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The Burden of Being a Southerner
This is going to be a long and rather convoluted essay. I will be long, because as a Southerner and a quasi-historian I can’t do with one word what twenty would do; it will be convoluted as my feelings on the issue I am writing about are convoluted.
While not a huge fan of William Faulkner, I have longed admired his ability to put the South and the past in perspective. So here is the obligatory Faulkner quote, which at the end of this essay you reader can judge whether I put it all in perspective.
The past is never dead. It’s not even past. All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born, webs of heredity and environment, of desire and consequence, of history and eternity. Haunted by wrong turns and roads not taken, we pursue images perceived as new but whose providence dates to the dim dramas of childhood, which are themselves but ripples of consequence echoing down the generations. The quotidian demands of life distract from this resonance of images and events, but some of us feel it always.
On Being a Southerner
I grew up in Lexington Virginia. It is a quaint college town (with two institutions of higher learning I will have you know Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute) located in the southern Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Some say Lexington is not in the Shenandoah Valley and geographically they are probably right as technically the Valley ends at a point near Raphine Virginia. But don’t tell that to the natives of Rockbridge County and Lexington—they take great pride in being the highest point up the valley. (If you want when you go up the Valley you are going south and climbing in altitude, whereas when you go north you go down the Valley.)
Not only is Lexington a quaint college town it is also the burial site of two Southern demigods; Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Lee, who after the Civil War became the President of Washington College, and Jackson who before the Civil War taught natural philosophy at VMI.
It is hard not to notice the influence Lee and Jackson had on Lexington. In addition to Washington College being renamed in honor of Lee you have; an Episcopal church name after Lee, Medals of Scholastic achievement at VMI named after Jackson, the Chapel at Washington and Lee is Lee Chapel and the site of Lee’s tomb and Valentine’s recumbent statue of Lee, there is a statue of Jackson at VMI in front of Jackson Arch (it should be noted that the other arches at VMI are named after Washington, George C. Marshall, and Jonathan Daniels a VMI graduate killed in Alabama during the Civil Rights era), the house Jackson lived in is a tourist site (and in 1953 it was a hospital and where I was born), the President’s house at Washington and Lee is known as the Lee house, the Cemetery where Jackson is buried is the Stonewall Jackson Cemetery, and finally there are three streets in Lexington named after Lee and Jackson: Lee Avenue, Jackson Avenue, and Stonewall Street. I probably missed something. Growing up in Lexington both Lee and Jackson were part of the ethos of my childhood. A childhood that in coincided with the Civil War Centennial.
A part of Lexington, like the rest of the South, was still caught up in the myth of the lost cause and perpetuated by the likes of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The image of the South, in many of our minds, was what we had seen in the Gone With the Wind, the image of Scarlett and Rhett, of idealistic life on the plantation before the Civil War, the high handed actions of the invading Union Army, and the antics of the scalawags and carpetbaggers. We were too young, naïve, and ignorant to know that the truth was not Gone With the Wind and the lost cause.
I have never asked but I can only imagine that the African-American citizens of Lexington did not share our naïve view of the Civil War. I suspect the veneration of the lost cause myth and heroes of a failed rebellion to continue to enslave African-Americans was not well received. Even worse, the Virginia History textbooks of that time both for 4th grade and 7th grade made it seem as the South had won and there was little or no mention of the contributions of African-Americans or anyone other than whites to the collective history of Virginia.
Another quote from the sage of the South, William Faulkner, “Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other.” The facts as we understood them were quite different than the truth of the Civil War.
We grew up believing that everyone in Lexington wanted the civil war. The truth was that Lexington and Rockbridge County were reluctant secessionists. The first-time Virginia voted on the question of secession it failed miserably in Rockbridge County (hereinafter Rockbridge County will include Lexington unless otherwise noted) in part because slavery did not underpin the economy of the Valley of Virginia or Rockbridge County. This is not to say there were no slaves in the County—there were just not to the extent found in other part of the Commonwealth.
After Lincoln’s call for troops, after Fort Sumter, Rockbridge County too went along with secession and cheered as Thomas Jonathan Jackson (he was not yet Stonewall, which would shortly become his moniker) and other men and boys from the County headed off to war.
Rockbridge County, like the rest of the South was touched by the war. Men returned home suffering horrible physical and psychological wounds. Sandie Pendleton, the son of Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Artillery, General (Rev.) William Nelson Pendleton was one of many Rockbridge sons who died in the War.
