UNC’s Silent Sam and Honoring the Confederacy

Silent SamSilent Sam. (Photo: Don McCullough flickr CC)

On Sunday, July 5th, officials at The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill (UNC) discovered that their Confederate war memorial, nicknamed “Silent Sam,” had been vandalized, with the words “Black Lives Matter,” “Murderer” and “KKK” spray-painted on the monument’s pedestal. The statue, erected in 1913, was dedicated to the UNC students and alumni who fought or died for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

It would be easy to think that this is just another incident amongst a recent string of controversies concerning the South’s memorialization of the Civil War, but that’s not quite the case. For a long time now, the university has been trying to reconcile its modern, progressive mission with its troubling past.

In May, after two years of student protests, the Board of Trustees voted to rename Saunders Hall, which houses the geography department. They also agreed to put up a plaque contextualizing both William Saunders, the building’s namesake, and Silent Sam. This was a big step. By any estimate, Saunders was a horrific man: he was the head of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina after the Civil War, during an era when the Klan terrorized both blacks and sympathetic whites through unrelenting violence. Ironically, it was this allegiance to the Klan that led to the building being named after Saunders in the first place. At the time of the building’s naming in 1920, much of the university’s support for Saunders derived from his participation with the Klan.

These protests at UNC go back to at least 1992, when students used Silent Sam as a focal point to rally against the Rodney King verdict. In addition, in 1999, students hung KKK banners from Saunders Hall in an effort to publicize his violent past. And in 2013, students protested the 100th anniversary of Silent Sam.

At times, the university has responded to criticism by trying to contextualize its history, hoping to find a middle ground between those who want to preserve these monuments and those who want to tear them down. For example, in 2005, they erected a work by artist Do-Ho Suh, the Unsung Founders Memorial – a hundred or so feet from Silent Sam – dedicated to the free black laborers and slaves who had helped build the university from its founding.

UNC has also acknowledged the controversy surrounding Silent Sam. On the school’s website, they wrote, “The monument is perhaps the most controversial memorial on campus. Many view it as a glorification of the Confederacy and thus a tacit defense of slavery, and believe it should be removed from campus. Others feel that such a removal would do more harm than good by denying the reality of this period of UNC’s (and the nation’s) history. Do-Ho Suh’s “Unsung Founders, Bond and Free,” standing nearby in the same courtyard since 2005, was created in part to act as a voice to counter the negative connotations of the Confederate Monument by honoring the African American slaves and servants from the same historical period.”

Unsung Founders Memorial

Unsung Founders Memorial. (Photo: Don McCullough flickr CC)

But with the spray-painting of Silent Sam happening alongside the debate over the place of the Confederate Battle Flag, UNC and other colleges and universities in the South will once again have to consider questions of how it remembers its history. These are not easy questions to answer.

Other remnants of the past remain conspicuous across the green lawns and shaded paths of campus. Memorial Hall, which holds theater and musical performances, was dedicated to fallen Confederate soldiers, their names inscribed on the building’s walls. Swain Hall was named after David Swain, who was president of the university during the Civil War, and a slaveholder. The Carr Building was named after Julian Shakespeare Carr, a noted white supremacist, who, at the dedication of Saunders Hall, proudly confessed to having “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.”

But for now, Silent Sam seems the most obvious target of controversy, mostly because it is so explicitly pro-Confederate in both its appearance and its origins. In 1913, the Daughters of Confederacy, after four years of fundraising, paid sculptor John Wilson, a Canadian, $7500 for the statue. Wilson used a Boston-man, Harold Langlois, as the model. It’s unclear, however, if those attending Silent Sam’s dedication knew they were celebrating a Yankee’s profile. Silent Sam was among many “Silent Sentinels,” – statues of soldiers without cartridge box, soldiers who could no longer fire a shot – that were manufactured and bronzed in the North and then sent down south for public display. Many of these statues look remarkably similar. Like Silent Sam, they also face north, toward the Union.

While the phrase has become a cliché, Silent Sam truly was a product of its time. The memorial came about during a period of Civil War nostalgia, when there was a desire among whites for reconciliation between the North and the South. That meant slavery and the emerging practice of Jim Crow needed to be whitewashed and rebranded. The faithful slave became a literary trope. Memorial Day speakers, in both the North and the South, paid homage to the bravery of men from both sides. All was forgiven.

“Symbols of reunion abounded everywhere,” said David Blight in his monumental history of reconciliation, Race and Reunion. “Nostalgia for the heroic and romantic pasts of the battlefield and the plantation found robust markets. Commercial flag producers began to include the Confederate battle flag, along with the stars and stripes, in their advertisements.”

By 1913, when Silent Sam was erected, Blight argued, “Civil War memory was both settled and unsettled; it rested in a core master narrative that led inexorably to reunion of the sections while whites and blacks divided and struggled mightily even to know one another across separate societies and an anguished history. Reconciliation joined arms with white supremacy in Civil War memory at the semicentennial in an unsteady triumph.”

Silent Sam was erected during this age of reconciliation among whites, of commemoration of white soldiers, and, most importantly, of forgetting black suffering both in the past and the present. UNC was a part of this. After all, it wouldn’t allow black students to enroll until 1955. And, sixty years after integration, it is still dealing with the consequences of that history.

Today, Silent Sam’s pedestal is wrapped and taped to hide the spray-paint. Saunders Hall has been renamed Carolina Hall. There is a sign hanging outside the front door saying so, but above, etched in the building’s stone, Saunders’s name remains. While the Board of Trustees has put a moratorium on renaming buildings for sixteen years, it’s not clear whether the wave of debate over how we remember the Confederacy will allow them to remain silent. This is a complex moment with answers that aren’t easy to come by. What will happen, how the community of Chapel Hill, the faculty, administration, and students at the University of North Carolina, and the Board of Trustees react to the latest incident is anyone’s guess.

About the Author

Michael Keenan Gutierrez

Michael Keenan Gutierrez is the author of The Trench Angel (October 2015) and earned degrees from UCLA, the University of Massachusetts, and the University of New Hampshire. He teaches writing at the University of North Carolina.

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  1. This is a great case study as to why this is such a difficult debate and subject. It’s hard not to agree with those who want this statue removed, and Saunders Hall renamed, and yet it’s also hard not to applaud the University’s sincere efforts to come to terms with that past and integrate it into what is hopefully a new direction.

    The simple truth, I think, is that we’re not going to come to a happy medium on any of this while racial inequality and harassment continues, and that’s probably a good thing. These symbols serve as glaring reminders to us as to how deep race is embedded in the American experiment. To try to remove every commemoration that is tainted by it would end with virtually no public memorialization left, yet to leave it all untouched under the mantra of ‘remembering the past’ seems too easy and too much like whistling past the graveyard. But maybe constantly struggling with it like UNC and its students are doing – both with thoughtful debate, action, and – yes – civil disobedience and protest is the path; an end goal of questioning, not answering.

    Thanks for a thought provoking piece.

  2. Andrew, I wish I’d have written the following in the piece, because it’s exactly how I feel: “But maybe constantly struggling with it like UNC and its students are doing – both with thoughtful debate, action, and – yes – civil disobedience and protest is the path; an end goal of questioning, not answering.”

    There’s nothing simple about this debate but the debate, as you point out, is what’s important.


  3. Try as I might, it is hard not to see the students who expect/demand the removal of offensive names, images, etc. as victims of the unintended consequence of political correctness. Being protected from whatever is offensive has created the expectation that their sensibilities trump all other considerations involved. But then I’m old enough to remember when it wasn’t this way, and I’m white.

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