On June 19, an array of top government officials gathered for the unveiling of a statue of Frederick Douglass, the 19th-century African-American man born a slave who rose to be a vice-presidential candidate. That politicians and the federal government continue to memorialize black leaders and abolitionists of that era surprises no one, but few are aware of the other side of that coin: how much Washington pays to memorialize the Confederate dead.
The most visible commemoration comes every Memorial Day when the president places a wreath at the Confederate Monument in Arlington National Cemetery, the vast memorial built on an estate confiscated from Robert E. Lee. Lower down in public awareness is the fact that 10 military bases -including prominent installations like Fort Lee and Fort Bragg -- are named after Confederate leaders, a fact that Jamie Malanowski highlighted and criticized in a Memorial Day New York Times op-ed that stirred a heated debate.
But even most Civil War experts don't realize the federal government has spent more than $2 million in the past decade to produce and ship headstones honoring Confederate dead, often at the request of local Confederate heritage groups in the South, and overwhelmingly in Georgia. Going back to at least 2002, the government has provided more headstones for Confederate graves than for Union soldiers' graves. In that time, the Department of Veterans Affairs has provided approximately 33,000 headstones for veterans of the Civil War. Sixty percent of those have been for Confederate soldiers.
I found out about this program in 2002 while researching the resurgence of political activity by so-called "neo-Confederate" groups in the early part of the last decade. Since then I've spoken to at least a dozen Civil War experts who had no idea it existed and were surprised to hear about it.
But they -- we, our federal government -- do provide headstones for Confederate dead all over the country: 18,593 of them in the last 10 years, and an average of more than 2,000 per year going back at least several years before that, according to the VA. At an average cost of around $176 to manufacture each headstone, and an average shipping cost of $75, that's more than half a million dollars every year. (The total cost over the last 10 years is lower due to inflation: In 2003, the VA told me manufacturing was closer $100 per headstone, and shipping was around $10.) By far the lion's share of these headstones are for graves in Southern states and for a number of years, Georgia had more than twice as many orders as any other state.