Stonewall Jackson returned to Lexington some two years after he left. He returned in a wooden coffin that was carried from the packet boat on the Maury River to the room he taught in at VMI and was laid to rest in the cemetery that now bears his name. In 1864 the boys from VMI marched off to war, to a little town of New Market, where they help turn the tide of the battle. Scores were wounded and ten would never return, having “died on the field of honor.”
When the war ended, Lexington like the rest of Virginia was devastated. VMI laid in ruins having been burned by General David Hunter. Washington College was broke and had no leader. The outlook for this little town seem bleak. In the end though it would emerge from the war.
Washington College would seek out Robert E. Lee to become its President. In four years in that job he sought to heal the wounds of the nation. When Lee died in October of 1870 the outpouring of grief came not only from the South but from all over the nation—as many believe Lee was an honorable man having done what he believed was right but more importantly his four years as President was about healing. With his death so began the cult of the lost cause of the good and righteous war for the rights of states.
While I have not mentioned slavery, I would be remised if I did not point out that both Lee and Jackson owned slaves. While Lee eventually freed his slaves (according to this account in 1862) he like all Southerners believed in the institution of slavery. As recent biographies have pointed out he was not a benevolent slave master as Freeman and earlier biographers have painted him. He apparently believed in the use of the lash to maintain control of his slaves.
Jackson likewise owned at least 2 slaves while a Professor at VMI. He also, contrary to Virginia law, taught his and other slaves to read and write while instructing them in religion at the Presbyterian Church. Jackson too believed in the institution of slavery.
Whether we like it or not, slavery was legal until outlawed by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. By the standards of our day that is abomination but by the standards of 1860 it was a permissible and perfectly legal institution. (Please note I am not defending the institution of slavery I am merely pointing out an inconvenient fact of history.)
VMI rebuilt and new generations of Cadets would wear the grey of the Virginia Military Institute. Among those who help rebuild VMI, was a Senator from Delaware Henry du Pont who had fought against the Corps at New Market. After the War VMI attracted not only the sons of the south but also the sons of the North who had heard of this school and its service in the War. VMI most famous graduate is George C. Marshall, Class 1901 who hailed from Pennsylvania.
The citizens of Rockbridge County wanted to put the war behind them. Many freed African-Americans lived in Lexington working menial jobs at either VMI or Washington and Lee (renamed in 1870 from Washington College to Washington and Lee College). They were part of the community, establishing their own social, religious, and fraternal institutions. While part of the community but like most African Americans in the South there was a wall of separation between them and the white community. While they were citizens and for several years after the war enjoyed the benefits of citizenship—over time those rights were eroded.
Over time the generation and who fought the war and the generation who followed sought to change the narrative of the war from that of being fought over the question of slavery to being the lost cause, fighting for States Rights, or the Second American Revolution ad nauseam.
They sought to apply a veneer of respectability over the fact they committed treason by revolting against the duly constituted government of the United States. Lest we assume otherwise the North was complicit in the rewriting of history.
But this was also about the white South reestablishing supremacy over African Americans. It was also about severing the common bonds of economic oppression which Southern poor whites and African Americans shared. It was about establishing white men as being superior of African Americans regardless of their class in society.
It was not by accident that after the Hays-Tilden compromise in 1877 that the South, slowly but methodically disenfranchised African-American voters, restricted their rights through legal and extra legal actions. Extra Legal actions of intimidation and lynching by such groups as the KKK enforce societal mores of white superiority.
In 1890, some twenty years after his death, that the statue of Robert E. Lee was unveiled on Monument Avenue in Richmond Virginia. While it might be viewed by some as way to remember the actions of a native son of Virginia it was all part of the myth of the lost cause.
Lee was a native son who resigned his commission and took up arms against his country, the United States America. A native son, who could have been convicted of treason. They wanted to remember him as both a Southern military leader but also as a symbol of the rebellion against the constituted government of the United States and as a symbol of white domination over African Americans. Lee was not the second incarnation of George Washington as portrayed by Douglas Southall Freeman. Lee was human, a man who had failings and faults like all humans. He was not evil incarnate. He was not a failure as a military commander.
So too were the erection of statues of Jackson, Stuart, Jefferson Davis, and Mathew Fontaine Maury a reminder of the lost cause and the superiority of white men. But they were also dead by the time their statues were erected on Monument Avenue. Jackson and Stuart died before the end of the war. Davis returned to Mississippi and died and Maury taught at VMI and died. Davis body was returned to Richmond and buried in Hollywood Cemetery. Maury lies entombed on the ground of VMI.
