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.

comments powered by Disqus