HISTORY WRIT ARIGHT
In 1924, the United Confederate Veterans and Sons of Confederate Veterans held their annual reunions in Charlottesville to coincide with the unveiling of a new equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee. The work of two artists—Henry Shrady, a self-taught sculptor who had received the initial commission in 1917 but died in 1922, and Leo Lentelli, an Italian immigrant who improved upon and eventually fulfilled Shrady's vision—the bronze figure stood an imposing twenty-six feet high, twelve feet long, and eight feet wide at the base. It was a stirring emblem of Confederate triumph and defeat, or, from the white community's perspective, triumph in defeat.
Due to a delay on the railroad, the general had been a week or more late in arriving. But on the evening of May 20, much to the organizers' relief, he sat safely astride his trusted horse Traveller and hidden from view under a large Confederate flag.
A few blocks away, at the Jefferson Theatre, dignitaries gathered for "the formal welcome and presentation of official ladies," and speeches commenced at eight o'clock. Everyone heaped praise on Lee, "that peerless Christian gentleman, that stainless leader of a stainless cause," as well as on the philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire. The Charlottesville-born businessman had paid for the statue and then donated the park in which it stood. It was the last of three statues and the first of four parks that McIntire gave to Charlottesville.
"Words cannot express the appreciation this community feels to Mr. Paul Goodloe McIntire for his generosity in this and other lines," a city council member told the audience, no doubt recalling that three years earlier McIntire had also presented the city an even more impressive statue of Stonewall Jackson. "These monuments will ever remain to remind us of the heroic deeds and great service rendered our country by these sons of Virginia, in whose memories they are erected."
Such memories—of the Civil War, the sectional strife that ignited it, and the violence of the postwar period, especially in the South—weighed heavily on everyone's minds that night. Earlier in the day, a delegate from Lynchburg had issued a fiery appeal for a history that more fairly credited "the soldiers of the South," whose "record of manliness, of self-denying endurance, of desperate, faultless valor and brilliant daring" remained unmatched. The cause for which these men fought was just, the delegate proclaimed, and their heritage ought to be treasured. Talk of a "New," more inclusive, more business-friendly South, popular in big cities such as Atlanta, must be tempered by an appreciation for the "solid foundations" of the Old South, "with its old courage, its old courtesy, its old reverence for women, its old fortitude in trial, its old spirit of pride in its history, its old devotion to principle and its old traditions of truth and honor and loyalty and right!"
Later that evening one of the day's final presenters, W. McDonald Lee, rose to speak on a similar subject. An outspoken editor on the Northern Neck, Lee liked to say that his newspaper, the Virginia Citizen, was "conservative in all things, neutral in nothing," and he demanded his readers never be "mealy-mouthed or bashful." The state's fish and game commissioner, Lee also served as commander-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. In his prepared remarks, he politely nodded to the "munificent and great heart" of McIntire and, after paying no more than a passing compliment to the "immortal" Lee (no relation), plunged himself into what he considered to be the great battle of his day—the battle over history. A bronzed General Lee, draped in sacred colors, stood just a few hundred yards away, awaiting presentation to an admiring throng, and he, Commander Lee, would now explain why that mattered. As we might say today, he would provide a bit of context.
First, though, a note of conciliation. "Time assuages grief and animus," Lee observed, "and the day has gone when as a small boy we knew our erstwhile foe as nothing but 'Dam-Yankees.'" The Sons of Confederate Veterans, he insisted, must give credit to their erstwhile opponents lest such credit not be afforded to them. And yet Lee furrowed his brow at the portrayal of the "War between the States" in popular films, "films that are going to depict your father and mine as cowards, when we knew that it took two, or three, or four and sometimes five Yankees to lick one Southerner—I say it behooves us to be up and doing to see that history is writ aright." The commander also worried about textbooks. Too many Americans mistakenly believed their country was founded at Plymouth Rock "because their history only alluded to Jamestown perhaps in six-point type in a foot-note." Jack Jouett should get as much attention as Paul Revere, he argued, and Cowpens the treatment of a Bunker Hill.