Jackson and Stuart position on the reunification of the Union is unknown as they both were killed in the war. Davis died a Confederate and one of the leading lights of the lost cause. Maury was a scientist and educator—I do not know his position but I suspect he believed in the superiority of the white race.
In 1902 Virginia passed a new State Constitution, which disenfranchised African-Americans by instituting a poll tax and a literacy test. Poor whites, often as poor as or poorer than African Americans and often time illiterate managed to pay the poll tax and pass the literacy test. Whereas African-Americans who could pay the poll tax and were educated found that they could not answer the questions of the literacy test. Questions which those asking the question were probably unable to answer. Despite being looked down on by Upper Class whites, lower class whites (or as they were sometime referred to Poor White Trash) were legally better than African-Americans. Virginia, like the rest of the South took steps to legally and through extra legal means keep African-Americans in their place subordinate to the master race.
Virginia was perhaps, if one is to believe the parlor histories of this time, more civilized that the Deep South. Perhaps we were—I doubt it. We still lynched African-Americans. They were lynched for breeches of societal mores—at least until Governor Harry F. Byrd decided that lynching was beneath the dignity of proper Virginians and a breach of law and order. Virginia was the only Southern state that enacted an effective anti-lynching law. A law that held the Circuit Judge, the Commonwealth’s Attorney, and the Sheriff legally responsible for any lynching that occurred. Amazingly lynching ceased to be a problem.
Lest one get the mistaken impression, Harry F. Byrd, Sr. was not some type of Southern liberal. He was a racist and saw to it that Virginia resisted Brown v. Board of Education by closing the schools in several Virginia counties in order not integrate the schools in those counties.
African-American’s may have been citizens according to the 14th Amendment, but in Virginia they were second class citizens. In Virginia, African-Americans were more likely to be convicted of crimes, African-American children had separate and inferior schools and often had to be bussed weekly to attend schools in neighboring counties because the community they resided had no “colored schools.” They had no say in the democratic process. But they could be drafted and they died for their country in foreign lands fighting for freedoms they were denied.
While the public reason may have been a memorial to the lost cause, let not kid ourselves the erection of the monuments was about reestablishing white superiority over African-Americans. Whether we like it though, the monuments are part of our collective history—they represent heritage to some; they represent oppression to others.
Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
This is the quote that is enshrined over the entrance to Dachau. It was written by the philosopher George Santayana. It is a reminder that we should never forget the horrors of what happened in World War II. I am sure there were Germans who would have loved to see the concentration camps plowed under so they could forget. The world said no, they would remain as reminder to all—of man’s inhumanity to man.
In the opening of this rant I made a strong case about why the Confederate memorials were put up—that the cult of the lost cause was about white superiority more than it was about memorializing those who fought for the confederacy.
But I also believe that taking down monuments is hiding history that is uncomfortable. Whether we like it or not they represent a sorry chapter in our history. When Richmond added a statue of Arthur Ashe to those on Monument Avenue, many were appalled that Richmond had dared add an African-American to stand among the sainted one enshrined on the holy Avenue of monuments to the lost cause.
While many will say that Monument Avenue is a shrine to great Virginians then where is the statue of George Thomas of Southampton County Virginia? General Thomas, though a Virginian did not resign his commission, he fought for the Union Army and the United States. Nowhere is his statue found in Virginia—because to many he was a traitor to his native state.
History and its symbols must be inclusive. Not only should George Thomas have a statue but there also should be statues to Douglas Wilder, Spotswood Robinson, and Oliver Hill all of whom fought to overcome the status quo and gain civil rights for all Virginians regardless of their race. There should be a statue to Maggie Walker who started the first African-American bank in Richmond. There are many Virginian who also deserve to have monument and who are not found on Monument Avenue. If we are not going to be inclusive, maybe then it is time for them all to come down.
Should we glorify the confederacy—no; but neither should we not strike down the monuments to those who fought. They serve not only as a reminder of the terrible cost of war (like those so often found in courthouse squares with the names of those who died). They serve as a reminder that the civil war was about a rebellion against the constituted government of the United States. They also serve as a reminder that the monuments and the war were about the enslavement of African-Americans.
