Adam Serwer’s response to a feeble National Review defense of Treason in Defense of Slavery monuments is worth reading in full, but this is a particularly important point:
The Lee monument in New Orleans went up not in 1876 but in 1884, as racist paramilitaries like the White League helped the Democratic Party re-establish its political dominance over the city; these statues are commemorations of those victories, not politically neutral commemorations of fallen warriors. They were raised to, in the words of the historian David Blight, help “construct a story of noble sacrifice for a holy cause of home and independence, and especially in the service of a racial ideology that would sustain white supremacy.”
The myths both about Lee and the Confederacy, his supposed hatred of slavery, his non-ownership of slaves, and his conduct during the war and his reasons for fighting it, are all sustained by the statues and monuments that honor him. The reverence for the people represented by those monuments interferes with the proper remembrance of history, it does not enhance it. You don’t need a statue of Lee to understand why white Southerners revered him, you need a book. The statue can go in a museum.
And, as Ed Kilgore observes, the second big round of Confederate memorializing happened when Jim Crow came under attack:
This is true not just of monuments to Lee and other Confederate leaders, but of that other recent source of controversy, the maintenance of Confederate emblems (typically the Confederate battle flag) on southern state flags and at state capitals. For the most part, these emblems were adopted not immediately after the Civil War, but after the South had regained its “sovereignty” and proceeded to erect a Jim Crow society (in Mississippi, that was in 1894) — or even much later, in the 1950s, when Jim Crow was finally challenged in the courts and in civil protests (the Confederate battle flag appeared on the flag of my own home state of Georgia in 1956). As the preeminent political scientists who studied this issue concluded:
The battle flag was never adopted by the Confederate Congress, never flew over any state capitols during the Confederacy, and was never officially used by Confederate veterans’ groups. The flag probably would have been relegated to Civil War museums if it had not been resurrected by the resurgent KKK and used by Southern Dixiecrats during the 1948 presidential election.
The idea that monuments to the Confederacy are about “Heritage not Hate” is absurd on its face, and the history of these monuments makes this even more clear. Both the movement to tear them down and apologist for the monuments are “political” because the question is whether slavery, white supremacism, and apartheid are worthy of celebration is political. The only issue is which side you’re on.