The Confederate Monument Issue: Is It Pride or Prejudice?

They have called us Rebels and Traitors,
But themselves have thrown off that name of late;
They were called it by the English Invaders,
At home—in the year of "Ninety-Eight ..."

-- from "Kelly’s Irish Brigade"

For those of us here at, the issue of Confederate monuments and memorials is a complicated one. Far more Irishmen and Irish-Americans fought on the Federal side of the American Civil War than fought for the Confederacy. That was because cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia were the most frequent destination for the exiles of An Ghorta Mor, The Great Hunger. There were, however, a number of prominent native Irishmen who fought for the Confederacy. The most celebrated of them are Patrick Cleburne and Dick Dowling. In addition to that, Irishmen filled the ranks of Confederate army and navy. Estimates range from a low of 20,000 to a high of 40,000, and only a miniscule number of them would have been slave owners.

Read: Disquieting Kiss: Embracing the Blue, Gray and Green

Certainly the most prominent Irish born Confederate soldier was Major General Patrick Ronayne Cleburne (right), who was born in Ovens Township, near Cork City. Most historians consider him one of the best division commanders of the war on either side. He was commanding a brigade as early as the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. His excellence in that command had him promoted to division command by August of 1862. So one might ask, if he as such a great division commander, and was commanding one that early in the war, why was he never promoted to corps command? Therein lies a tale, and one that illustrates what a complicated issue this is.

Cleburne grew up in County Cork, so he was not raised with any allegiance to the southern slave economy. He came to the U.S. a little over a decade before the outbreak of the war, working first in a drugstore, but eventually becoming a lawyer, in Helena, Arkansas. He never became a slave owner, but he did become a very important man in the town in a very short time. Thus he would have very much identified with the people of Helena and of Arkansas by 1861. There would have been great societal pressure on any leading citizen in his mid-30s to enlist to defend their state, especially one with prior military service like Cleburne. 

This is one of the conundrums of this entire issue. While there is no question that the plantation owners who controlled the secession conventions in the Confederate states voted to secede to preserve the institution of slavery, as they clearly and openly stated in one secession declaration after another, the rank and file Confederate soldiers were nearly all non-slave owners who saw the fight as one to protect their state from a foreign invader. So the preservation of slavery was the main cause the war was fought, while at the same time not being the main motivation of most of the Confederate soldiers who fought in it. It’s one of the reasons why so many are sure they are correct when they say the war was, or was not, about slavery. 

(Right: Andrew Chandler of the 44th Mississippi and his slave Silas. This photo is used as evidence of a black men serving in Confederate units, but Silas was Andrew's slave, not a soldier of the regiment.)

Cleburne demonstrated that in his mind the war wasn’t about preserving slavery when he made a proposal in January 1864 that slaves, and their families as well, be offered their freedom if they enlisted to fight in the Confederate army. “As between the loss of independence and the loss of slavery, we assume that every patriot will freely give up the latter … we can give the negro not only his own freedom, but that of his wife and child, and can secure it to him in his old home,” he said in his proposal. He certainly knew the notion would be controversial. One of his staff officer, Irving Buck, told him it would raise a "storm of indignation against him,” and he was correct. 

While Cleburne may have thought preserving their new nation was more important than preserving slavery, others disagreed. One Confederate General, James Anderson, said that the idea was “monstrous” and “revolting to Southern sentiment, Southern Pride, and Southern honor.” And Confederate president Jefferson Davis told Gen. Joe Johnston to suppress any public mention of it, “Deeming it to be injurious to the public service that such subject ... should be mooted or even known to be entertained by persons possessed of confidence and respect of the people.”

(Left: The mounted Cleburne at the Battle of Franklin in a print by Don Troiani.)

This controversy effectively ended any chance Cleburne had for promotion and it likely cost him his life as well. Had he been promoted to corps command, as he deserved, he would not have been at the head of his division at the Battle of Franklin in November 1864, where he died.

