Although the St. Louis Confederate Memorial plays upon a long history of traditional European styles, it offered a visual narrative rarely seen in Confederate monuments—that of a multigenerational family. On the south face is a relief of the Angel of the Spirit of the Confederacy carved directly into the Vermont granite. Just below the angel’s skirt is a group of four figures in bronze. The central figure is a young man “called to war,” stepping gallantly forward, out toward the viewer, his left hand held at his breast. He is surrounded by two women and a small boy who carries a large Confederate flag in his arms. While many Confederate monuments depict a lone soldier in uniform, or a leader on horseback, this memorial offers a rare glimpse of a soldier’s sorrowful goodbye.
The unique depiction of everyday women and children appeals to traditional familial relations. The young man’s face gives the impression of resolute bravery compared to the fearful expressions of the other figures. The woman to the young man’s left is visibly older, a maternal figure. She rests her head on his shoulder and gazes at him with a worried expression. The figure to his right is a visibly younger woman. Her body braces forward, as if she is enduring a strong wind. The small boy is positioned in the foreground of the relief, dwarfed by the flag in his arms, he stares up at the young man in awe. Veterans and the mothers, children, and spouses of lost soldiers could see this imagery and feel proud of and comforted by the sacrifice of their men. The looming Angel of the Spirit of the Confederacy, as the largest and highest figure of the monument, evokes divine purpose and God’s favor of the soldier’s cause.1
The St. Louis Confederate Memorial remained standing for over a century in Forest Park, one of the largest urban parks in the U.S., until it was dismantled and relocated in 2017. Demands for its removal were reignited in response to police violence against unarmed Black people—most significantly, the local deaths of Vonderrit Myers and Michael Brown Jr. in 2014. Protestors flocked to police departments, courthouses, and surprisingly, the memorial. The inseparable relationship between state-sanctioned violence and lasting Confederate monuments revealed to many Americans a much larger issue: the unresolved social and systemic ills created by colonization and chattel slavery that structure everyday life. 21st-century threats to the memorial reawakened old borderland sentiments that have divided the state’s residents since the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Indeed, the removal of Confederate monuments poses a threat not only to the integrity of the Confederacy in public memory, but also to the decades of memory work done by Confederate families and sympathizers.
The memorial’s imagery might seem legible as a visual tool for asserting patriarchal white supremacy and garnering sympathy for the Lost Cause. But more subtle and insidious is how it edifies myths of white femininity while obscuring white women’s powerful roles in reforming the post-war landscape. Look closely at the elderly woman: she is positioned furthest to the back, giving the impression that the other figures emanate from her. Holding fast to the arm of the young man, she represents the universal image of a mother. With the absence of an elderly man, the family unit becomes matriarchal, multigenerational, and communal. Unlike other Confederate monuments, this memorial relies on the visual impact of a family torn by war to gain sympathy.
Margaret A. E. McLure (1811-1902) was the matriarch of one such family. Although she died twelve years before the unveiling of the monument in 1914, it was her sheer determination that secured the St. Louis Confederate Memorial’s creation. In doing so, McLure established her own legacy as a “benevolent mother” to Confederate veterans and Confederate memory. Upon her death, McLure’s obituaries were published in several local and national papers, with flattering descriptions of the lady’s life that characterized her as a helpless victim of a divisive war, rather than an active participant. The lady was, and continues to be, remembered fondly with fresh flowers on her grave at Bellefontaine Cemetery. What has been suspiciously left out of her biography, in narrative and tone, may offer reason for the memorial’s unique façade; I speculate that the figures are representations of McLure and her children. Through the fabrication of an idealized image of “Mother McLure,” the memorial is a posthumous effort to promote an image of Southern womanhood—passive, devoted, and innocent of all wrongdoings—that actively works to diminish the truer image of a nation-traitor.
Called to War
In a collection of narratives produced by the Daughters of the Confederacy titled Reminiscences of the Civil War (1913), McLure is interviewed by a Mrs. P.G. Robert to tell the story of her involvement in the Civil War from “her own mouth.” This invaluable source not only details her experience from memory, but also reveals how McLure wanted her life remembered under the guise of objective truth.2 The narrative begins with her childhood. Margaret McLure (née Parkinson) was born and raised in what is now West Virginia around 1811 in Parkersburg, a town named after her ancestor, Alexander Parker, as reward for his service in the Revolutionary War.3 Her commitment to the foundational ideals of the Confederacy was probably cemented during her childhood. She married William Rain McLure, who was born in Pennsylvania and a proud descendant of the American Revolution. The couple moved to St. Louis before 1844 and had four children: William Parkinson, Susan, Charles, and Lewis.
