So Long, Silent Sam! — An Obituary

A postcard showing the unveiling of the Confederate Monument, June 2, 1913. ( UNC Libraries )

A postcard showing the unveiling of the Confederate Monument, June 2, 1913. (UNC Libraries)

On August 20, 2018, the night before the first day of school, students and activists at UNC Chapel Hill came together—democratically, joyously, and raucously—to tear down the statue of Silent Sam, igniting a debate that quickly spread across campus and into the national spotlight.

Silent Sam is a bronze statue of an anonymous young confederate soldier, fashioned by the sculptor John A. Wilson sometime before 1909.[1] Silent Sam originally stood atop a tall stone pedestal in the historic heart of the campus, McCorkle Place, bedecked in a fresh uniform and a jaunty hat with the brim pinned up on the right side. His nickname is likely meant to invoke Uncle Sam, the embodiment of American patriotic fervor.[2] He holds a rifle, though his bayonet is sheathed.[3] His cartoonishly large eyes give the effect of youth, spirit, magnanimity—a piercing, clear-eyed, heroic gaze.  He honors the dubious claim that, at UNC Chapel Hill,

More than 1000 University men fought in the Civil War. At least 40% of the students enlisted, a record not equaled by any other institution, North or South. Sam is silent because he carries no ammunition and cannot fire his gun.[4]

Sam’s purpose is to honor and memorialize those many soldiers who fell in the Civil War, purportedly. However, make no mistake—Silent Sam was not erected to honor the Union student-soldiers. He is part and parcel of the argument Julian Chambliss makes in “Don’t Call Them Memorials.” Such a monument, as Chambliss redefines the term, is not a memorial, but rather a “‘political marker funded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and gifted to municipalities across the South to celebrate the reestablishment of white rule after Reconstruction.’”[5] Silent Sam is precisely that. The United Daughters of the Confederacy gave Silent Sam to UNC Chapel Hill in 1909 in an overt effort to rewrite history in the name of white supremacy.  And the university shelled out nearly four hundred thousand dollars a year to maintain this sculpture.

For any who might doubt the intent of the benefactors of the Silent Sam statue, consider the following excerpt from an infamous speech delivered on unveiling the statue. The orator, Julian Carr, was a slave owner before he became a Confederate soldier, and later an ardent supporter of the KKK. His harrowing 3,700 word panegyric to the Confederacy makes absolutely clear what Silent Sam represents:

 
Addresses, 1912-1914: Scan  104  &  105 , in the Julian Shakespeare Carr Papers #141, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. ( UNC Libraries )

Addresses, 1912-1914: Scan 104 & 105, in the Julian Shakespeare Carr Papers #141, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (UNC Libraries)

 

The full text of the speech is here. Historian Karen Cox notes the injustice these monuments impose on the people forced to live with them:

The stone soldiers who stand sentinel in southern towns pay homage to white heroes who were revered as both loyal southerners and American patriots, for their defense of states’ rights.  Significantly, southern blacks, who had no stake in celebrating the Confederacy, had to share a cultural landscape that did.[6]

Not everyone forced to share this “cultural landscape”—what one historian calls a “landscape of denial”—would keep Sam’s silence.[7] Four months before Silent Sam was finally toppled, Maya Little, a second-year doctoral student in History, smeared Silent Sam with a mixture of red paint, ink, and her own blood. Asked why she did this, Little explained:

The fact that Silent Sam stands there—uncontextualized, glorified, without our blood on him—needed to change. Adding blood to the statue is adding proper context. Because that’s what the Confederacy was built on. It was built on the blood of black people. That’s what Jim Crow was built on… My blood and the red ink symbolizing the blood of black people is context. To me, that’s the context for Silent Sam. The university doesn’t want that context.

Maya Little said the quiet message of the statue out loud, and for that, she was found guilty of a misdemeanor, and punished with eighteen hours of community service. Little wouldn’t let Sam be silent, because she recognized that the “silence” of Sam is his greatest power. Sam’s muteness makes it easy to overlook, seemingly benign—but to those who remember their history, it is an overt symbol of the persistence of white power, despite Confederate defeat. It is a celebration of the fact that Julian Carr was able to delight in whipping a human being nearly to death in sight of a Union garrison, and was able, fifty years after the fact, to proudly relay the story in a speech to a statue dedicated to that very cause. The silence of Sam is the silence of the Union garrison. It is the silence of the crowd listening to Carr’s speech.

