How Our Invisible Monuments Haunt Us

In many ways, the Nazi ral­ly and sub­se­quent vio­lence in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia rep­re­sents the most frus­trat­ing con­tra­dic­tions of Amer­i­ca’s his­to­ry. You can see it on a map of vot­ing behav­ior: a speck of blue in the red sea of cen­tral Vir­ginia. It isn’t elec­toral­ly “pur­ple” in any real sense, but rather dis­joint­ed: peace activists live along­side defense con­trac­tors, for exam­ple, and giant pick up trucks “rolling coal” and fes­tooned with the Con­fed­er­ate flag lum­ber past a world-class pub­lic uni­ver­si­ty.

When I lived there, the con­tra­dic­tions were impos­si­ble to ignore. There was a live­ly gay club near­by — remark­able for a small town of only 50,000 or so peo­ple — yet at my office the gay pride month fly­er was defaced every year. The tour guides at Mon­te­cel­lo, the home of Thomas Jef­fer­son, would acknowl­edge slav­ery exist­ed but would deny the exis­tence of Sal­ly Fields — nev­er admit­ting Jef­fer­son raped her repeat­ed­ly and then reject­ed the chil­dren that result­ed. Peo­ple would extol the won­der that the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia was designed by Thomas Jef­fer­son, but would ignore that the build­ings were phys­i­cal­ly raised by slaves in chains.

If you don’t look too close­ly, those con­tra­dic­tions can appear quaint, even invis­i­ble — espe­cial­ly if you are white (as I am). Vir­ginia is my home, it is the place I can most say I am from and that has shaped who I am. For a state so close­ly linked to racism — it took a Supreme Court rul­ing to force the state to end its pro­hi­bi­tion on inter­ra­cial mar­riage in the 1960s — you can find aston­ish­ing diver­si­ty there. My first few years of ele­men­tary school were spent at Mos­by Woods, named after a Con­fed­er­ate offi­cer who led par­ti­san raids across North­ern Vir­ginia to harass, kid­nap, and occa­sion­al­ly kill Union sol­diers. He was so infa­mous the whole region was once called Mos­by’s Con­fed­er­a­cy.

Mos­by Woods ele­men­tary was a won­der­ful place to be young: the stu­dents came from a huge num­ber of places, many of them immi­grants. The school would host mul­ti­cul­tur­al food nights, potluck din­ners where every­one who want­ed to could make food from their cul­ture and share it with oth­er fam­i­lies at the school audi­to­ri­um. I vivid­ly remem­ber being six or sev­en years old and try­ing Ethiopi­an injera for the first time (I did­n’t grow to like it until adult­hood). I remem­ber lik­ing spring rolls from a Chi­nese fam­i­ly but being skep­ti­cal of the sharp salti­ness of the fried rice from a Kore­an fam­i­ly. I loved tacos but thought col­lards too bit­ter. My friends were Asian, black, white, Lati­no — we all played soc­cer togeth­er and yelled about Star Wars and bick­ered on the play­ground when some­one didn’t play tag fair­ly.

We nev­er real­ly learned who John Mos­by was at his epony­mous school. Dur­ing the lit­tle seg­ments on Amer­i­can his­to­ry in our class­es, we would be told he was a great war­rior and a states­man who served the coun­try for decades. This much is true. We were told he was a patri­ot who fought for what he believed in, and that this was admirable because we should all fight for what we believed in. This was only half true. In his let­ters, Mos­by claimed he detest­ed slav­ery but also owned a slave, Aaron Bur­ton. Born in Char­lottesville, Bur­ton was loy­al to Mos­by even after being freed: after he moved to New York, the two men stayed in touch into the 1890s. And Mos­by was unapolo­getic about fight­ing to defend slav­ery. “I am not ashamed of hav­ing fought on the side of slav­ery,” he wrote in a let­ter in 1907. “A sol­dier fights for his coun­try – right or wrong – he is not respon­si­ble for the polit­i­cal mer­its of the course he fights in … The South was my coun­try.”

