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"The Yankees went thataway." Emma Sansom's fateful finger points the way.

Reb Helpy Helperton: Emma Sansom Statue

Field review by the editors.

Gadsden, Alabama

Promoters of the Civil War's "Lost Cause" were adept at creating idols with catchy names, such as the The Boy Hero of the Confederacy and The South's Horatius, nearly all of them dead by the time they were ennobled. Ranked among this posthumous pantheon is 15-year-old Emma Sansom, The Sunbonnet Heroine of Gadsden. Her moment of Rebel glory came on May 2, 1863, when she pointed to a shallow spot across Black Creek, enabling Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his men to cross and eventually capture a force of Union infantry.

Monument immortalizes the Sunbonnet Heroine.
Monument immortalizes the Sunbonnet Heroine.

After the war, Emma left Alabama, spent most of her life in Texas, and died. Years later, on July 4, 1907, she posthumously returned to Gadsden in the form of a marble statue atop an elaborate monument, sunbonnet in one hand, the other pointing its fateful finger.

Nathan Bedford Forrest makes an unwelcome appearance.
Nathan Bedford Forrest makes an unwelcome appearance.

The statue had been carved in Italy, and since there were no photos of young Emma, the artists gave it the face of a generic white 15-year-old girl. That did not lessen the enthusiasm of a local reporter, who described the monument at its unveiling as "splendid" and wrote that it "stimulates commemoration of brave deeds."

In 2016 a historical marker was placed a few yards from the monument, noting that a black citizen of Gadsden, Bunk Richardson, had been lynched nearby just a year before the arrival of the Emma Sansom statue (Which commemorated an event that had happened 44 years previously). In 2020 protesters demanded Emma's removal, calling the monument a belated attempt to glorify the Confederacy (and white supremacy) and noting that it ennobled not only an obscure 15-year-old, but also the bloodstained former slave-trader Nathan Bedford Forrest, who is depicted on the base of the monument, and who became the first "Grand Wizard" of the Ku Klux Klan.

It's unclear how much longer Emma's maidenly finger can support its accumulated baggage, but for now she continues to point, with both her supporters and detractors unable to appreciate the strangeness of her weird statue.

Reb Helpy Helperton: Emma Sansom Statue

Broad St., Gadsden, AL
In the center of Broad St., one block west of the river, at the corner of 1st St. Two blocks south of US 278/431/Meighan Blvd.
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