"The South is truly deficient in advertisement," Lee complained and then recalled for his audience an incident from 1911. In those days, a five-volume history of the United States, written by the Reverend Dr. Henry W. Elson, of Philadelphia, and first published in 1904, was "used in practically every school in Virginia," Lee said. "I cannot tell you because of the ladies present what abominable stuff was in that history, in such horrible terms that you would not wish your twenty-year-old boy to read."
The work came to Lee's attention when a friend removed his daughter from a class at Roanoke College in which the book was used. The New York Times picked up the story and Lee alerted his colleagues on the Sons of Confederate Veterans' History Committee. They issued a resolution that, "without presuming to dictate to Roanoke College what action it should take in the matter," nevertheless requested that the Reverend Elson's history be discontinued at once.
"We made a rumpus," Lee bragged to his audience that night in 1924, "and in twelve months' time it was put out of Virginia's schools."
The commander then pleaded, as his fellow Son from Lynchburg had, for a more correct history—one that stood true to southern heritage and principles, one that understood how the Confederates fought only in defense of homeland and womanly virtue and were defeated only by irrepressible numbers.
He demanded, in other words, a history that was "writ aright."
This battle over history is still being waged almost a century later. And a bronzed Robert E. Lee, these days green with age, still stands at the center of the fray, his hat forever doffed. I visited him one morning this summer, there with a colleague of mine from Encyclopedia Virginia photographing the park as part of a virtual tour we later published as a "Street View" on Google Maps. In the last several years we've documented dozens of sites, from Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest to anonymous slave cabins, and we came here in large part because of recent controversy.
In December 2016, a blue ribbon commission appointed by the city recommended removing the Lee and Jackson statues, suggesting that they "perpetuated a false Lost Cause historical narrative" and "made many members of our community feel uncomfortable and unwelcome" in their respective parks. The council ultimately agreed, voting to sell them. The move is under a six-month court injunction but has riled up passions both locally and nationally. On an evening in May several dozen white nationalists paraded through Lee Park by torchlight and, for several minutes, chanted "Blood and soil!" The New York Times denounced the incident as racial terror and compared the marchers to Ku Klux Klansmen "who terrorized Southern nights with cross-burnings and violence." The actual Ku Klux Klan—or at least the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, based in Pelham, North Carolina—responded by announcing an appearance at nearby Jackson Park on July 8, while so-called alt-right protestors, employing the imagery of both Confederates and Nazis, published a flier for their own event at Lee Park, scheduled for August 12.
As Peter set up his tripod and fiddled with the camera, a team of construction workers noisily laid down new pavement on nearby Market Street. Others walked through the park. A shirtless man stretched out and napped.
"The problem is people don't know their history," a worker who had wandered over to us said. He was a middle-aged white man wearing a neon vest and safety helmet. I earnestly explained that we wanted to photograph the park ahead of any changes. He laughed. "The name's already changed, hasn't it?"
"Emancipation Park," I said.
"That's so Charlottesville. They'll never get rid of that thing, though," he said, nodding to the statue. "The courts won't let them."
We were silent for a moment, as Peter snapped his photos.
"The problem is people don't know their history," he said again and then ambled back to his crew.
What would it take for people to know their history?
That thing Commander Lee couldn't tell his audience on the evening of May 20, the "abominable stuff" from Henry W. Elson's History of the United States, appears on page 211 of volume 3. And it makes even the reverend-doctor uncomfortable.
"The most revolting feature of slavery in America, one that the historian blushes to record (but history must deal with facts), was that too often the attractive slave woman was a prostitute to her master, that her children bore the stamp of his countenance," Elson writes. He goes on to explain that the children of slave women were, "according to the inflexible rule of the slave states," themselves enslaved and subject to sale by their fathers. "This evil was widespread at the South, as the mixed condition of the black race to-day will testify." Then, in what must have been seen by the Sons of Confederate Veterans as a spiteful attack on the sacred institution of southern womanhood, an institution that Lee took great pains in his speech to fluff and flatter, Elson adds: "A leading southern lady declared to [the French sociologist] Harriet Martineau that the wife of many a planter was but the chief slave of his harem."