It would be dis­hon­est to say that all the men who fought for the Con­fed­er­a­cy were blan­ket­ly vil­lain­ous — many, like Mos­by, were moti­vat­ed by a par­tic­u­lar­ly twist­ed form of patri­o­tism. Yet not all south­ern­ers were blind­ly loy­al to the Con­fed­er­a­cy, and to pre­tend that it is laud­able for that blind alle­giance to take up arms is wrong. Upwards of a quar­ter of the Union army was made up of South­ern­ers who did not want to fight for the vicious slave dri­ver Jef­fer­son Davis, and did not want to com­mit trea­son against their flag and betray their fel­low cit­i­zens in war.

It did­n’t mat­ter much for Mos­by — much like Robert E. Lee, he was hon­ored after the war for his ser­vice to the ene­my. Dur­ing Recon­struc­tion he vocal­ly opposed memo­ri­al­iz­ing the rebel­lion and opposed stat­ues to its heroes, devel­oped an unlike­ly friend­ship with Ulysses S. Grant and even­tu­al­ly became a Repub­li­can, and served for decades as both con­sul to Hong Kong and lawyer in the Jus­tice Depart­ment.

Mos­by’s peers in Vir­ginia did not see him as hon­or­able. For years they reviled him as a trai­tor to the south, and thought him too accom­mo­dat­ing of Grant (whom they con­sid­ered an ene­my for his defeat of the Con­fed­er­ate Army). At one point, the harass­ment of Mosby’s fam­i­ly became so dan­ger­ous — his home was razed to the ground — Grant offered him a spe­cif­ic exemp­tion from arrest. “There was more vin­dic­tive­ness shown to me by the Vir­ginia peo­ple for my vot­ing for Grant,” he wrote to a friend, “than the North showed to me for fight­ing four years against him.”

One of the goals of Recon­struc­tion was to pro­vide a way for Con­fed­er­ates to rein­te­grate into the Union and become full cit­i­zens again. Many south­ern­ers did not want to rein­te­grate. Men like Lee and Mos­by were able to tran­si­tion back to life because, ulti­mate­ly, they were not true believ­ers, if you will, in the neces­si­ty of a slave econ­o­my. For them, their lead­er­ship of the South was mere­ly patri­o­tism: my home has made this choice so I must sup­port it. It was a con­struct GK Chester­ton would rec­og­nize when he crit­i­cized British patri­o­tism in 1904:

Mere jin­go self-con­tent­ment is com­mon­est among those who have some pedan­tic rea­son for their patri­o­tism. The worst jin­goes do not love Eng­land, but a the­o­ry of Eng­land. If we love Eng­land for being an empire, we may over­rate the suc­cess with which we rule the Hin­doos. But if we love it only for being a nation, we can face all events: for it would be a nation eve if the Hin­doos ruled us. … The more tran­scen­den­tal is your patri­o­tism, the more prac­ti­cal are your pol­i­tics.

The lan­guage to dis­cuss patri­o­tism in this way did not exist dur­ing the Civ­il War. In 1945, Orwell took it fur­ther: in 1945, he wrote “Patri­o­tism is of its nature defen­sive, both mil­i­tar­i­ly and cul­tur­al­ly. Nation­al­ism, on the oth­er hand, is insep­a­ra­ble from the desire for pow­er.”

This does not exempt the patri­ot­ic from his­to­ry’s judg­ment: both Mos­by and Lee killed thou­sands of men while defend­ing a gov­ern­ment based on the own­er­ship of slaves, some­thing for which they tru­ly got off eas­i­ly. But if we stick with Orwell’s dis­tinc­tion between nation­al­ism and patri­o­tism, the south­ern­ers who hat­ed and harassed Mos­by were nation­al­ists: they cared far more about pre­serv­ing their own pow­er in soci­ety, espe­cial­ly their pow­er to own and exploit black peo­ple, more than their homes, their cities, and their fledg­ling gov­ern­ment in Rich­mond.

