On a recent Confederate Memorial Day at the Tennessee State Capitol, the General Joseph E. Johnston Camp No. 28, Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), performed a pathetic little ceremony under the portico of the antebellum building. A small band of die-hards, their numbers were more than doubled by curious tourists, conscripted children, and an entertainment troupe called the Dixie Picks. A history professor from a local community college began proceedings with an angry and passionate recitation of Father Abram Joseph Ryan's poem to the battle flag. Turning southwards, the speaker pointed to the statue of the Confederate martyr Sam Davis, erected on Capitol grounds in 1909, and proclaimed that the story of the "boy hero" was "a living reminder of the valor of your flesh and blood." Executed by the Union army in 1863 for scouting behind enemy lines, Sam Davis had become a folk hero by the end of the nineteenth century; almost Christ-like in his representation of duty, bravery, and honor, he embodied the South's idealized image of itself during the crisis of the 1860s.
The martyr's honor, however, was besieged at the turn of the twenty-first century by those who wished to associate the memory of his "matchless glory" with the shame of slavery. Within fifteen feet of the Confederate statue, the speaker's friends had thrown a tarpaulin over a simple monument erected in 1999 by the Black Caucus of Tennessee state legislators to the victims of the Middle Passage who died en route to slavery in the Americas. The dedication of this simple granite block, set beside a Scarlet Oak sapling, had infuriated members of the SCV who called the monument's proximate placement to the Davis statue "a foolish little sophomoric prank." In a testy exchange of opinions in the press, a spokesperson for the Black Caucus claimed no intent "to disrespect a Confederate soldier or have it overshadow him in any way" and said that that the location for the monument to slavery's victims was determined by horticultural factors alone. Nonetheless, on Confederate Memorial Day the monument was covered to erase any suggestion that slavery was part of the secessionists' cause. (1)
Once a defiant public celebration for southern whites, Confederate Memorial Day has never been a moment for ambivalent thinking about southern identity and the meaning of the Civil War. The days when governors eulogized the Confederate cause, and the most prominent citizens jockeyed for position on the speaker's podium, are long gone. But though the crowds no longer come, time has not diluted the moral imperative--the passionate certitude--of Confederate symbolism, which, like Corinthian columns, continues to dominate the temple of the South's historical imagination. As readers of Southern Cultures are well aware, however, the white South's public commemoration of the Civil War era tells a highly selective, carefully orchestrated, and incomplete story of the service, suffering, and sacrifice of Americans during the terrible crisis of the 1860s. In recent years, scholars of the American Civil War era--taking a cue from historians of the First World War and the Holocaust--have moved into the study of historical memory both to explore how we have come to know what we think happened during the 1860s and to reconceptualize the questions we ask about one of the most critical events in U.S. history. In a southern context, the move into memory studies seems especially appropriate because so many popular assumptions and sources about the war and its aftermath continue to be stained with a resilient dye of sentimentalism, white supremacy, and martial nostalgia. (2)
The commemorative history of Sam Davis is a case study in collective memory making as part of the reconstruction of white southern identity during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; these memories and identities, moreover, are sustained and perpetuated today by many white southerners. There is a puzzling lack of ambiguity in the commemoration of Davis. …