There are several monuments and memorials to Patrick Cleburne around the south. One is a statue to him in a town named after him, Cleburne, Texas. What is rather unusual for any Civil War figure, is that he’s had two monuments dedicated to him in the 21st century, one at Ringgold Gap, Georgia, where he won a famous victory where he was in full command, and one in his hometown of Helena, Arkansas. Much of this modern sentiment to honor Cleburne came from the Irish-American community and has no connection to Jim Crow laws or white supremacy. 

Dick Dowling’s fame is based almost entirely upon one event: the Battle of Sabine Pass in September 1863. Against great odds, he and his tiny force thwarted a Federal invasion of Texas. Dowling and his family fled An Ghorta Mor and arrived in New Orleans while Dick was still a boy. His parents died of Yellow Fever before he was twenty. He and his siblings moved to Houston, Texas to escape the growing influence of the anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party in New Orleans.

Dowling (right) had been exiled from his native land and lost both his parents and been forced to run again from the same sectarian forces at work in his native land, but he didn’t wallow in self-pity. Though just nineteen, he started a successful saloon business and was a prosperous businessman at just 25 years old when the war began. He was the epitome of the “up by his bootstraps” Irish immigrant that helped build this country.

He, like Cleburne, would have felt societal pressure to fight for his state and the community that had welcomed him and family and given them the chance to be financially secure, probably for the first time in generations. He didn’t put on the uniform with the goal of helping plantation owners retain their slaves. He would have believed he was defending his new home. If Cleburne and Dowling had settled in the north, rather than the south, it’s quite likely they would have served in the Federal army and that would have resulted from the same motivations, not any desire to destroy the institution of slavery. 

Dowling reopened his saloon after the war and became involved in several other business ventures, including buying up land in anticipation of the nascent oil business after the war. This would likely have made him a very wealthy man in the near future, but fate intervened and he died in September 1867 of Yellow Fever, as had his father and mother.

When the city of Houston put up a statue to Dowling in front of the city hall in 1905, it was the first public monument in the city. In honor of Dowling’s Irish heritage, it was dedicated on St. Patrick’s Day. It has since been moved to a Hermann Park (left), so it may not come under the same sort of pressure to be removed as statues at government buildings. However, recently a man was arrested who was apparently planning to place explosives at the statue. No matter what one thinks on this issue, that sort of conduct should be condemned by all.

The controversy in the U.S. has brought attention to the fact that there is a memorial to Dowling in Tuam, County Galway, near where he was born. Some articles have called it the only memorial to a Confederate soldier in Ireland, but that is not true. There is also a plaque (below) on the boyhood home of Patrick Cleburne in Ovens Township, placed there over 20 years ago by a group of American Civil War reenactors, before the Dowling plaque was placed in Tuam.

We don’t see these two Irishmen, or others who immigrated to the southern states and then fought on the side of their new friends and neighbors, in a negative light. It was an understandable choice that in most cases had no connection to the issue of slavery. The monument issue, of course, goes far deeper than the justifications and motivations for the monuments and memorials to just these two Irishmen. Are these monuments to southern pride, or tangible symbols of white supremacist prejudice? There are no simple answers to that question, nor one judgment that can be applied to all of them.

There was one Irish ex-pat in the southern U.S. who did wholeheartedly support the institution of slavery. In fact, some of his ideas on the institution went too for most native southerners. Former Young Ireland leader John Mitchel, who had escaped exile in Van Dieman’s Land, and became a newspaper editor in Richmond, Virginia not only endorsed slavery, but called for a renewal of the slave trade. “The institution of negro slavery is a sound, just, wholesome Institution; and therefore, the question of re-opening the African Slave Trade is a question of expediency,” he wrote. Mitchel (left) paid a heavy price for his support of the Confederacy. Two of his sons died in Confederate service and another lost an arm. There are no statues to Mitchel in the U.S., but there is one in his hometown of Newry and the fort on Spike Island in Cobh, Co. Cork was named for him. Those honor him for his contributions to Ireland's struggle against British occupation, not what he did while in exile.