The death toll from the white nation­al­ism of the south is hard to fath­om: hard num­bers don’t exist, but most esti­mates put the death toll from the transat­lantic slave trade into the mil­lions. The Civ­il War killed hun­dreds of thou­sands more, and the lin­ger­ing effects of the south, metasti­sized lat­er in the Lost Cause nar­ra­tive (“the war of north­ern aggres­sion,” as they erro­neous­ly put it), killed yet more thou­sands. It is a belief sys­tem soaked in blood.

I did­n’t learn that going to an ele­men­tary school named after a Con­fed­er­ate sol­dier. Men like Mos­by and Lee accept­ed defeat for their rebel­lion and main­tained their patri­o­tism, and the praise they received for it has led to a belief that the oth­er Con­fed­er­a­cy sol­diers were equal­ly hon­or­able in defeat. They were not, how­ev­er. Some of them took up the nation­al­ism of the Lost Cause nar­ra­tive to flood their com­mu­ni­ties with memo­ri­als and ref­er­ences to the Con­fed­er­a­cy long after it had been wiped away. Imag­ine anoth­er coun­try try­ing to heal while its streets, its parks, its coun­ties, its schools, are all named after the lead­ers of the los­ing side of a hor­rif­ic civ­il war. That isn’t rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, it is capit­u­la­tion. While one might under­stand roads and schools named after Lee and Mos­by, what is the expla­na­tion for Jef­fer­son Davis High­way, also in Vir­ginia?

Part of the Lost Cause move­ment was to revive either dor­mant or most­ly-dead nation­al­ism of the Con­fed­er­a­cy — and the best way to do that was to treat its lead­ers as hon­or­able men. In a sense, they coopt­ed rebel­lion and made it cool, and, as a result, denied every­one else the right to move on from the war. It is a mas­sive act of his­toric theft.

Thus, the Con­fed­er­a­cy suf­fus­es life in Vir­ginia: every­where you look there are roads, schools, build­ings, and parks named after Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers. It is so ubiq­ui­tous it becomes invis­i­ble. And when some­thing is invis­i­ble, it is impos­si­ble to real­ly con­front what it actu­al­ly means. These roads and schools and parks weren’t named after the los­ing side of the war dur­ing Recon­struc­tion. Most of them got their names dur­ing the 1910s and ear­ly 1920s, after Recon­struc­tion had been reversed, when the rise of the Sec­ond Ku Klux Klan led to waves of hor­rif­ic vio­lence against black peo­ple.

It is easy to for­get about that lega­cy when you are in mod­ern day Char­lottesville. The city has a com­pli­cat­ed, messy his­to­ry, but on its sur­face it is beau­ti­ful, wealthy, seem­ing­ly pro­gres­sive, and calm. Yet the civ­il war is still being fought there. The mem­o­ry of the war has nev­er been allowed to fade, and so the peo­ple who were hurt by it — the black peo­ple whose lives and bod­ies were stolen for gen­er­a­tions, and the white peo­ple refus­ing to let go of wound­ed pride — can­not move onward.

Remov­ing con­fed­er­ate stat­ues will not erase the wounds of the civ­il war, but it will let some of them heal, if we want to. But to begin any of that, we have to acknowl­edge why and how we came to sur­round our­selves with these mon­u­ments to a dead war. The way we face the Con­fed­er­a­cy in our soci­ety, casu­al­ly, invis­i­bly, keeps the wound open. A cut can nev­er heal if it is con­stant­ly prod­ded, it needs time and shel­ter in order to scab over and heal. And much like a severe cut leaves a scar, so too the civ­il war will even­tu­al­ly leave scars on us. As we saw in Char­lottesville, this is still a bat­tle of life and death, and that can nev­er tru­ly heal over. But you can live with a scar in a way you can­not live with an open, seep­ing wound.

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.