This illustrates something that even a lot of liberals don’t always get. Most of these monuments were not erected right after the Civil War. In fact, all the way to 1890 there were very few statues or monuments dedicated to Confederate leaders. Most of them were built much later. And since I’m not an academic, I feel comfortable squeezing this history into a very short, oversimplified summary:
1861-1865: Civil War.
1865-1875: Reconstruction Era.
1875-1895: Reconstruction Era ends. Blacks are steadily disenfranchised, allowing Southern whites to enact Jim Crow laws. In 1896, Jim Crow is cemented into place when the Supreme Court rules it constitutional.
1895-1915: With blacks disenfranchised and Jim Crow laws safely in place, Southern whites begin a campaign of terror against blacks. Lynchings skyrocket, the KKK becomes resurgent, and whites begin building Confederate statues and monuments in large numbers.
1915-1955: Jim Crow reigns safely throughout the South.
1955-1970: The civil rights era starts after the Supreme Court rules in Brown v. Board of Education that Jim Crow laws are unconstitutional. Southern whites mount massive and violent resistance, and start putting up Confederate monuments again.
Yes, these monuments were put up to honor Confederate leaders. But the timing of the monument building makes it pretty clear what the real motivation was: to physically symbolize white terror against blacks. They were mostly built during times when Southern whites were engaged in vicious campaigns of subjugation against blacks, and during those campaigns the message sent by a statue of Robert E. Lee in front of a courthouse was loud and clear.
No one should think that these statues were meant to be somber postbellum reminders of a brutal war. They were built much later, and most of them were explicitly created to accompany organized and violent efforts to subdue blacks and maintain white supremacy in the South. I wouldn’t be surprised if even a lot of Southerners don’t really understand this, but they should learn. There’s a reason blacks consider these statues to be symbols of bigotry and terror. It’s because they are.