It's almost shocking, this sudden intrusion of slavery on the proceedings in 1924 Charlottesville. Of course, it's also rather mild, existing only as a silence, as a deed unspoken and simultaneously refuted. The word "slavery" was uttered only once, I think, in three days of speechifying, and that was to remind those gathered that Robert E. Lee, "that peerless Christian gentleman," abhorred it. And even if he hadn't, the brutal enslavement of millions of men, women, and children over more than two centuries ought to be regarded—should the record of this event provide any guidance—as not worth mentioning.
Certainly this silence wasn't accidental. In fact, it represented an enormous ideological achievement if one considers that in 1860, on the eve of war, almost a third of Virginia's population was enslaved, almost half of the South's wealth was tied up in the value of slaves, and the nascent Confederate States' leaders pointed to slavery as the "corner-stone" of their new republic. It's true that there had been various plans to end slavery. The Virginia judge St. George Tucker drafted one in 1796, but it was politely ignored. The American Colonization Society unsuccessfully attempted to simply remove black people from America, sending them back to Africa. And after the deadly Nat Turner revolt of 1831, the General Assembly seriously debated whether to rid the state, once and for all, of its "peculiar institution."
But the investment was too deep, socially and economically. Instead of freeing slaves, polemicists such as George Fitzhugh, of Caroline County, made careers out of justifying their bondage. Enslaved African Americans are provided food, shelter, medical treatment, and Christianity, he argued. They're treated as family. Compared with factory workers in New England and Great Britain, their lives are gentle and civilized. Even the historian Elson noted that "many a slave was better kept by a humane master than he could have kept himself had he been free." Slavery, in other words, was good for everyone.
This is how the Old South—a mythical place of faithful slaves and loving masters, where men were devoted to truth and honor and, above all, revered their women—was invented. And, as Elson demonstrates, this conception of history persisted well after Emancipation. In the 1930s, as part of one of Roosevelt's New Deal programs, a band of oral historians spread out across Virginia and the South interviewing former slaves. The Virginia Writers Project included those interviews in a history titled the Negro in Virginia, published in 1940—or just a year after the movie version of Gone with the Wind. In a chapter on the punishment of slaves, the editor included the recollections of Henrietta King, of West Point, Virginia.
"See this face?" King said to her white interlocutor. "See this mouth all twisted over here so I can't shut it? See that eye? All red, ain't it? Been that way for eighty-some years now. Guess it's going to stay that way 'til I die. Well, ol' Missus made this face this way."
She then went on to relate the gruesome tale of being punished for stealing a piece of candy. It's "abominable stuff," this story, and when the head of the Virginia Writers Project read it, she was appalled. More than that, she was skeptical. Nothing she had read in books or seen on film had prepared her for such a crime. Slavery wasn't that bad, was it?
To her credit, this editor, a woman named Eudora Richardson, found Henrietta King in West Point and interviewed her. She witnessed the face, the mouth that was twisted and refused to shut after eighty years. And she believed. But she had to see it for herself.
We don't have that opportunity.
Thinking about this story recently, I looked up King in the federal census and found her address. I then located the spot on Google Maps where she had lived when Richardson drove to West Point and interviewed her. Today it's an empty field.
What would it take for people to know their history?
Pay attention to the silences.
"Here's what I think people don't get," my colleague Peter said as he moved his camera and tripod around the park, taking 360-degree photographs. "They don't get why they didn't just put up the statues right after the war. I mean, if that's what they're about, why wait fifty years?"