Although McLure was widowed in 1852, she continued to live a relatively lavish and stylish lifestyle in downtown St. Louis.4 Due to its Southern plantation culture, an influx of European immigrants, and its industrial urbanization, the then-largest city in Missouri was home to a mix of residents loyal to the Confederacy or the Union; it is within this climate that McLure found herself at the start of the Civil War. Her eldest son, William, supported the Confederacy, becoming a captain in the 1st Regiment of the Missouri Cavalry. As the war went on, the Union successfully pushed the Confederate troops further south, ultimately out of Missouri, resulting in long stretches of time he could not communicate with his family.5
McLure began visiting soldiers in hospitals and Union prisons in hopes of gathering information about her son’s whereabouts. It was not long before she became so well-connected that “her house acted as headquarters for mail and contraband goods, as well as a refuge for escaped prisoners and those wishing to join Confederates.”6 McLure was a smuggler and spy, and one of several notable upper-class women who used their wealth and social standing to support the Confederates. In a letter written in 1863, Missouri Provost Marshall General Franklin A. Dick stated:
These women are wealthy and wield great influence; they are avowed and abusive enemies of the Government; they incite the young men to join the rebellion; their letters are filled with encouragement to their husbands and sons to continue the war; they convey information to them and by every possible contrivance they forward clothing and other support to the rebels. These disloyal women, too, seek every opportunity to keep disloyalty alive amongst rebel prisoners.7
General Dick recognized these women’s power to galvanize men on behalf of the Confederacy, while resisting in small and large displays of treason. At least 360 women were arrested in St. Louis, if not for their direct involvement, then for their association with Confederate men. The Gratiot Street Prison, the Myrtle Street Prison, and the Alton Prison upriver in Illinois overflowed with both men and women. More women’s military prisons were set up throughout St. Louis; once they too were overwhelmed, the city banished Confederates to the South. McLure was one of the first women to be banished.8
While she was visiting prisoners, McLure recalls, she was tapped on the shoulder by a stranger who warned of a siege at her home. She quickly mailed the letters she had in her pockets and returned to her residence, where she would be imprisoned from March 20th – May 12th, 1863. During her imprisonment, many other women, including her daughter Susan, helped destroy hundreds of letters and packages. McLure recalls:
It was a scene to call forth tears, from harder hearts than those of these southern women, to see the red flames destroying the message of love and hope and the poor but dearly prized pictures and tintypes sent to cheer the long and weary hours of absence, and that were perhaps all of the comfort that would ever come to those who would watch and hope in vain for their loved ones’ return.9
After a few days of confinement, Union soldiers cleared the McLure home of all personal items and sold her furniture, turning her house into a women’s prison.10 Furthering McLure’s distress in this time, her youngest son, Lewis, at 14 was arrested by Union forces for espionage. Lewis was imprisoned in the cramped attic space of a Union office that once served as a smallpox hospital. There, he grew so sick from the “foul atmosphere,” that there was a strong possibility of his death. Once McLure caught word of the severity of his illness, “she at once requested her faithful friend and physician, Doctor Lemoine, to go and see her son.” What true imprisonment allows for such privileges?
On May 12, 1863, the order of banishment came. McLure, along with several of her children, boarded the Sultana and was sent down the Mississippi River to the South, where she would remain until the war’s end.11 Six more shipments of women were banished to the South. During her banishment McLure made great allies, becoming a leader in the Daughters of the Confederacy organization. After the war ended in 1865, McLure returned to St. Louis, and in 1889, became a founding member and the first president of the Missouri chapter of the Daughters, which consisted of mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters of Confederate veterans.12 The chapter eventually took the name of “Margaret A. E. McLure” to honor the lady’s unyielding service to the Confederate cause.
