“Lest we forget”: John Winberry and the study of Confederate monuments on the Southern landscape

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“Lest We Forget”: John Winberry and the Study of Confederate Monuments on the Southern Landscape

Introduction — The late John Winberry was a productive scholar over his more than three decade career teaching, researching and writing at the University of South Carolina.  During that time, John had two main regional specialties: Mexico and the American South.  In terms of his research on the American South, what John may be best remembered for is his important work on the geography of Confederate monuments found in cemeteries and courthouse squares across the Southern landscape.  He published two articles on the topic: first, his 1982 piece “Symbols in the Landscape: The Confederate Memorial” appearing in the Pioneer America Society Transactions, and second, his more well-known 1983 Southeastern Geographer article, “’Lest We Forget’: The Confederate Monument and the Southern Townscape.”

In this presentation, we revisit these two articles on Confederate monuments published three decades ago.  We argue that these works still resonate today for two reasons:  first, John’s considerable detail in locating Confederate monuments both in time and space in an effort to clear up then common misconceptions about these monuments, and his thoughtful reasoning for why they were erected in the first place.  And second, John’s observations about the ‘place’ of these monuments, their meanings, and how these meanings shifted over time based on who was viewing them.  His observations foreshadowed much of the work that has been done over the past twenty years by a new generation of scholars on the politics of memory and the region’s battles over (re)presenting the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement on the landscape.  In his work John was able to navigate both the modernist and post-modernist paradigms and anticipate the rise of the latter within ‘new’ cultural geography.

We revisit John’s research on Confederate monuments in several ways.  First, we look at John’s efforts to detail and analyze the historical geography of the location, time periods, and typologies of Confederate monuments, as well as his discussions of why such monuments were erected in time and space.  We follow this up with an examination of John’s discussion of the shifting meanings and impact of these monuments over time and space, their role as both constitutive and reflective of the region’s power relations, and how these ideas informed a new generation of scholars studying the region.

The What, When, Where and Why of Confederate Monuments on the Southern Landscape–  The popular image of the Southern small-town landscape featuring a statue of a lonely Confederate soldier standing in the Southern courthouse square facing North, ready to defend home and region from invading Union forces, is one that has been commonly invoked in regional descriptions.  The first major contribution of John Winberry’s work was to raise and answer some basic questions about this commonly held image of Confederate monuments; that is, the what, where and why of Confederate monuments.  Among the questions John asked were: Are Confederate monuments ubiquitous around the American South?  When were these monuments erected?  Where within local landscapes were these monuments placed?  Were all Confederate monuments topped with statues of soldiers?  Did Confederate soldiers on top of these monuments all actually face North as is popularly believed?  And, most importantly, why were these monuments erected in the first place?  In his 1983 Southeastern Geographer article John set out to answer these questions focusing on the 666 Confederate monuments he identified located in towns and cemeteries.  He emphasized those located in courthouse squares due to their association with the South’s landscape to provide concrete evidence that would help us better understand Confederate monument construction and placement: their number, geographic diffusion, landscape location, and typologies of Confederate monuments, as well as explore reasons why these monuments were erected.


The ‘Place’ of Confederate Monuments on the Southern Landscape –  At the same time, Winberry in his 1982 and 1983 articles anticipated some of the changes that heralded the beginnings of a ‘new’ cultural geography.  With undertones of post-modernism and post-structuralism paradigms, Winberry highlighted the instability of meaning found in landscape, the power of monuments in terms of shaping images of ‘place’, the fights to control such interpretations, and the intersections of race and landscape, topics which have become common within the cultural/political geography literature in general, and on the American South specifically.

Indeed, Winberry (1983, 119) anticipates debates over the meaning of landscapes, when he notes that “Landscape features are ambiguous in meaning.  They are dynamic but also are evaluated differently by different people and at different times.  We can probe the reasons for their erection, but also we can seek to decipher what they mean to the observer.”  In this manner, Winberry posits a now commonly held post-modern view in cultural geography that landscapes do not possess one meaning which never changes and can never be challenged.  Hence, interpretations of landscape are not the province of their creators alone, but rather the meanings of landscapes can differ based on who is viewing the landscape.


Winberry ties the construction and interpretation of landscapes to issues of power.  That is, the construction and interpretation of landscapes are constitutive of, reflections of, and points of contention within societal power relations. As he notes in his 1982 article, “Landscapes sometimes are intentionally created or are allowed to remain specifically to elicit feelings, to evoke action, and to seal identity” (p. 11).  Winberry (1982, 11) then argues that the Confederate monument is one instrument of such power, as he notes, “[elements are] added intentionally to a landscape to convey a message. One example of this is the ostensible topic of this paper, the Confederate Memorial.  It is a characteristic of the southern courthouse townscape, but to understand it fully we must realize that it has been put there specifically to serve as a symbol in the landscape.”


As a result, Winberry anticipates the emphasis within cultural geography on societal power as conveyed, imposed and resisted through the landscape.  In seeking to apply these ideas to Confederate monuments, Winberry (1983, 118-9) argues that these monuments hold power in the present as well as in the past.  As such, Winberry emphasizes the important symbolic power of monuments erected on the landscape.


However, Winberry also ties these ideas of landscape and power together through Confederate monuments and the role of race in identity and politics in the American South.  He argues that these monuments were not built solely to honor Confederate soldiers, but rather the late 19th and early 20th century Confederate monument building frenzy tied into efforts to unite Southern whites and deny power to the region’s African American population.  Winberry (1983, 119) suggests that the Confederate monument was still a racially divisive symbol on the Southern landscape nearly a century later noting that it was “not a symbol shared necessarily by blacks or newcomers, but it does unite a people [white Southerners] and their history.”


In these ways, John Winberry in the early 1980s anticipated research conducted by cultural/political geographers on the American South over the past twenty years, from the study of the politics of memory and identity on the Southern landscape conveyed and contested through Civil War monuments, and through other imagery and symbols of the Confederacy and antebellum white Southern culture: from Confederate flags and symbols to antebellum landscapes and plantation home tours to revivals of the neo-Confederate movement within the region.  As well, clearly over the past twenty years it is not only white Confederate symbols of race, identity, and memory which have been contested on the region’s landscape, but these debates have also occurred over the erection of monuments and symbols, and the preservation of landscapes central to the Civil Rights Movement.


Conclusions While it would have been impossible for John Winberry to anticipate all of the past twenty years of research on the politics of race, memory, identity and landscape in the American South, in his meticulous analysis and his recognition of the role of public monuments in shaping power and place in the region, his path breaking articles on Confederate monuments and the meaning of the Southern symbolic landscape has provided useful guideposts for those scholars who have followed in his footsteps.