This story is part of The Confederate Reckoning, a collaborative project of USA TODAY Network newsrooms across the South to examine the legacy of the Confederacy and its influence on systemic racism today.
The white men stand, immortalized in metal and stone, in parks, public squares and the halls of government.
Statues of prominent figures in the Confederacy are a common sight in the South. But the visibility of their monuments often belie the way their lives and legacies are obscured by myth.
Like other symbols of the Confederacy, such memorials have been defended for generations as pieces of Southern heritage, or simply uncontroversial artifacts of history. But for many people, they are ever-present reminders of racial discrimination and violent oppression that has never gone away.
The removal of statues of Confederate leaders — as well as those of others who promoted or profited from slavery and racism — has become a focal point of calls for a true confrontation with racial inequality in the United States. As part of that conversation, USA TODAY Network newsrooms across the South are taking a critical look at several such figures to understand who they were and what they believed.
For more than four decades, a bronze sculpture of the bust of Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest has been featured prominently in the Tennessee state Capitol.
A statue portraying Forrest was one of three removed in Memphis in late 2017 after the city found a loophole to legally take down the monument that residents widely agreed should not stand in a public park.
But as the fate of the Capitol bust hangs in the balance pending a state commission meeting later this year — and after years of debate among Black and white lawmakers, and Democrats and Republicans — who was Forrest and why is he so controversial more than 150 years after the Civil War?
Among the most notorious parts of Forrest’s legacy is his reported involvement leading Confederate soldiers in the West Tennessee Battle of Fort Pillow in April 1864, which has commonly become known as a massacre of surrendered Union troops, many of whom were Black.
Primary documents from a variety of sources refute arguments made by some Forrest apologists — including some who have raised the possibility during conversations at the legislature about the bronze bust and Forrest’s legacy — that he was not responsible for the mass killings at Fort Pillow.
Gov. Lee speaks on Nathan Beford Forrest bust at State Capitol Commission meeting
The State Capitol Commission holds meeting to discuss removal of Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from the Tennessee State Capitol.
“We’ve been going through these excuses for Bedford Forrest for the longest while, and none of them are holding up under scrutiny,” said Richard Blackett, a history professor at Vanderbilt University.
In 1868, Forrest gave an interview with a Cincinnati Commercial reporter that was widely published in newspapers around the country. In the interview, he said the Ku Klux Klan had “no doubt” been a benefit in Tennessee. While he denied being an official member, he said he was part of the organization “in sympathy,” and later when Forrest testified before Congress about the KKK he eventually disclosed that he was familiar with rituals and practices.
Repeatedly in the 1868 interview, Forrest tried to suggest that he had more disdain for white Radical Republicans and Northerners trying to infiltrate Southern politics than he did African Americans, but he still remained fiercely opposed at that point to Blacks gaining the right to vote or having equal standing in society.
“I am opposed to it under any and all circumstances,” Forrest said.
“And here I want you to understand distinctly I am not an enemy to the negro. We want him here among us; he is the only laboring class we have.”
Jefferson Davis was a man of many words. He literally wrote volumes during his lifetime and spent the last decade of his life writing about the history of the Confederacy and an in-depth analysis of the Civil War.
But Davis (1808-1889) most notably is known for his role with the Confederate States of America, of which he was named its first — and only — president.
Susannah Ural, professor of history and co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Southern Mississippi, said Davis seemed to be a natural choice for president of the Confederacy.
Although he did not support secession, he felt duty-bound to represent his state, which voted to secede, and the new government to which he was appointed president. However, he also believed secession was a right afforded to the states.
Kentucky state Rep. Jason Nemes: ‘Jefferson Davis doesn’t belong here’
Nemes talked to reporters at the Capitol in Frankfort Friday, June 12, about the impending removal of the Jefferson Davis statue from the rotunda.
Joseph Gerth/Courier Journal
Davis wrote in his book, “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government,” that slavery “was not the cause of the war, but an incident.”
In his preface to the book he said, “the States had never surrendered their sovereignty,” and that states should be allowed to make their own decisions regarding slavery.