As it happens, that very question was raised on the day of the unveiling, May 21, 1924. It was a Wednesday, but many businesses had closed for the event and at one-thirty thousands of participants paraded from the University of Virginia down Main Street to East Fifth, then to Court Square, and from there the few blocks to Lee Park. Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute had come by train from Lexington and were joined by the mounted police, veterans of all ages, as well as the usual state and local dignitaries—the mayor, the governor, the president of the university. Once they all had arranged themselves around the draped general, and after various introductions, the Reverend Dr. M. Ashby Jones finally cleared his throat and began his address.
"It has been nearly sixty years since the close of the Civil War," he said. The din of battle has subsided, wounds have healed. And yet even now "there is one figure silhouetted against the background of flaming fierceness which grows larger and more distinct as the fires of war subside." He is Robert Edward Lee, of course, whose life was one of loyalty to Virginia and therefore "deeply rooted in a social soil, pregnant with the memories and traditions, the sentiments and convictions, of past generations." The general understood, even as he turned down command of the Union armies, that Confederate victory was impossible, and when defeat inevitably arrived—and here Ashby walks his audience through each of the stations of the cross, from the Seven Days' Battles to Gettysburg to that lonely old farmhouse in Appomattox—Lee accepted his fate with love and humility. More than that, he transformed it into a kind of victory.
Ashby's father had been Lee's wartime chaplain. Now his own training as a Baptist preacher was on full display. Robert Edward Lee, he concluded, found "in the shadows of the defeat of war the star of hope with its radiant promise and prophecy of the triumphs of peace."
The speaker then imagined the general "on the brow of a mountain," dispensing wisdom "to these young builders of a New South."
"Go back into life and teach and live what I have taught and lived," Lee tells them, "and lo, I am with you always."
The official record makes no note of how the audience responded, but I imagine a moment of quiet astonishment.
The Second Coming of General Lee.
The triumphs of peace.
Those triumphs are left unnamed, although they might be inferred from the absence of black faces in the audience or among the featured guests. What was lost in war—dominion over the lives and bodies of African Americans, the late republic's corner-stone, after all—had been restored, or at least somewhat so.
It's important to note that the Reverend Dr. Jones was an advocate of interracial understanding. As a pastor in Richmond twenty-some years earlier, he had opposed segregation laws. In the years since, in Atlanta and St. Louis, he had spoken out against lynching and in favor of enforcing all men's right to vote.
And yet, in 1927, a few years after his speech in Charlottesville, Jones published an essay in the Virginia Quarterly Review in which he acknowledged, with regret, that "today the negro is almost as completely within the power of the white man as in the days of slavery." African Americans are silenced politically, economically, and socially. They cannot vote. Their businesses are kept small and local. "Nearly all of the great institutions of civilization, schools, hospitals, libraries, art treasures, and facilities for recreation, are in the control of the whites."
Facilities such as Lee Park, for instance, in Charlottesville, Virginia, on May 21, 1924.
Like most speakers that week, Jones commented on the great "healing" between North and South in the decades since the war. I assume he might have pointed to this and not segregation, not disfranchisement, as the real triumph of peace. Yet Jones, of all people, couldn't have missed the absence in this formulation. It's there in the photograph of old foes shaking hands at the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Or from this newspaper account of an appearance in Iowa by LaSalle Corbell Pickett, the widow of General George E. Pickett and the self-styled "child bride of the Confederacy": "At the conclusion of her story, the audience sang 'America' while Mrs. Pickett with tears streaming down her face pressed the hands of the gray haired defenders of the stars and stripes who hurried to the platform to meet her." One can hardly blame Jones and others for being amazed at this turn of events—the killing fields of the Civil War turned into moments of tearful reconciliation. Bruce Catton, one of my favorite writers as a kid, even pointed to Robert E. Lee—more precisely, to the legend of Robert E. Lee—as an important catalyst of this reconciliation:
For this legend was the channel through which pent-up emotions could be discharged. The essence of the legend of Lee and the dauntless Confederate soldiers was that they suffered mightily in a great but lost cause. The point is that this very phrase accepts the cause as having been lost. There was no hint in this legend of biding one’s time and waiting for a moment when there could be revenge. This was the lost cause; something to be cherished, to be revered, to be the outlet for emotions, but not to be the center of a new outbreak of violence.
