Reflecting the divided allegiances of Tennesseans during that great struggle, a number of memorials throughout the state, both Union and Confederate, honor participants in the Civil War. Despite some exceptions, most monuments are found in one of three localities: on battlefields, in cemeteries, and on courthouse lawns or public squares. While building monuments continued well into the twentieth century, a majority were dedicated in a thirty-year span between 1885 and 1915.
For both sides, erecting monuments became a way to honor the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers. The inscriptions on Union and Confederate monuments sometimes conveyed comparable sentiments. A Union monument erected in Cleveland by a Grand Army of the Republic post in 1914 was dedicated “To Perpetuate The Memory of The Boys In Blue In the War of 1861-1865 Who Lived in Bradley County.” Similarly, a monument erected in Dresden in 1915 bore an inscription “In Honor Of The Confederate Soldiers Of Weakley County, Tennessee 1861-1865.”
The earliest war-related monument in Tennessee appeared in 1863, while the conflict still raged. That year, survivors of Colonel William B. Hazen's brigade constructed a wall and monument to honor their comrades who fell on December 31, 1862, while defending the Round Forest, a crucial salient in the Union line during the battle of Stones River.
The economic and political turmoil in the immediate postwar years prevented most communities from recognizing their veterans with a monument. Early memorialization efforts revolved around the decoration of Confederate graves with flowers, a task undertaken by women's memorial committees in the late 1860s.
The few monuments erected to honor Tennessee Confederates in the immediate postwar years often employed funereal symbolism. The earliest monuments to the Confederate dead were erected in Union City and Bolivar. In Union City, a relatively unadorned white marker was dedicated October 21, 1869, at a cemetery containing the graves of twenty-nine unknown Confederate dead. At Bolivar, an obelisk erected on the courthouse square was dedicated “To The Confederate Dead of Hardeman County, Tennessee.” The marble shaft was surmounted by a draped flag reminiscent of a shroud and an urn, another popular funerary symbol.
Citizens in three of Tennessee's largest cities placed Confederate monuments in cemeteries prior to 1895. Memphians dedicated a monument in Elmwood Cemetery in 1878; residents of Nashville did the same at Mount Olivet Cemetery in 1889; and in 1892 Knoxville citizens erected a monument in the Confederate Cemetery. Placing monuments in the midst of Confederate dead conveyed the loss felt by many Tennesseans for the deceased and their cause.
Monument building intensified in 1890, when the federal government passed legislation creating Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, the first such venture in the country. In Tennessee, later efforts resulted in government establishment of military parks at Shiloh (1894), Stones River (1927), and Fort Donelson (1928).
At Chickamauga-Chattanooga and Shiloh, efforts to accurately mark troop positions and honor soldiers in both armies resulted in the erection of a staggering array of battlefield monuments. These included imposing state memorials, unit monuments, statues, busts, and reliefs. Among the most impressive of these artworks is the elaborate United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) memorial dedicated at Shiloh in 1917. Funds for these memorials came from various sources: veterans' organizations, women's associations such as the UDC, and funds appropriated by state legislatures and the federal government.
The intense interest generated by battlefield adornment coincided with increased reverence for the Confederacy. A Lost Cause ideology prevalent by the late nineteenth century venerated the Confederate experience. Women often played key roles in this process and channeled enormous energy into selecting suitable memorials. Monuments increasingly appeared in highly visible public venues such as courthouse squares. Simple markers and funerary symbols gave way to more expressive memorials. Commercial firms vied for contracts to erect monuments, advertised their successes in the Confederate Veteran magazine, and urged memorial committees to place statues of Confederate soldiers above a marble or granite pedestal. Towns such as Lebanon, Murfreesboro, and Union City that had earlier erected monuments in cemeteries added a second one in the heart of the community. Most monument inscriptions paid tribute to Confederate veterans from a particular locale. One town honored the three hundred “Unconquered” Confederate soldiers “Who Went Out From Mulberry” in Lincoln County. Sentiments carved on monuments rarely deviated from eulogizing the Confederate era, but a notable exception appeared on a monument erected in Union City in 1909: “To The Confederate Soldier of Obion County / Who Was Killed In Battle / Who Was Starved In Federal Prison / And Who Has Preserved Anglo-Saxon Civilization In The South.”
The monuments represented a considerable emotional and financial investment by the individuals and groups that labored to erect them. It often took years to secure enough money for a monument. At Franklin, for example, a monument association existed as early as 1883, but progress lagged until 1897, when a United Daughters of the Confederacy chapter began soliciting funds in earnest. Their efforts paid off on November 30, 1899, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the battle of Franklin, when a Confederate monument was dedicated on the public square.
The elaborate ceremonies attendant to the Franklin dedication were repeated throughout Tennessee at the height of the monument-building boom. A huge crowd attended the dedication of a Confederate monument at Mount Pleasant on September 27, 1907. Railroad cars conveyed a band from Fayetteville, which played “Dixie” as distinguished visitors filed off the train. Gray-clad veterans fell into line and marched in a parade to the public square for the dedication ceremonies. The day-long festivities included an invocation, welcoming speeches, a poem written for the occasion, a feast at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and speeches in the afternoon by Senator Edward W. Carmack and Judge S. F. Wilson. The latter's eloquence reportedly moved the old Confederates in the audience to tears. At the end of the ceremony, thirteen girls tugged on ribbons and unveiled the monument.
Accounts in the Confederate Veteran speak glowingly of similar ceremonies in Dyersburg, Lewisburg, Paris, Shelbyville, and a host of other communities. In each case, speakers lauded both the Confederate veterans and the women who toiled so diligently to build the monuments.
Monument building diminished as the wartime generation passed away. More recently, monuments have aroused occasional controversy. Groups cognizant of Nathan Bedford Forrest's status as an antebellum slave trader and Imperial Wizard of the original Ku Klux Klan agitated unsuccessfully to remove his remains and the equestrian statue over his grave from the site in Memphis. In 1996 a Williamson County man demanded the relocation of the Franklin monument. Nevertheless, Civil War monuments remain in place as silent reminders of a tragic era in the state's history.