Davis said the federal government was usurping its authority by forcing unwanted laws on the states, first and foremost the abolition of slavery, which was an integral part of the Southern states’ agricultural economy.
“(Slavery is) the primary cause, but it’s not the only cause,” Ural said. “When you talk about states’ rights, when you talk about what powers the federal government should have versus state authority, one of the central issues to states’ rights was the right to slavery.”
However, she said, determining the Civil War happened because of slavery isn’t entirely accurate.
“There’s never one cause of a war, and things that motivate people to fight in a war change over the course of time,” she said. “To boil the Civil War down to slavery is problematic, but the bigger problem was that for decades, we just kind of pushed slavery aside and didn’t really talk about it.”
Even in his last days, Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, had already become a myth — a myth that gave a defeated South something to cling to; a means of understanding its defeat.
In 1865, Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. His exploits during the war and his canonization by defeated Southerners have rendered him among the most famous losers in military history.
To Emory Thomas, who wrote “Robert E. Lee: A Biography,” published in 1995, historical evidence shows Lee was a man who lived by a strict moral code, a sense of honor and duty; a great soldier and engineer who rose to the challenges he faced.
He was also a slave-owner and a white supremacist. While Lee believed slavery was morally wrong, he did not believe the abolition of it should come through the works of man, but, instead, the will of God.
In an interview, Thomas referenced a famous letter Lee wrote about slavery in 1857. In it, Lee distilled his views as a slave owner on race.
“In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it, however, a greater evil to the white man than to the black race,” Lee wrote. “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy.”
In that letter, and other moments throughout his life, including testimony before Congress after the Civil War, Lee displayed views on race that Thomas described as compatible with social Darwinism — a worldview that arose later in the 19th century and early 20th that Western governments, particularly that of the U.S., used to justify colonization, war and imperialism.
In 1862, he would free his father-in-law’s slaves, as required by the man’s will, a matter of weeks before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect.
“He anticipated social Darwinism … In the evolutionary pyramid of human beings, I think he saw white folks like himself at the top. And African Americans somewhere down the ranks, above American Indians whom he really thought were dreadful,” Thomas said.
Known as the “Boy Hero of the Confederacy,” Sam Davis’ story was resurrected from obscurity in the late 1800s by journalist Archibald Cunningham, founder of the Confederate Veteran magazine. There are monuments erected in Sam Davis’ honor. His boyhood home is on the National Register of Historic Places and operates as a museum.
Barely 21 in 1863, Davis was hanged for his refusal to give Union Army Gen. Grenville Dodge the names of Confederate spies. “I would rather die a thousand deaths than betray a friend,” Davis said moments before he was hanged on the Public Square in Pulaski, Tennessee.
Davis wasn’t a boy, but a young man whose bravery is immortalized as a symbol of the Confederacy and the Lost Cause, said Brenden Martin, a Middle Tennessee State University history professor. The underpinning of the Lost Cause was that the Confederacy was “right all along” and had a right to secede from the United States.
“All you’ve got to do is look at the (Confederate) Articles of Secession. … The people who brought about the secession (from the United States) made it clear it was about preserving the institution of slavery,” Martin said.
Slavery was the backbone of the Southern economy, Martin said.
And the Davis family plantation was steeped in that economy.
Data from the American Battlefield Trust notes that Charles and Jane Davis, Sam Davis’ parents, originally owned a 830-acre plantation located in Smyrna. By 1860, there were 51 enslaved people owned by the Davis family. Sam Davis also had his own slave, named Coleman Davis, who was gifted to him when he was a boy.
Anarcha was at least 17 when the doctor started experimenting on her. The year before, she suffered terrible complications during a 72-hour labor that opened a hole between her bladder and vagina and left her incontinent.
The man who held Anarcha in bondage outside Montgomery sent her to Dr. J. Marion Sims sometime in 1845. She was one of at least seven enslaved women sent to Sims by white slaveholders. They had the same condition as Anarcha, known as a vesicovaginal fistula.
Sims wanted to find a way to address it. From 1845 to 1849, the enslaved women became experiments.