When I first read this I was sixteen and living in Iowa. I was a Confederate reenactor, and when Catton praised the myth of the Lost Cause as important in keeping the peace all these years, I found his argument persuasive, so much so that I praised it just nine years ago. I might have wondered that the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian authored some of his best books during the height of the civil rights movement—a time of great racial unrest that saw the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., the bombing of a church in Birmingham, the lynching of Emmet Till.
What exactly was the peace that had been kept? And who was it for?
For that matter, I might have wondered what it meant to be a Confederate reenactor whose little sister was African American.
Here's a story. It comes from the historian Henry W. Elson, who in addition to publishing those five volumes of American history, also put together a much shorter textbook for children. In it, he explained how and why the postwar policies of Reconstruction went so poorly in the South. State governments, he wrote, were dominated by northern white "carpetbaggers" at the exclusion of former Confederates and, because they were "unfit," African Americans. The corruption of these governments led to debt and civil unrest, which in turn led to the Ku Klux Klan. Only federal troops could sustain the carpetbaggers, and when the army withdrew in 1877, the southern white ruling class took power again.
"This was most natural," Elson noted. "The white race had labored for centuries to attain self-government. It paid ninety-nine per cent of the taxes. Could these great communities be turned over to a penniless, illiterate race who knew not the first principles of self-government? Such a spectacle has never been known in the world's history."
Elson's summary of Reconstruction came nine years before D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation immortalized this view of history on the big screen. Elson was less sympathetic to the Klan than the filmmaker Griffith, but the stories these two men told were virtually identical.
"We are not in sympathy with some of the methods adopted in the South to disfranchise the negroes," Elson wrote; "but it should be remembered that it is not a want of the ballot that retards the negro of the South: it is the want of ambition. The black man can become equal to the white man in the government of the South in one way only, and that is by becoming an equal force in civilization."
The same Elson who worried about the sexual violence of slavery now blamed the former slaves for their lack of civilization.
Here's a different story. On Saturday, November 3, 1883, at about one-thirty in the afternoon a white clerk in his late twenties was walking down Main Street in Danville. He was just about in front of the H. D. Guerrant and Company store when he passed two African American men, tripping over the feet of one of them.
The clerk turned and said, "Hey, what did you do that for?"
The man he confronted took offense at the clerk's tone.
"I was just getting out of the way," he said, "and of a white lady at that!"
Tempers flared, with one of the black men punching the white clerk, who then ran off.
None of this is exceptional except for, well, everything else: the day it happened and the place it happened and who was involved. What led up to it and what came after. Put it all together and this was one of the most significant two-minute street tussles in the history of Virginia.
The state at that time was ruled by the Readjuster Party, a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, farmers and working men, whites and African Americans. They controlled all statewide offices and had even placed their leader, William Mahone, in the U.S. Senate. This was hardly a carpetbagger government. Mahone had been a Confederate general during the war and historians have noted that he presided over a massacre of captured black troops after the Battle of the Crater in 1864.
Danville, meanwhile, had become, in some respects, ground zero of the Readjuster movement. In 1882, the party won eight out of twelve council seats in the majority-black city, with African Americans taking three of those eight. In a period of less than twenty years, blacks had gone from being enslaved to now sitting on the city council. The police force also had a few African American members and the city market, once the sole province of whites, had now largely been taken over by black vendors.
White anxiety was at a peak. Incidents with guns were up that summer and there was lots of talk of black "insolence." A group of white merchants had even lent their names to a broadside titled "Coalition Rule in Danville," which complained of the "injustice and humiliation to which our white people have been subjected and are daily undergoing by the domination and misrule of the radical or negro party, now in absolute power in our town."
