rights for which your fathers sacriﬁced their lives, their property, everything; these liberties and the land which was so dear to them we commit to you. I will only say you cannot excel your fathers. Reverence them, emulate them. May you be worthy of them!
When the mists of passion and prejudice have passed away the calm light of justice gives the right niche to each ﬁgure in history. The descendants of the men who burned Joan of Arc now regard her as a character of heroism and beauty. The posterity of the men who hanged witches in Salem as a pious duty now hear the story With horror. The descendants of the men who today look on Jefferson Davis with unkind expressions will see him as we do—the Stainless gentleman, the gallant soldier, the devoted patriot, the pure and gifted statesman.
I cannot hold him wise who would will willingly wound the patriotism of any citizen of the republic. To brand such men as Albert Sidney Johnston, Stonewall Jackson or Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis a traitors is not to stain the whiteness of their lives, but rather to spoil the word for any useful purposes to make a traitor title which Hampton [Note] or Washington might have borne as well, had the fortunes of war gone against them.
In calmer years, when the last ember of sectional feeling has burned out and the last word of love has gently found in hearts of all Americans together, fathers will bring their little children to this spot and tell them the story of a pure, great man, who suffered for his people and for the right as they understood it, and for this they loved him as they loved no other.
It is hard to believe that the American people will always desire to have the epithets of traitor and rebel applied to names which are now, and unless human nature changes, always will be, dear and honored in the hearts of a large part of their number-—honored by men who made duty a passion, a religion; dear to the posterity of those, who were the foremost in sacriﬁces in the establishment of the republic, in the increasing of its area, and in the vindication of principles of government inherited from their forefathers, and accepted as correct for the ﬁrst ﬁfty years of the republic.
As long as yonder noble river shall roll its tide to the sea it shall behold no man more kindly. He was a very perfect, gentle knight. May the story of his life be sweet in days to come, when at last all men come to understand Jefferson Davis.
It would be interesting to know how the people of the time would have interpreted “the whiteness of their lives.” Perhaps it was a racial expression or perhaps it was meant to describe moral purity.
The speech was much longer than the except present in the newspaper at the time.
I weep for General S.D. Lee because any hope of seeing any nobleness in the Confederate cause is lost forever.
[Note] Likely making reference to Wade Hampton (1752 – February 4, 1835) was an American soldier, politician, two-term U.S. Congressman, and may have been the wealthiest planter and one of the largest slave holders in the U.S. at the time of his death. His son, Wade Hampton I, was a general in the civil war.