Savannah is proud of its history. Statues, historically preserved buildings and informational plaques pepper the downtown area — a major draw for millions of tourists each year.
One of them, secluded from Savannah’s primary walking district but jutting skyward in Forsyth Park, is at the center of local debate. The likeness of a Confederate soldier is perched atop the tower, and the busts of two Confederate generals sit near the monument’s base.
There are hundreds of monuments honoring the Confederacy throughout the South. Amid renewed national focus on race issues in America, such homages to the Confederacy are increasingly in the spotlight. Racist violence in Charlottesville, Va., in August ushered in a new wave of public pushes to address the prominence of such monuments in public spaces.
Savannah is no exception. Mayor Eddie DeLoach has called for the implementation of a task force to study how to add to the Confederate War Memorial to “expand the story” of Savannah’s role in the Civil War. Additionally, Savannah City Council made another move this week to address another prominent homage to a white supremacist on one of the city’s most visible structures, calling for the Talmadge Memorial Bridge to be renamed the Savannah Bridge.
Both issues could prove tricky. Georgia is one of several states that make modifying Confederate monuments in public spaces generally illegal, and changing the name of the bridge — named after a segregationist governor —requires approval by the state legislature. Similar measures in the past have failed.
Monument in Forsyth Park
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy nonprofit that monitors hate groups and extremism, reports that there are more than 700 monuments and statues dedicated to the Confederacy and its soldiers in the United States. Such monuments are far more prevalent in, though not exclusive to, the South. Close to 300 of them are in Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, the SPLC found.
The majority of them were put up decades after the Civil War, with spikes in the early 1900s and again in the late 1950s to mid-1960s when the civil rights movement was at its height.
“This was a time segregation was being enforced very vigorously – Reconstruction, this period after the Civil War where black civil rights were protected by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments for a period, or at least enforced by the national government at the time,” Anthony Di Lorenzo, an assistant professor of history at Savannah State University, said during a panel on Confederate monuments held last week at the school. “After 1876, you see a real decline in that enforcement. You see terrorism by the KKK and other hate organizations in the South, intimidation of those who are pushing for their civil rights in the South, and that’s the time the coincides with the spike in monuments that are depictions of these people in very heroic terms – not mourning but valiantly riding on a horse, for example.”
Savannah’s monument went up in 1874, and it was commissioned just a few years after the South surrendered by the Ladies Memorial Association. Initially, the monument featured marble statues depicting women as “Silence” and “Judgment.” They didn’t last long as parts of the monument – one is now in Savannah’s Laurel Grove cemetery and the other is in a cemetery in Thomasville, Ga.
The statues were viewed as “too abstract for a city only 10 years out of war and still very much in mourning,” at the time, said Vaughnette Goode-Walker, director of Savannah’s Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum and owner of Footprints of Savannah Walking Tours.
“The widows of the Confederates, the citizens of Savannah wanted something more representative of the soldiers who had struggled for what they were already calling ‘the lost cause,’” Goode-Walker said. Instead, a local man funded the statue that sits atop the monument today — an unnamed Confederate soldier, standing and facing north.
Goode-Walker says the monument was put up in Forsyth Park because the area was frequently used for Confederate troops camping in the city. Later, two other statues were added to the base of the monument, Gen. Francis Bartow and Maj. Gen. Lafayette McClaws.
Bridge into the city
The monument in Forsyth Park seems to have attracted less of a public conversation in recent years than the Talmadge Memorial Bridge that spans the Savannnah River near downtown.
The bridge’s namesake, former Gov. Eugene Talmadge, was an unabashed segregationist.
“My father grew up in the area, and when Eugene Talmadge would campaign in West Savannah, he would set up a circus-like event,” said Bernetta Lanier, a panelist at a discussion last month by Span the Gap, a group focused on the bridge. “The African Americans in the area could not go to the rally, but they could hear everything he was saying. This man was very boisterous, and he would talk about African-Americans in very negative ways, using very negative terms, and how blacks would never go to school with whites as long as he was governor.”
Thursday’s resolution by City Council is not the first such effort to rename the bridge. In 2013, City Council under then-Mayor Edna Jackson supported a similar effort, but it failed to gain enough support in the state legislature after opposition from Talmadge’s descendants.
State Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, described the local legislative delegation’s attempt to get the bridge renamed in 2013 as “not easy.”
“There was an enormous amount of, let’s just say feelings, all over the state that we should leave that name alone,” Stephens said this week, adding that opposition did not just come from Talmadge’s family.