On the night of November 2 a Readjuster official stood on a street corner and loudly decried the broadside, point by point, serving only to heighten the tension. It is in this context—and just a few days ahead of statewide elections—that the white clerk found himself in an altercation with two black men. He ran off to find some friends, returned, and confronted the men again. This time a crowd gathered, including black market-goers and white men with weapons. At least according to testimony given both locally and before Congress, some of those white men fired on the crowd, and when the smoke cleared, a white man and three black men lay dead in the street. A fourth black man later died of his wounds.
Witnesses testified that a mob then went in search of any black men they could find, shooting at least one. As dusk came, the streets finally cleared, helped along by Danville's all-white militia. Against the urgings of the mayor, militiamen organized armed patrols to keep African Americans indoors for the next several days, including Election Day.
Democrats, meanwhile, spread news of the violence and blamed it on Danville's blacks.
The Richmond Daily Dispatch was typical. "These negroes [in Danville] had evidently come to regard themselves as in some sort the rightful rulers of the town," the paper's editor wrote. "They had been taught a lesson—a dear lesson, it is true ... but nevertheless a lesson which will not be lost upon them, nor upon their race elsewhere in Virginia."
The street fight, the riot, the massacre—what you call it depends on your story—took place on Saturday. The election was on Tuesday. Democrats won across the state, and within two years the Readjuster Party ceased to exist. No Republican candidate was again elected to statewide office in Virginia until 1969.
Edward Pollock, the author of the Illustrated Sketch Book of Danville, Virginia, designed to promote business in the city and published in 1885, was explicit about the lesson that had been learned that day. "Another important result of the Riot," Pollack wrote, "was the complete change which at once took place in the deportment of the negroes towards their white neighbors. Those who had formerly been most insolent in their conduct now became polite and respectful, ready to yield all reasonable deference to their natural superiors, and to resume, contentedly, their own legitimate position in the social scale."
Visitors driving into Danville today will encounter oversized Confederate battle flags, displayed on private ground, at each entrance to the city. The site of the so-called riot, meanwhile, is an unmarked and abandoned store.
A silence of sorts.
M. Ashby Jones—a white Baptist preacher, an advocate for black civil rights, and the son of a Confederate hero—may have intended many things when, on May 21, 1924, at Lee Park in Charlottesville, he alluded to "the triumphs of peace." But the occasion also helped dictate how these words might be understood.
Robert Edward Lee was not dead, after all, but had come again. And he was reasserting himself.
Even as the speeches were being delivered in front of the general's statue, Susan Lawrence Davis was publishing her Authentic History: Ku Klux Klan, 1865–1877. Her father had helped found the organization in Alabama, and she wished to provide an accurate accounting of that achievement. Her history, she wrote, would focus on "the period covering reconstruction and reëstablishing white supremacy in the States which seceded" from the Union. Indeed, she demonstrated that in Alabama, typical of the former Confederate states, white men gathered together in secret groups in which "they discussed 'white supremacy' and decided they would make it the chief business of the Ku Klux Klan." (Margaret Mitchell used Davis's book as a source for Gone with the Wind, so much so that Davis sued her for plagiarism.)
The Klan in Virginia had existed for just a few violent months in 1868. It reappeared, however, early in the twentieth century, not just in the Old Dominion but across the South. The group's white-hooded members saw themselves as defenders of the Old South, white supremacy, and white womanhood, all of which the newspaper editor W. McDonald Lee had so eloquently extolled the day before the Reverend Jones's speech in Charlottesville.
McDonald Lee himself was a member of the KKK. When, in 1923, the Richmond Times-Dispatch had reported on his reelection to the position of national commander-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, it noted that Lee "was said to have been supported by the [group's] Ku-Klux Klan faction."