 
Protests against the statue of Silent Sam on the Campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2017. ( Martin J. Kraft / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons )

Protests against the statue of Silent Sam on the Campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2017. (Martin J. Kraft/CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

 

When Silent Sam was finally ripped down from his pedestal, the administration at UNC Chapel Hill was forced to acknowledge the context that Little had highlighted in a rubric of her own blood. [8] Chancellor Folt convened a series of eleven hour-and-a-half long workshops over the course of a week of October 3-10th, attended by approximately 120 faculty, in an effort to canvas their collective wisdom for the sake of achieving some reasonable response to the felling of Silent Sam. Her efforts would ultimately topple her chancellorship. Their ninety-page report was made publicly available in late October. Shortly after, a UNC graduate student created the Twitter handle @now_what_sam, where she tweeted and re-tweeted the many faculty responses, ranging from thoughtful to ridiculous (see list below). Sam’s future was finally in question.

Relocate to outside of the Carolina Inn and have it hold a platter for serving cookies

Find a tree that was used for lynching, then bury the statue under it.

Curate the pedestal and treat it as a living thing; every year, a different artist rotates with a selection that has relevance and meaning

Return to the United Daughters of the Confederacy

Melt it down and make mini Silent Sam statues, if its meaningful to you, then you can own one for $9.95

DO NOT put it in a university library

Leave an empty pedestal.

Offer to President Trump.

Return to descendants of Julian Carr.

Bury the statue "in a process that never ends".

Auction the statue, use proceeds for scholarships (for African American students).

Sell tickets of $3 dollars each for a change for a blow with a sledgehammer to hit Silent Sam, then sell the resulting bits to raise money for reparation scholarships for NC African American students.

Sink in University Lake.

Give lump of metal to Elon Musk and Space X and let someone else do something with it.

Write obituary of Silent Sam, and notify his next of kin. [9]

Concurrently, the Dean of the College Kevin Guskiewicz sent a survey to all 2060 faculty and staff at Chapel Hill, asking them what should be done about Silent Sam. Of the four hundred responses:

 
Screenshot of survey results, 2018. ( Daily Tar Heel )

Screenshot of survey results, 2018. (Daily Tar Heel)

 

The survey revealed several epiphanies.  One common thread is:

A surprising number of respondents claimed that studying the statue’s history convinced them it should not be returned. Many of these identified as white and Southern.

This point highlights the insidiousness of Confederate monuments: they are deliberately insinuated into public contexts, quietly.  Without knowledge of who funded them, who erected them, the speeches that dedicated them, a well-meaning passerby could easily walk right by without any thought of what that handsome, clear-eyed “Anglo Saxon” statue is meant to signify. Silent Sam is not silent simply because he is without ammunition; he is silent because he is waiting for the appropriate audience to make him speak, a future audience of white supremacists. Until that audience returns, he silently waits. This is what makes his presence on campus so sinister: not just the past Civil War history Sam revises, but the future audience he anticipates.

Dean Guskiewicz’s survey took special pains to consider the eleven responses supporting the return of Silent Sam to his pedestal at McCorkle Place, though “none…presented a cogent argument for this action.” These responses in favor of returning Silent Sam fall into my taxonomy of Confederate Monument Apologism, particularly the fallacies of false equivalency, and erasing history. By contrast to those respondents for whom “studying the statue’s history convinced them it should not be returned,” there are those respondents who preferred not to review the historical record:

Some of the respondents who want Silent Sam restored to its old location gave credence to another respondent who wrote: ‘I am struck by the fact that those who demand, insist, and threaten that the monument be restored to its former place appear to have NO interest in learning about the intention of those who erected the monument.’ [10]

Those who would have the statue returned are, at best, ignorant of the intention and purpose of the statue, or deluded by “Lost Cause” propaganda; at worst, they support Silent Sam’s racist worldview. The main takeaway of the survey is its conclusion:

We do not support the return of Silent Sam to our campus. [11]

Sam lived out his long life for over a century as a marker of white supremacy at UNC Chapel Hill, a university funded by slave owners, built and maintained by enslaved people, and that did not accept black students until 1955. In what would be the last action of her chancellorship, Folt ordered Sam’s pedestal removed, effectively bringing the controversy to an end, though what to do with his corpse remains to be decided. White supremacy, however, is far from dead. It is nevertheless important to celebrate the destruction of any symbols of it.

The death of Silent Sam was a joyous occasion. One article describes how, "After the statue fell, jubilant protesters cheered, chanted, and embraced as the police looked on.” Confederate monument apologists tend to call the protestors a “mob,” but anyone who knows the history of Silent Sam, Civil Rights, American slavery, or civil disobedience knows better.  

The joy reflects a maxim of the radical political activist Emma Goldman:

A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.[12]

So long, Silent Sam—and good riddance!

