One might not expect to find commemorations of the Confederacy north of the Mason–Dixon Line, let alone west of the Rocky Mountains, yet the Intermountain West boasts several: a city named after Robert E. Lee; a memorial fountain built “by the daughters of the Confederacy”; a twentieth-century “Secession”; a statue of two Confederate soldiers; and a Dixie of its own. Where did these Confederate markers come from, and why were they in the American West?
After the Civil War, ex-Confederates spun an obfuscatory pseudo-historical narrative of the Civil War as part of an effort to rehabilitate the image of Southern society, broker power in the reconstituted Union, and erode what few social gains Black Americans achieved under Reconstruction voting rights protections. The new narrative became known as the “Lost Cause,” and it told a rose-tinted, Gone With the Wind-like story about a palatial and honorable plantation society where Confederates seceded to protect states’ rights—all despite historical evidence that brutal chattel slavery was at the heart of Confederate secession.
The Lost Cause narrative resonated with other white Americans, and as it became mainstream, Confederate imagery spread beyond the South, including into the West. Some Western Confederate markers arose in parallel with Southern Jim Crow segregation and the nationwide resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan during a massive memorial impulse that raised hundreds of monuments between 1900 and 1940. Later displays of Confederate imagery from the mid-twentieth century onward correlated with the Civil War’s centennial as well as antipathy toward the Civil Rights Movement, another phenomenon often associated with the South though by no means exclusive to it. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Whose Heritage” project valuably maps these memorials and markers nationwide (https://www.splcenter.org/data-projects/whose-heritage-map).
Because of the history behind Confederate themes, examples of Confederate symbols in the Intermountain West reveal grim possibilities requiring careful interrogation. If Americans like to imagine the West as quintessentially American, then we must also reckon with what these Confederate Wests say about the Union.