There were lynchings, too, across the state. Not all of them were connected to the Klan but they fit a pattern associated with the maintenance and upkeep of white supremacy. In 1917, William Page, a black man, was hanged in Northumberland and Walter Clark, also black, was shot in Danville. A year later a mob wrested Allie Thompson from his jail cell in Culpeper County and hanged him from a tree. In 1920, Dave Hunt was hanged from a bridge in Bristol and, in 1921, Lem Johnson from a tree in Brunswick by 2,000 men, women, and children. In 1923, ten people kidnapped Horace Carter from two police officers in King and Queen County and shot him in cold blood, the rare lynching that merited a state investigation. No charges were brought. Then in 1925 a mob hanged James Jordan in Waverly and burned his body in full view of a passing train. A year later, in Wythe County, Raymond Bird was severely beaten, dragged twelve miles behind a car, hanged to a tree, then shot full of bullets.
"The governor deplored the incident," the Danville Bee reported about Bird's lynching, "expressing regret that it should have happened."
In Waverly, Railroad Avenue runs near the unmarked spot where Jordan was murdered.
The sheer terror of such killings couldn't help but insinuate itself into the lives of African Americans—across Virginia and, of course, in Charlottesville that twenty-first day of May 1924. Such terror, combined with the recent work of the General Assembly, made segregation and white supremacy possible and was, therefore, one of the triumphs of peace.
It is unlikely that Dr. Henry Louis Smith, an esteemed graduate of the University of Virginia and president of Washington and Lee University, was thinking about any of this as Jones sat down and he rose to speak. But it hardly matters. It was part of the air they all breathed.
"In the name of Mr. Paul McIntire," Smith said, "... I present to his city of Charlottesville this stately figure of General Lee on Traveller."
Here, presumably, is when the giant flag was finally and dramatically removed to reveal the bronzed rider. With the crowd cheering, Smith declared that the Confederate hero should "stand forever to recall the glory of the unforgotten Past, to lift the busy Present to higher levels of patriotism and self-sacrifice, and to teach the endless generations of the Future the lofty lessons of his defeated yet triumphant life."
But will the statue stand forever? Should it?
And what might be done to acknowledge so many of these silences?
The morning was hot, the skies clear. And as my colleague Peter finished photographing the park, I worried that debate over Lee and Confederate statues around the state and the country has been reduced to a battle of mine versus yours: my history, my facts, my experiences.
How do we find a way, instead, to make connections?
I remembered my days as a reenactor, carrying the Confederate flag and obsessing over the buttons on my uniform. I remembered trying to convince my dad, a history teacher, that states' rights, not slavery, had caused the war.
With Lee Park completed, we packed up our equipment. And as we headed toward the car, I thought, I should give my sister a call.
Brendan Wolfe is editor of Encyclopedia Virginia, a project of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
Note Regarding the Photograph at the Top of This Essay
I have received a number of queries as to whether those long lines of white-topped figures in the postcard of the Lee statue unveiling are members of the Ku Klux Klan. They almost certainly are not. There is no record of the Klan formally participating in the ceremony, although, as my essay suggests, members likely played a substantial role. Instead, that splash of white is probably mop-topped headwear, called shakos, belonging to the Richmond Light Infantry Blues, a state militia unit, or perhaps one of the several marching bands present that day. Here is a list of groups that participated in the march to the statue and therefore were present for its unveiling:
The Virginia Military Institute Cadets and their band were present, as were the Richmond Grays, two companies of the 116th Infantry and their band, the Richmond Howitzers, and the Richmond Light Infantry Blues. C'ville Images, the source of the postcard, directed me to an image that they said depicted the Richmond Light Infantry Blues at another time and place (the details of the photograph were not provided). You can compare it to the postcard:
My own reading of the contemporary news reports suggests that had the Ku Klux Klan showed up to the Lee statue unveiling in this way it would have merited mention, perhaps even headlines. Absent such evidence, and looking at these photos, I'm convinced these aren't Klan members. They definitely aren't militia dressed as Klan members, as this claims.
Below left, a statue to the Light Infantry Blues, complete with distinctive shako, was dedicated in Richmond in 1978. Below right, a photograph of a Blues soldier, with shako, in 1896.