I am a Virginian and proud of my roots. I was raised in Fairfax Country in the heart of Mosby’s Confederacy. I fell in love with history in Mrs. Owen’s fourth grade class. She captured my attention with stories of the Gray Fox and Stonewall Jackson, but also of the great Virginian George Washington. The first book I remember reading was that same year. It was a children’s biography of J.E.B. Stuart. These were adventure stories to a young kid. I did not understand the consequences of war and all I saw were dashing heroes. To me these men were examples of bravery and honor.
I have dedicated my life to the study of history. After high school I went to the university where I felt I could best learn about our nation’s past. I studied at the College of William and Mary set in Colonial Williamsburg. This was Virginia’s seat of government during the Revolution. The place where Patrick Henry pronounced, “Give me liberty or give me death.” After graduation I remained in Virginia and earned a Masters in History from arguably the greatest Civil War scholar of his generation, Dr. James I. Robertson, at Virginia Tech. I did leave the state for my Ph.D. and have stayed away because of employment, but my heart has never left Virginia.
In my later years as I matured and grew intellectually I learned that Virginia’s history is much more complex. I learned that wars are never romantic. Even when necessary they cause death, pain and violent separation of families. We should not celebrate wars, but we can honor the men who fought in them. I have also learned the easy versions of history of my youth are not so easy. Anyone who has truly studied the Civil War knows the cause of the war is slavery. It was the single most important issue facing the nation in 1860. I also learned the Revolutionary War was not completely justified. The British were not an evil empire demanding cruel and unfair taxes from us. If anything we were spoiled colonists who did not want to pay our share. We were not completely unjustified either, but it is more complicated than the way Mrs. Owens taught it.
I study history because I think we can learn from the past. Maybe one of the most important lessons I learned is that historical figures are flawed, and at times greatly so. Both Robert E. Lee and George Washington owned slaves. There is no way to justify that they felt owning humans was correct. I wish they were better men. However, they were products of their time and not ours. I personally will not condemn them just as I hope people will not condemn me in 150 years for what I do and believe. Instead I honor them for the many good qualities in their lives and the positive lessons I can learn from them, while I also recognize their wrongs and learning from those as well.
Not only did both men own slaves, both decided to turn on the nation that raised them. Both men led armies to establish nations that believed in slavery and white supremacy. However, neither saw what they did as treason. The Declaration of Independence states that when a government becomes tyrannical the people are justified in breaking away. The difference is today we agree with Washington’s causes and not Lee’s. However, Virginia in 1861 did not see the difference. Virginia wanted to stay in the Union. In their first vote they overwhelmingly voted to remain. They did not originally join the Confederacy and begged the Lincoln Administration to stay out of the war and let Fort Sumter go for the time being. It was only after Sumter fell and Lincoln’s insistence that Virginia supply troops to attack the South that Virginia seceded. Virginia was Lee’s nation, not the U.S. We were not America, but the United States of America. The very name explains us. United but separate. When Virginia left, so did Lee.
Washington was the same. He loved England. His lifelong dream was to be a British officer. There is no evidence of this, because it’s not what happened, but if Virginia had not support the Revolution, I do not believe Washington would have led the army. Instead Virginia was completely supportive of revolution. In fact it was Richard Henry Lee of Virginia that offered the resolution for independence in the Continental Congress. You might have guessed it, but the two Lees are cousins. In so many ways, Washington and Lee are similar. However, there is one major difference; Washington won, while fortunately for our nation Lee lost.
As for confederate monuments, first, I am talking about monuments. I do not see a place for the Confederate flag flying on the grounds of South Carolina’s capital. Yet, I do think the grounds can have a monument to the men of South Carolina who died in the war, just as I support any monument for men and women from other wars. I know this is not popular or politically correct right now, but I would not remove them, or any monuments of our leaders. For one you will be hard pressed to find any historical figure that was not prejudice towards someone. This does not make it right or say it’s okay to be racist; it’s simply a statement of fact. Until fairly recently is has been socially acceptable to some degree, which is why we need Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. I find it difficult to judge those who came before; those who were simply following the rules of their time.
I know many are upset that the monuments were erected during the Jim Crow Era. This is true, but considering Jim Crow lasted for 100 years it would be impossible to raise them not in the era. One of the difficult issues was that the fight for civil rights occurred in the 1960s, the same decade as the Civil War Centennial. It was the US government that established the Centennial Commission to honor the anniversary of the war. He was not the original leader, but in 1961 President Kennedy appointed James I. Robertson as executive director of the Commission. The same Dr. Robertson I had the honor to study under and he became my mentor and friend. I am not saying that some monuments were not placed to push back against the Civil Rights movement. However, that was not the only reason they were erected. I did not know Dr. Robertson then and cannot speak to how he felt at the time. But the Dr. Robertson I knew and thousands of Virginias who had the opportunity of sitting in his classroom at Virginia Tech know that he was a supporter of the Civil Rights movement. He did not support those waving Rebel flags wanting the “South to Rise Again.” He taught that the War was fought for slavery. That slavery was a national sin. Yes he loved Stonewall Jackson, but did not agree with his stance on slavery. There had to be those like me who can honor a man who was willing to die for what he believed in while not agreeing with his cause. At the same time I will stand next to any friend of color and state that Black lives matter. I think we can do both.
Another argument, and it is a good one, is why not move confederate monuments into museums so we can keep history where it belongs. I understand this desire and I try to be sympathetic to Black Americans who see their ancestor’s oppressors on pedestals. Maybe it is the historian in me or maybe my own experience growing up in Virginia. I fell in love with history because I could see it everywhere; you can’t turn around in Virginia without bumping into a monument. They made me want to learn more and ask questions. As I did both, my understanding of history grew. To me what makes Virginia special is that Virginia is a museum, an amazingly huge living museum. Virginians know this, but the original motto of the state was “Virginia is for History Lovers.” Later it was shortened to “Virginia is for Lovers.” I think Virginia has the most important history in the country, from the Revolution to the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement. Museums are great, but when was the last time you went to one? How many kids have never been to one? Sure we could take down all the monuments and put them in a museum in Richmond, charge a bunch of money to get in and be seen a few hundred people each year. That means most will never be seen by most. Or we could leave the monuments. We can keep Virginia the land of history lovers. We can see them. Be inspired by them. Learn lessons from them. Learn America has an amazing past while at the same time a dark one. We can learn that men can be honorable but also wrong. We can drive down the famed Monument Avenue in Richmond and see our past in Washington and Lee but also men like Arthur Ash. We can continue to add to it. We can see where we came from and where we hope to be. Churchill said it best, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it” Let’s not forget. Let’s not tear down what is important to some, let’s just add to our tapestry.