The recent violence in Charlottesville, triggered by the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee, is a reminder of the bitter racial tensions that continue to divide America.
Hundreds of monuments to Confederate leaders of the Civil War were erected in the Southern States, mainly between the 1890s and 1950s.
Most believe their purpose was to remind the public that, while white supremacists may have lost the Civil War, they were still a force to be reckoned with.
The tragic events in Charlottesville seem a long way from Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh.
However it was here, one rainy day, that I came across a link between Scotland the Confederacy that seems more relevant than ever.
A friend of Jefferson Davis
In a quiet corner of Dean Cemetery is an obelisk, dedicated to Colonel Robert A Smith, and covered in tiny Confederate flags.
The site is looked after by a group of bikers. Smith, born in Edinburgh in 1836, left Scotland aged 14 to join his elder brother, James, in Jackson, Mississippi.
The Smiths became firm friends with Jefferson Davis, who would soon become President of the Confederacy, and the world’s best known white supremacist.
Smith joined National Guard unit, the Mississippi Rifles, and served as Davis’s bodyguard, fighting at Shiloh soon after the Civil War broke out.
He earned a reputation as a brilliant and charismatic young officer, and later became a Colonel. In 1862, aged just 26, Smith led a charge at the Battle of Mumfordville in Kentucky and was fatally wounded.
His sister travelled behind Union lines in a wagon to recover his body, and Robert Smith was buried in Jackson with full military honours.
Honoured with a 30 ton memorial
Smith’s brother, James, had already returned home to Scotland. A wealthy industrialist, he erected memorial obelisks to his brother in Jackson and in Edinburgh’s Dean Cemetery.
He also paid for a huge, 30 ton memorial in Kentucky, where the Colonel had died.
James Smith was kindly to his factory workers, and highly regarded by his contemporaries.
However, like many Scots, he was a staunch supporter of the pro-slavery Confederacy, sending their government both money and arms. After the Civil War, Jefferson Davis was released from prison, and visited Scotland in 1869. He stayed with James Smith in Glasgow, and was warmly received wherever he went. Davis also stayed in a hotel on Princes Street, and it is likely he visited Robert’s memorial in Dean Cemetery.
A statue of Davis was taken down earlier this year in New Orleans. Why Smith’s monuments should remain The polarised nature of the debate over the monuments in America makes it hard to find a personal perspective on the situation.
Why Smith’s monuments should remain
The polarised nature of the debate over the monuments in America makes it hard to find a personal perspective on the situation.
However, I received some insight from an American woman who is a direct descendant of Robert Smith’s sister – she asked to remain anonymous.
“The legacy of my Confederate ancestors has been something I have been thinking about, given the uproar over removing monuments,” she says.
“I have Confederate soldiers on both sides of my family. However, Robert is the most high profile, and the only one with one monument, let alone three.
“I think Confederate monuments should be removed and put into a museum or a historical place where they can be remembered, but in context.
“Most of them were put up after the Civil War, as a form of propaganda about the ‘glories of the way things used to be.’
In that light, they should be removed. “But how do I feel about Uncle Robert’s monuments? I’ve been hoping that they would fly under the radar, and no one would try to remove them.
“On one hand, I would try to defend them, as I am connected, but on the other hand, I don’t know how to. “I think there’s a difference between his monuments and the ones causing the controversy.
“The two that are in the US are obelisks, rather than a statue of him.
“The one in Jackson is his grave marker in the cemetery, the one in Kentucky on the battlefield is on private property, and rarely open to visitors.
“I would call them memorials rather than monuments. They were put up by a grieving brother, who had the resources to put up three memorials to a beloved sibling.
“They weren’t there to influence or intimidate. They are there strictly a reminder of Robert. Does that make sense?”
Perhaps Scots need to consider their monuments. The statue of politician Henry Dundas (1742-1811) in St Andrew Square in Edinburgh celebrates a man whose efforts delayed the abolition of slavery by 20 years.
Robert Smith’s story is arguably just one reminder of the many Scots who helped to shape America, and whose legacies continues to be relevant today.
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