Hiding in Plain Sight

Hiding in Plain Sight

“I do not want it anywhere hidden,” Charles Strong wrote of Yale’s proposed memorial to alumni who died in the Civil War. “I want it out in the open.” Strong, a southern-born alumnus, got his wish. Dedicated in 1915, Yale’s Civil War Memorial is an archway leading students into one of the central passageways of campus, the rotunda that connects Woolsey Hall to the newly constructed Schwarzman Center. Four high-relief classical figures support the archway’s corners, the tablets between them listing the names of the dead.

In another sense, though, Strong’s fear has come true. However central the memorial is physically, its meaning has faded into obscurity—literally. Much of the inscription, etched into the floor under the archway, has become an inscrutable code of dashes and dots, eroded by more than a century of foot traffic. Most students—myself included—spend their years on campus never stopping at the panels of names or trying to decipher the words beneath their feet.

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What did Strong so insistently want us to absorb? As the president of an association of southern alumni, he viewed the memorial as a source of instruction to the next generation of Yalies he was helping to recruit. “I want my boys, and the boys I send to Yale, to see this Yale history of her sons,” he wrote, “and come home, <…> more mindful of a larger country <…> and the great united forces—North and South—sons of men whose names are out on the tablet or arch.” Strong believed the memorial would impart a sense of national unity, the arch a figurative bridge between sections of the country that had sought to vanquish each other a half-century prior. He had good reason to think so: Unlike any other northern university’s Civil War memorial, Yale’s listed the names of fallen Confederate soldiers alongside the Union dead. In its design and intention, it stands as a monument to peace and reconciliation. A century later, however, the Civil War Memorial may be better understood as an artifact of a fierce battle that continues to roil American culture today: the fight to control the narrative of American history and thus the politics of the present.

From the outset, the Civil War Memorial was as much about the politics of the day as it was about memorializing the past. The chair of the initial organizational meeting to establish a memorial, in June 1909, was William Howard Taft—President William Howard Taft, a supporter of sectional reconciliation. As the 50th anniversary of the war approached, a spirit of fraternal reunion and sentimental nationalism washed over white Americans. The committee tasked with establishing the memorial embodied this fraternalism: Among its most prominent members were Henry Howland and William Washington Gordon, classmates who graduated from Yale in 1854 and then served as generals on opposite sides of the war. The memorial’s design enacted the ethos of reconciliation, excluding any reference to the war’s causes, course or consequences. Instead, the four figures represented universal virtues: Courage, Devotion, Memory and Peace. The memorial aimed, in the words of one committee member, “to do justice at last to the high devotion to principle and the courage of those who fought on both sides in the Civil War.”

The southern members of the committee pounced at any deviation from this both-sides approach. The group initially decided to omit all military titles from the tablets, uncomfortable with the idea of commemorating an army that had waged war against the United States. In letters to the committee, Gordon and Strong fulminated. “The soldiers of the South were Confederates,” Gordon wrote. “They believed in their cause and died in defence of the faith that was in them. If this fact is to be ignored, their names upon a Yale memorial tablet will be a mockery—if not an insult.” The Confederate general got his way. The initials “USV,” for United States Volunteers, and “CSA,” for Confederate States of America, intermingle on the wall as if they represent two units of the same force.

But the supposed neutrality pervading the memorial was in fact a political result of a political process. By celebrating the soldiers’ faith in their causes but not interrogating the substance of those causes, the memorial committee sidestepped, among other things, the central role slavery played in motivating the war and the central role enslaved people seized for themselves as they fled the South, joined the Union army and fought to transform it into a war of emancipation. Nearly five decades after the abolition of slavery, however, a racial caste system endured—endorsed or at least tolerated by most white northerners and southerners alike. As the memorial committee unveiled the memorial, the Ku Klux Klan was about to resurge, Black voting rights had all but disappeared and an epidemic of lynching raged. Underlying the country’s peaceful North-South reconciliation was the violence and division of Jim Crow.

Yale wasn’t immune. In the 1910s, as Yale ramped up its efforts to admit more white southern students, the university strategically lionized—in lectures, honorary scholarships and iconography around campus—its famed alumnus, John C. Calhoun, who staked his career in the Senate and federal office as an unapologetic defender of slavery. Talcott Russell, the secretary of the memorial committee, lamented many aspects of Congress’s post-war efforts to enshrine Black civil and political rights not just in federal law but also regional practice. “It is fair,” Russell wrote in 1910, “that we should ask forgiveness of our Southern brethren for the disasters and needless humiliation caused them by many of our acts during the so-called ‘reconstruction’ period.” The Southern apologism attending Yale’s reconciliation campaign was, like the memorial today, hiding in plain sight.

On a recent Monday evening, the Civil War Memorial was eerily quiet. Sun pierced a nearby window and glinted in the inscription. The occasional student walked through, dragging a scooter or scrolling on a phone. One level below, voices thrummed from a private event held at a bar built as part of the $150 million Schwarzman Center project. The memorial has become part of the background, an adornment in one’s peripheral vision on the way to dinner. But as soon as one pauses, distinguishing the “CSAs” from the “USVs,” one sees in the memorial a mirror, a reflection of our own battles—flaring up in school board meetings and on campaign trails across the country—to frame and reframe our national story.

Written and photographed by Steven Rome.

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