In June this year nine black men and women were shot and killed at a South Carolina church. As details about the incident and the alleged shooter emerged, it became clear the suspect—Dylann Roof—was motivated by racial hatred. It’s likely no consolation to the victims’ families or the Charleston community, but the shock of those murders prompted many throughout the south to reassess their relationship with the Confederacy. Now, a South Florida Republican lawmaker is questioning one of Florida’s entries in Washington D.C.’s Statuary Hall—Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith.
In some places, governments have acted swiftly—usually lowering a confederate flag that has been flying over public facilities for decades. But in others, hearings have been tense and largely futile. Rural Walton County in North Florida heard heated public comment on both sides of the issue before deciding to switch the confederate flag flying at its courthouse to an earlier version of the confederate flag. But that’s not the only place you find confederate symbols.
“I visited Washington D.C. for the first time in half a decade,” Rep. Jose Diaz (R-Miami) says, “and I got a tour of the U.S. Capitol.” While he was there, Diaz saw Florida’s entries in the National Statuary hall. Each state submits two illustrious individuals to represent it.
“The first I had heard of, which was the inventor of refrigeration,” Diaz says, “but the second which was general Kirby, was a—to me—a little known Confederate general.”
Diaz thinks Florida should choose someone else in part because while Kirby Smith was born in St. Augustine, he spent most of his adult life in Tennessee. The Diaz bill would task the Great Floridians committee with choosing a replacement and the Florida Arts council with choosing a sculptor.
Many Confederate flags went up during the 1950s and 60s in response to the burgeoning civil rights movement. But the statue of Edmund Kirby Smith came much earlier. At the turn of the 20th century, there was a similar wave of confederate nostalgia in the south.
“The grand cause or the lost cause that’s the term I was looking for,” University of South Florida Professor Emeritus Gary Mormino says. “Yes, they lost the war but they lost it with nobility.”
Central to lost cause mythology is the downplaying of slavery as a motivation for the Civil War, and an emphasis on the honorability of the antebellum South. This eventually brought forth things like the movie Birth of a Nation and the second wave of the Ku Klux Klan. It also brought numerous monuments to Confederate heroes like Jefferson Davis, Robert E Lee, and Nathan Bedford Forrest. But Mormino resists lumping Kirby Smith in with these individuals.
“He is not the demon many people may hope he is,” Mormino says.
“Kirby Smith may seem like an easy target,” Mormino continues, “here’s a Confederate so therefore lets tear him down, and he turned out to be a much more complicated figure.”
Bob Nawrocki is the chief librarian for the St. Augustine Historical Society which is housed in the building where Kirby Smith was born. But the Segui-Smith House has seen significant remodeling since then.
In the small garden out back they have their own statue of the general.
“So when we look at these two statues here we don’t see them as they were—master and slave,” Nawrocki says, “but we see them in their final years. You see Smith with his academic robes on as a professor and you see Darnes with his medical bag.”
Darnes was Alexander Darnes, Kirby Smith’s slave valet during the Civil War. After the war ended he went to school, eventually studying to be a doctor at Howard University. When he established his practice in Jacksonville, he was the first African American physician in the city and just the second in the state. This statue—made and donated by a direct descendant of Kirby Smith—has come in for some criticism because it seems to downplay the master slave relationship.
But when it comes to the statue in Washington, the question is two fold—was Edmund Kirby Smith a figure worthy of praise or scorn? And what motivated Florida lawmakers at the turn of the century to propose him for statuary hall?
The first question is muddy. Senior Librarian Charles Tingley says Kirby Smith was torn about entering the civil war.
“So there are letters from Edmund Kirby Smith to his mother living in this house right before secession,” Tingley says, “and it’s things like I don’t know whether I should resign or not, ask uncle Put what he thinks.”
“Uncle Putnam was the Surveyor General of the state of Florida—the man Putnam County is named for,” Tingley continues.
But he says Kirby Smith was also very pro-South, and was a popular and frequent speaker at Confederate gatherings after the war.
When it comes to the Legislature’s motivation there’s a bit more clarity. The statue in the Segui-Smith garden depicts Kirby Smith not as a general but as an academic.
“So we’re very proud of the fact that our statues here tell a different story,” Tingley says. “The statue in the United States Capitol has Kirby smith in full dress Confederate uniform.”
“So I think there probably was a political statement being made at the time, but I haven’t read the ‘whereas’-es in the enabling legislation,” Tingley says.
Looking back through House and Senate Journals from that era, there’s no smoking gun, but it’s clear some were thinking of Kirby Smith’s status as the last general to surrender.
In 1913, state Representative Robert Hosford explained his vote saying although he generally opposed “making appropriations for dead men,” because Kirby Smith was “the last of our Confederate Generals to give up his sword I feel it my duty to cast my vote to perpetuate his memory.”
Diaz’s bill has garnered one co-sponsor—Rep. Ed Narain (D-Tampa)—who sits on the measure’s first subcommittee stop. Meanwhile Sen. John Legg (R-Lutz) has filed similar legislation in the Senate.