There was an explosion of monuments to Confederate leaders in the first two decades of the 20th century, long after the war ended. It coincided with a time when Jim Crow laws had been firmly established in the south, the Ku Klux Klan was resurgent, and the horror of lynching of blacks was proliferating, with nearly 1500 lynched from 1900 to 1920. And there was a second surge in monuments during the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s.

Most of the Confederate monuments at court houses were put up in that early 20th century period. In fact, there were more erected in one year, 1908, than there were in the twenty year period from 1930 to 1950. There seems little doubt that many of the statues of Lee, or Davis, or Jackson that were erected at city halls and court houses and other prominent public locations during those periods were motivated by more than just a desire to commemorate their lives. And no one was asking the almost totally disenfranchised black communities in these cities if they wished to have their tax money used to erect or maintain these monuments. 

There are two extreme positions on these monument today. The “southern pride” position holds that you can’t change history and these monument are to brave men who believed they were defending their home states, so the monuments have nothing to do with slavery and should be left alone where they are. On the other extreme the position is that they are monuments to prejudice and should all be removed and destroyed. Somewhere between those two extremes there should be a compromise position.

History can’t be changed, but the history of these monuments isn’t necessarily the same as the history of the country. The history of placing them in locations that appears to be an endorsement of their cause by state or local government can be changed. If a significant percentage of the residents of a town or city object to the location of such monuments, relocation should be looked into.

What should not ever happen, however, is things such as we saw in Durham, North Carolina, where a monument was pulled down by protestors, plotting to blow them up, as happened in Houston, or smashing the face of a Robert E. Lee statue as happened at Duke University.

Southern pride, and sometimes Irish pride, as well, in soldiers of the Confederacy and objections of others to what some of the monuments symbolize to them are all valid, and often very emotionally held, opinions. The issue can be resolved when people keep their emotions in check and show respect for the legitimate views of the other side while looking for compromise solutions. 


Turbulent Kiss: Embracing the Blue, Gray and Green

Cleburne's Incendiary Proposal: Let Blacks Fight for the Confederacy

Cleburne: A Confederate 'Meteor'

Confederate Hero, Dick Dowling: Miracle at Sabine Pass

Cleburne: The Defense of Ringgold Gap

Houston Man Charged After Trying to Plant Bomb on Confederate Statue

Call for Tuam Town Hall to remove memorial to Irish Confederate major

(Right: Statue to John Mitchel in his hometown of Newry.)

John Mitchel — Flawed Hero

Views: 1129

Tags: Civil War, Confederacy, Confederate, Dick Dowling, John Mitchel, Patrick Cleburne, monuments

Comment by Colin caruth on October 4, 2017 at 9:07am

All a part of shared American history and should be left alone.


Comment by T.S.Flynn on October 12, 2017 at 6:39pm

A very informative article. I wonder how many monuments to Imperialism, in the form of statues of British Kings, Queens and generals survive in the Republic?

Comment by Joe Gannon on October 12, 2017 at 7:15pm

I'm not sure how many monuments there are to kings or queens, but there are hundreds to Irishmen who fought in the British army in various wars as well as many to Irish units in various British wars, or to just the wars themselves. You can see some of them listed here, and I know the guy running this page doesn't claim to have every monument and memorial in the entire country listed: Irish War Memorials       

Comment by Richard R. Mc Gibbon Jr. on November 26, 2017 at 8:52am

What the South did was Treason, all monuments should be at battlefield sites, museums or cemeteries, not in front of Public buildings within the United States today. We all know the underlying reason why most of the monuments were erected in the late 19th and early 20th century and placed out front of Court House's and local State buildings. Jim Crow, Black Codes, Literacy Tests should not be forgotten so we don't repeat them in any form for our children's future.   


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