McLure in Bronze
McLure’s crowning achievement as the inaugural president was stewarding the Confederate Home for Less Fortunate Veterans in Higginsville, Missouri, which provided food, shelter, and healthcare to Civil War veterans and their wives, mothers, widows, and children. One of two founding missions of the Daughters of the Confederacy, the home was formally opened June 9, 1893, and would soon grow to a campus of over 30 buildings serving both Confederate and Union veterans.13 It was the only veteran home of its time to welcome the wives, mothers, widows, and children of veterans.14
After McLure’s death in 1902, the Missouri chapter moved forward with its second founding mission:
To obtain, erect and maintain a [monument] to the memory of the Missouri Confederate soldiers, designed to be everlasting and to be as magnificent as the means at the command of the corporation can produce, to be located in the city of St. Louis, Missouri. And after this [monument] shall have been duly erected, those whose memories it is designed to perpetuate, the Board of Directors may, if they see fit, donate the same to the said city, provided the city assume, in a satisfactory form, the duty and obligation of maintaining the same.15
The founding members of the organization understood the significant role of monuments in controlling narrative and effecting history. A Monument Committee was formed to spearhead the creation of the memorial. In fifteen years, the Daughters raised $23,000 through public events, such as tea parties and picnics, garnering support from a polarized St. Louis to shape the public memory of their lost Confederate kin.
The construction of the St. Louis Confederate Memorial was not without controversy. Opposing any Confederate monument, local officials enacted an injunction to stop its erection. Thus, the Monument Committee compromised on the memorial’s design and language, shifting the public rhetoric around the project to one of peace and reconciliation between the St. Louis Union and Confederacy.16 In other words, their proposed monument was not to the Confederacy, but on behalf of the Confederate dead, a group of soldiers and sailors who unobjectionably deserved to be commemorated.
A competition was held in November 1912 with guiding rules: “the designs must be kept free from battle scenes and that not even a figure of a Confederate soldier could be introduced.”17 Designers had to create a “peace” monument that included no uniforms, weapons, or violence. Three finalists were selected to display their creations at the St. Louis Public Library: Robert P. Bringhurst, Frederick Ruckstuhl, and George Julian Zolnay. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch announced George J. Zolnay, “the sculptor of the Confederacy” whose subjects included the Confederate spy Sam Davis and President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, as the winner.18 Yet controversy and public debate about the developing plans for the memorial ensued.
Zolnay had designed something entirely new—a multigenerational Southern family in which Confederate veterans and sympathizers could see themselves. Furthermore, Ruckstuhl appealed to the Daughters, demanding Zolnay’s design be disqualified for representing a Confederate soldier and the Confederate flag. Although Zolnay clearly broke the rules, the Committee advocated on his behalf, welcoming his design that exceeded the conventional “soldier’s monument.”19 What is curiously not stated is the similarity between the monument’s design and the family of the organization’s namesake, Margaret A. E. McLure—the widowed mother of a son who died in service, a daughter who dutifully delivered messages, and another son who was a convicted spy. Is it not possible that the resonances between McLure’s family and the bronze figures swayed the organization to ignore the competition rules?
Ruckstuhl and Zolnay continued to argue and defame each other publicly for months after the competition’s end in Zolnay’s favor. The city council, however, agreed with the disgruntled Ruckstuhl and voted against the monument, stating that the inclusion of “Civil War tolerance still exists in the breasts of some St. Louisans.” The city council continued to vote the monument down until December 7th, when they finally accepted the gift with the draping Confederate flag intact. The commissioner of Forest Park hesitated over where the shaft would be placed, pushing back against the Daughters by suggesting an additional Union memorial of similar design be made in the future.20 This suggestion was ultimately ignored and the monument was erected as planned in the center of a roundabout off of a new road, aptly named Confederate Drive. At the memorial’s unveiling, Zolnay stood in front of the gathered crowd, stating, “The erection of a monument entails more responsibility than that of any other edifice or building, in that while all other buildings, art, literature, etc., might pass away, a monument remains forever.”21
Through her many endeavors, Margaret McLure made room for white women as essential to the Confederate project. Within a traditionally gendered lens, she shaped her own legacy to emphasize her responsibility as a mother, more so than any other role (spy, prisoner, advocate). In preserving the memory of the soldiers of the Confederacy, she inscribed her own name, over and over, in meeting minutes, in news articles, and, as I speculate, in bronze. The published narrative ends with an observation by Mrs. Robert:
in going over the record of these sad and sorrowful days not one word of bitterness escaped her lips; and I must add that in a close association of over thirty years, the writer has never heard from her one harsh criticism of any human being.22
How could one woman—who openly defied the Union, risked imprisonment for her cause, banished from her home, with all of her possessions sold away, her son’s remains lost to an open grave—how could this Confederate rebel be characterized as passive, devoted, and innocent of all wrongdoings, unless she ensured she’d be remembered that way?23