We need to leave the monuments where they are. But we also need to change the narrative from memorializing the lost cause and the South that never existed. A cause that was never noble and a South that never existed except in the fertile minds of Margaret Mitchell and others who accepted the myth and not the facts.
Instead we need to change the narrative to the ignoble reason the war was fought and the memorials erected—to preserve slavery and to ensure African-Americans were not truly equal. We need to quit sanitizing history and break down the barriers that hinder a common understanding of history. More importantly we need to change to narrative to memorialize all; regardless of race, gender, or class who have made Virginia, the South, and our United States great.
Remembering the past is not easy and sometimes the symbols of the past are troubling—but if we structure the narrative, make it inclusive instead of exclusive, we can use the memorials to help every Virginian to know and understand the good and bad of our past.
However, There Are Some Symbols Deserve to Go the Way of the Dodo Bird
Having made a case for keeping the monuments, I also believe that there is one symbol, the Flag of the Confederacy in all manifestations, should go the way of the Dodo Bird.
Recently there has been a concerted effort by some Southern Heritage Groups to place large flagpoles flying the Confederate Battle Flag along the highway, to continually protest institutions removing Confederate Flags from active display. They claim it is their heritage, in fact they could care less about heritage, what they are really interested in is using the Confederate Flag to create division in society and to terrorize African-Americans.
The Confederate Flag should only be seen in museums—and then only rarely as part of an educational display. Displaying the Stars and Bars or the Battle Flag simply to display it is wrong and serves no purpose.
Let me offer my rational. Beginning with Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Knights of Ku Klux Klan the flags of the Confederate States of America have been used as a symbol of terrorism. Terrorism directed towards African-Americans to ensure they conformed to the societal mores of the post-Civil War South. Terrorism toward whites, particularly those who were seen to be outside the mainstream of the Southern thought and action: liberals, Jews, or those who saw African-Americans as being human and deserving of being treated equally.
If Southerners had wanted the Confederate Flag of any variety to be anything other than a symbol of hate they would have stood up to the KKK and other purveyors of hate and said no. They would not have allowed it to be use as a symbol of hate.
They were complicit of allowing it to be used as a symbol of hate, they were complicit in it being used as symbol of terrorism, they were, in their inaction no better than those, who marched around in white sheets, burned crosses and terrorized African-Americans. While they saw the actions of the KKK and others as being beneath them they were in fact sympathetic to the acts of terror.
This has not been an easy essay to write. I will be the first to admit it is convoluted. Then the history of the South and this subject is convoluted. As I have written these sentences I have found myself in a battle between my heart and heritage as a white Southerner and my consciences.
But I am also aware there are those on both sides of the issue who have no scruples.
The so called alt-right is using the whole debate to sow divisions between red and blue America, to further divide and alienate. I loathe them and their ilk. However, I will defend their right to speak, to assemble, and to believe; but I shan’t lift a finger to protect them from whatever comes their way.
Then there are the limousine liberals. The ones who naturally gravitate to any cause, and who despite their education, seek not to educate and heal; but to divide. They sit in their expensive condos and pass on pronouncements of what they believe to be profound insight without a clue to what is really happening in the world. They are the radical chic of Tom Wolfe wrote about in Radical Chic and Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers. I feel sorry for them as they are truly ignorant of the real America.
Both groups serve no useful purpose other than to further divide our society.
All of us need to stop for a minute, breath, and ask ourselves how we will make our nation a better place. Maybe we all should stop and consider the teaching of the prophet Christ found in the Sermon on the Mount, and as we consider them, maybe we should add another trait, that of humility. We should be humble toward our fellow man, we should stop and listen to what our fellow man has to say, and in the end we should respect those with whom we disagree.
This is what the founders believed. I still believe in the promise of our Constitution and that our nation is best hope for mankind. We are not perfect. Today our nation is closer to fulfilling the promise that all men are created equal. We have come a long way but we still have a way to go.
For good or ill our nation is still the beacon for all who seek freedom and liberty and our actions will set an example for those who come after us—may we be enlightened as the founders of this nation, who for all their faults, created our system of government and the great nation we live in.
[14 http://www.richmond.com/opinion/their-opinion/guest-columnists/lorna-wyckoff-what-to-do-about-rva-s-monument-avenue/article_3e38fadf-73bb-50f1-a585-ce89fb30f3ab.html; General George Thomas https://www.civilwar.org/learn/biographies/george-thomas
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