Stan Deaton, senior historian at the Georgia Historical Society, wrote in the Savannah Morning News in 2013 that Talmadge was “one of the most backward-looking, outspokenly racist demagogues in our history.”
The bridge itself is actually a redo. A bridge spanning the Savannah River was named after Talmadge in 1953, less than a decade after his death. In the early 1990s, the bridge was replaced with the one standing today, and it was again named after Talmadge.
Deaton says he advocates for “anything but Talmadge” to serve as the bridge’s name, arguing that there are far less controversial figures that could represent Savannah. And whether Talmadge’s name is on the bridge or not, Deaton says the man himself would not be blotted from history – and he shouldn’t be.
“We’ve changed a lot of things in Savannah since 1954,” Deaton said this month. “We’re not erasing Eugene Talmadge. You need to understand him and how people like him got elected.”
When DeLoach announced his push to revisit the Confederate war memorial, many people pushed back against the idea on social media and in letters to the editor. Perhaps the biggest point of contention was that changing names, altering or even taking down monuments effectively whitewashes history.
Deaton, though, says that’s not necessarily the case.
“The first rule of history is that what comes after does not affect what comes before,” Deaton said.
The historian says in many cases monuments are as much “pieces of public artwork” as they are depictions of events. And in cases like the one in Savannah, he said, they were built with the purpose of telling what is essentially incomplete history.
“Our position at the Georgia Historical Society is let’s just get history right,” Deaton said. “If we’re talking about the history of the Confederacy, let’s make sure it’s grounded in real history.”
To some people, Confederate monuments are benign references to a bloody war that reshaped American history. To others, they are symbols of oppression and racial terror.
Former Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson argues that memorials to the Confederacy, rather than to just the overall struggle that took place and its monumental impact on American history, are themselves an attempt to whitewash history.
“If you’ve got a pen and pencil and you’ve got a press, you can write your own history,” Johnson said this week. “That’s what the Southerners did.”
If Johnson had it his way, he said, there would be a statue of an African American U.S. soldier directly facing the Confederate soldier in a separate monument. In 2004, during Johnson’s first term as mayor, he worked to get two portraits of local Confederates taken out of the City Council chambers. There was pushback, he said, but eventually the portraits were sent to a visitor museum on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
“That’s where they belonged,” Johnson said of the portraits’ new home in a museum. “They didn’t belong in a place like City Hall where all citizens come together to make policy and laws that govern all citizens of Savannah. They should have been gone long before we took that action.”
Deaton says he thinks the idea of somehow adding to the monument is a tradition that’s not unfamiliar to Savannah, where historical restoration is prominent.
“I think what (DeLoach) is proposing is in keeping with what we do in this city with older structures,” Deaton said.
When, and if, the monument will change remains to be seen. Right now, it’s in need of restoration anyway.
The sandstone and bronze structure is suffering from corrosion and deterioration and listing several degrees, according to a consultant hired by the city to conduct an assessment of the city’s 55 historic monuments in May. The report recommended that the city have an engineer evaluate the monument’s integrity as soon as possible.
DeLoach says his plan is to get together something of a task force together to tackle the issue.
“If you look at the soldier at the top, it’s not one that’s standing in a glorious manner — it’s more of a sense-of-duty manner,” DeLoach said. “I think it’s more of a memorial, and we need to think of it that way — not only for the Confederate soldier and people that fought but also for the number of slaves that died during the time before the Civil War and all the other times that people were hurt, injured or otherwise because of slavery.”
The mayor said the city will work to make sure whatever the plan is does not break Georgia’s laws regarding Confederate monuments.
“I think what we’re trying to do is a legitimate thing, and I just think that once they see what we’re trying to do that it will pass muster with the legislature,” DeLoach said. “I’m not out changing the world. I just want to embrace the whole world as far as that goes — embrace everybody on this issue.”
Renaming the bridge could be more difficult.
“There are some real deep feelings here on both sides about the symbols that are there,” said Stephens, who serves as dean of Chatham County’s eight-member delegation in Atlanta. “I do applaud the mayor and council for going down this path and sending a message out that Savannah is a progressive city.
“As far as changing the laws in this area, it’s going to be very difficult.”
Still, he said he imagines the local delegation will try to follow the city’s lead on the issue.
“If we can get signatures and some support from both transportation committees and the speaker and the lieutenant governor to move this stuff through, we’ll give it a shot,” Stephens said.