CHICAGO-Confederate monuments of Civil War figures, who fought against the Union Army in an attempt to preserve slavery, have become central to the debate surrounding white supremacists and America’s past.

New momentum has built to remove such monuments, after a violent white supremacist gathering in Virginia last weekend in support of a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee.

President Donald Trump said Thursday he was “sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.”

What is the historical and artistic value of these Civil War statues? AFP asked two experts to weigh in: an American historian and a museum curator who has studied many of the monuments.

- Why were these monuments built? -

“Building these really in some ways was a political and cultural move,” said James Grossman, head of the American Historical Association.

Most Confederate sculptures were erected in two eras: during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation, primarily between 1895 to 1920, and as a counter-response to the civil rights movement starting in the 1950s, Grossman said.

“It had to do with uniting in essence white southerners, and then later by extension white Americans... in a celebration of the values of the Old South... a world in which many white people owned many black people.

“So that’s the function of the statues. (It) is in a sense to create highly respectable ways of honoring a revolution... that did not have honorable purposes.”

Most Civil War sculptures  - whether for Union or Confederate figures  - are no more than “mediocre” in quality, said John Coffey, of the North Carolina Museum of Art, who has studied many of the works.

“There are exceptions,” Coffey said, offering examples of Union Army figures.

“There are Civil War monuments by some of the greatest American sculptors  - Daniel Chester French or my particular favorite is Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

“(Saint-Gaudens) is arguably the finest American sculptor of the 19th Century and he produced several of the iconic memorials to the Civil War.

“One is the Shaw memorial in Boston Common in Massachusetts and the other is the Sherman equestrian statue at the foot of Central Park in New York City.”

Most were created during a flurry of activity within a few decades in which lesser artists were commissioned to meet a high demand for works to stand in public spaces, Coffey said.

“Many of them produced things that you would almost describe as off-the-shelf: soldiers that could be repurposed as Union or Confederate  - differing perhaps in small details of buttons or armament, but for the most part all pretty much the same.”