By Sims’ own account, Anarcha underwent 30 operations as Sims tried different approaches to repairing the fistula.
These women could not say no. Neither Sims nor the white men who held them against their will showed interest in their opinions. Deirdre Cooper Owens, a professor of medical history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and author of “Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology,” said if the women protested, they “could get beaten, or they could get ignored.”
Anesthesia, Cooper Owens said, was not in wide use at this time.
Despite that, a statue of Sims unveiled in 1939 remains on the grounds of the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery. A bust of Sims also stands in Columbia, South Carolina. New York City officials removed a statue of Sims in Manhattan in 2018.
Andrew Johnson considered himself a champion of the common man — but only when those common men were white.
The 17th president of the United States was a common man himself. Born into poverty in 1808, he escaped indentured servitude in North Carolina before moving to Greeneville, Tennessee, where he worked as a tailor, owned slaves and launched his political career as a Democrat.
When President Abraham Lincoln died from an assassin’s bullet just six weeks after Johnson took office, a fractured country found its stubborn new president lacked Lincoln’s ability to navigate the end of the Civil War with nuance and sensitivity.
Although Johnson had helped Lincoln end slavery across the land, he now clashed with the Republican-controlled Congress by planting himself firmly in the way of rights for newly freed slaves. He soon grew widely unpopular and became the first president ever to be impeached.
Johnson believed in what’s called “herrenvolk democracy” — the idea that the lowest white man in the social hierarchy should be above the highest Black man, said Aaron Astor, a history professor at Maryville College who researches the Civil War-era South.
In 1860, the year before the Civil War broke out, Johnson said white Southerners felt so threatened by the prospect of Black freedom that poor men would unite with slave owners to exterminate slaves rather than see them freed.
Albert Pike is a name well-known in Arkansas history as both a Civil War general of Native American troops and a newspaper editor.
Although Pike was known nationally after the Civil War for his involvement with the Freemasons, he gained national attention again on June 19, 2020, when a statue dedicated to him in Washington, D.C., was toppled by a group of Black Lives Matter demonstrators. The monument to Pike was the only one of a Confederate Civil War general in the District of Columbia.
Pike was a Boston transplant to Arkansas who initially resisted secession, but followed the lead of his fellow Arkansans in fully supporting the Confederacy and even served as an appointed brigadier general in at least one battle in Arkansas.
By the end of his life, Pike had risen among the highest ranks of the Freemasons.
Before the Civil War, he had moved from the Fort Smith area to Little Rock to pursue a career as a journalist. He eventually became editor and owner of The Advocate where he reported on the Supreme Court of Arkansas.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Pike was called up to be a brigadier general over a troop made up of several Native American Tribes. He was cited as being an advocate for Native Americans and the wrongs they suffered at the hands of the white man.
When it came to African Americans, however, Pike’s view of slavery was one that claimed it was a “necessary evil.” He claimed that slaves would not be able to hold any other job and that they were treated well by their masters. He even admitted to having his own slave for “necessary” work.
Gen. Alfred Mouton has become one of Acadiana’s most polarizing historical figures. His statue, standing on city property in the heart of downtown Lafayette, has been the focus of public outcry, protest and legal battles for decades.
As support is increasing to remove the statue, most of the controversy over Mouton has focused on the fact that he owned Black people as slaves and fought for white supremacy during the Deep South’s most oppressive era.
While Mouton is hailed by some as a hero from Lafayette’s oldest family who fought to defend his hometown from Union forces during the Civil War, the famous son of former Gov. Alexandre Mouton helped wage another civil war here.
The Alfred Mouton statue in downtown Lafayette went up in 1922. Mouton’s family donated the much of the land in downtown Lafayette including the original city hall where the statue is located.
Mouton, along with his father, trained the “Vigilante Committee” in Lafayette Parish, a group that would carry out their own form of violent justice against Black residents through whippings, expulsions and lynchings.
From the late 1850s to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, Mouton-backed vigilantes fought against other groups in Lafayette Parish’s own civil war.