[1] John A. Wilson (1877-1954) was a Canadian-born sculptor who moved to Massachusetts and made his career as an artist and professor at the Harvard School of Architecture. He was admired by Walter Gropius, and made all sorts of sculpture. An argument could be made for the aesthetic merit of Silent Sam as a work of art, given John Wilson’s stature as an artist, despite the relative banal iconography Wilson marshalled to the composition of Silent Sam. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that many other such examples of confederate monuments are, by comparison, mass-produced cheap trash. One catalog of all the Civil War monuments in North Carolina notes:

That barely one-third of North Carolina's confederate soldier statues have known attribution is perhaps revealing. …memorial groups often treated the soldier figure as little more than an ornament.  This seeming lack of concern as to provenance or artistic merit is frequently blamed on committee members possessing little knowledge of fine art… the monument's visual focus, frequently selected from a catalog and determined by affordability, was nearly always purchased from Northern manufacturers or mass-produced overseas.

Douglas Butler, North Carolina Civil War Monuments: An Illustrated History (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc, Publishers, 2013), p. 140.

[2] Confederate monuments were commissioned by Southerners from Northern manufacturers; Northern states sold to Southern communities the very monuments which would become the evidence of the myth that the South had not lost the Civil War. Further adding to the irony is the fact that John Wilson’s model for Silent Sam was a young man from Boston who had no idea his likeness would be used for a Confederate soldier. See: "Silent Sam a Yankee," Carolina Alumni Review, January 1975, page 6.

[3] Various sources interpret Sam’s lack of ammunition as symbolic of peace. One could also interpret the sheathed bayonet the same way. I find these interpretations questionable, given Silent Sam is holding a gun in the first place. He seems to have every intention of firing his gun, or at the very least is scanning for something to shoot at. There is nothing to indicate his gun isn’t loaded, or that his ammunition isn’t stored elsewhere. And he is positioned facing north, as if he were ready to face the Union armies again. The idea that Silent Sam is somehow a peaceful monument is sometimes invoked to corroborate arguments that he is somehow a benign monument.

[4] There are a number of technicalities to address: The estimated number here of “1000 University men” most likely derives from an exchange of letters between James Venable, the President of UNC from 1900-1914, and Julian Carr, who was to deliver an infamous speech at the dedication of Silent Sam. In preparation for the speech, Julian Carr sent a letter to Venable asking him to "furnish me [Carr] with the number of young men joined the Confederate army from UNC, and the number who served in the war from Harvard, Yale and Princeton.”  Carr explicitly references these numbers in his speech at the dedication ceremony. He was only interested in those students who served the Confederacy—he had no interest in those who served the Union. Venable replied that there existed "no exact and satisfactory records of participation of the sons of the University in the Civil War,” but he nevertheless ballparked a number: perhaps a thousand privates. In the speech to come, Julian Carr ultimately inflates this number to 1,800 student-soldiers, which he admits is not the most of any Southern institution, but is second only to the University of Virginia. I am unsure precisely where Carr gets his inflated number of UNC student-soldiers who, in his words, “supported the sturdy manhood of the South.” These letters reveal two things that the description of Sam glosses. The first is that the estimated number of UNC student-soldiers is guesswork. But more importantly: make no mistake—Silent Sam was not erected to honor the veterans of the Civil War in general. Silent Sam stands unequivocally and exclusively for the Confederacy. In some cases, Confederate monument apologists will claim that Silent Sam represents the general mass of unnamed soldiers who lost their lives in the Civil War; this is not the case with Silent Sam. Too often, Confederate monument apologists will avoid the point entirely, hand waving to the idea of the Civil War and heroism without explicit mention of the Confederacy. Such a rhetorical omission is obfuscating the fact that at every point in its conception, creation, dedication, and perseverance on UNC campus, Silent Sam was explicitly meant to honor the Confederacy.

[5] For more on the history of the white supremacist group, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, see: Karen L. Cox, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, New Perspectives on the History of the South (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003).

[6] Cox, p. 49.

[7] James W. Loewen, Lies across America: What Our Historic Sites and Monuments Get Wrong (New York: New Press: Distributed by W.W. Norton, 1999), p. 19.

[8] Maya Little was also interviewed on Democracy Now!

[9] UNC Libraries collected an enormous archive of tweets about Silent Sam.

[10] “Executive Summary,” pg 6.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Emma Goldman, Living My Life (1931), Chapter 5.  Variously attributed to her.


Evander Price
evanderprice.com
Twitter @elpriceisright

Evander Price is a Graduate Researcher for Monument Lab. Price is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Harvard University. His dissertation research proposes a new category of monumentality, the “future monument.” The dissertation explores three different monuments spanning the twentieth century, specifically the 1939 World’s Fair, the NASA Voyager Golden Record, and the 10,000 Year Clock of the Long Now Foundation. He hopes to help shape the larger emerging field of time studies and show the many ways that assumptions and metaphors of time tremendously impact how people treat each other and the world around them. The future isn’t what it used to be.