The weather could not have been more beautiful in Lexington, Virginia, on Saturday morning as hundreds of Confederate devotees gathered for the annual Lee-Jackson Day commemoration. The day itself—still observed as a legal holiday in parts of Virginia—falls on January 20, the day between Robert E. Lee’s and Stonewall Jackson’s birthdays (January 19 and 21, respectively).
Confederate heritage has been under siege the past few months, so I wasn’t sure what I’d find once I got to town. Online, I’d seen headlines like “Is it time to end Lee-Jackson Day?” and “Drop Lee-Jackson Day.” The Roanoke Times declared “Lee-Jackson Day still stirs passions in Lexington, not so much elsewhere.” A state lawmaker is preparing to introduce a bill to ax it.
Rolling into the village along Nelson Street, I saw rows of American flags mounted on sidewalk lampposts. At the north end of downtown, though—where Jefferson Street splits southward from Main Street—hundreds of Virginia Flaggers lined the sidewalks in front of the Washington & Lee University campus. The school once hosted Lee-Jackson commemorations in Lee Chapel—the final resting place of Robert E. Lee—but for the past two years, University President Kenneth Ruscio has banned activities and removed the Confederate flags from Lee’s tomb. In protest, the flaggers have congregated en masse to vent their frustrations and wave their Stars and Bars, Stainless Banners, Bonnie Blues, and battle flags. The streetsides were awash in angry red.
At the south end of town, at Stonewall Jackson Cemetery, another Confederate heritage group, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) were hosting their annual graveside services around Stonewall Jackson’s statue. Thousands of people jammed the cemetery, with nearly as many flags as people, it seemed. Many visitors wore reenacting garb of butternut and gray. Others wore the spiffy dress uniforms of officers. Southern belles sat on horseback. Leather-vested members of the SCV’s “mechanized cavalry” mingled with men who looked as though they’d stepped away from bank-building offices for a quick spell. People had emblazoned their clothes with all manner of battle flags: jeans, bowties, dew rags, sweatshirts, caps, and tees—an ensemble of uniforms as varied as the Army of Northern Virginia’s.
This was the perhaps the last bastion of the Confederacy, gathered here at its metaphorical sepulcher—the final resting place of its two great heroes—on its High Holy Day. Here on this hilltop cemetery, they’re under siege but holding out.
After the ceremony at the cemetery, they paraded up Main Street then returned to the Lauderdale Reformed Presbyterian Church for a concluding program. I was there to provide the program’s keynote address, a talk based on my book The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson.
Many colleagues keep groups like the SCV at arm’s length, not wanting to get embroiled in the controversy that the group often generates—and it’s been especially hot this year. Serious historians get nervous when “honoring one’s ancestors” bleeds into “honoring one’s family’s heritage” into “honoring Confederate heritage” into “honoring the Confederacy,” while the inconvenient topic of slavery gets overlooked all the while. That makes a lot of people I know uncomfortable.
“Of course the issue was slavery,” one Son said to me. “The problem, for me, was how the government decided to deal with that. Virginia voted to stay in the Union until Lincoln called for volunteers to suppress the rebellion. As soon as it turned into invasion, that’s when Virginia left. It’s that coercive power of the Federal government—that’s what it’s all about for me. It’s something that’s still going on.”
Others took a more militant stand. Another rolled his eyes about “those flaggers,” who have their hearts in the right place, he said, but who were going about it “in all the wrong way,” being confrontational and giving a bad name to Confederate groups everywhere. Another wished there were more Union reenactors in the parade (there were three) so that both sides could be represented.
There is, as it turns out, a lot of divisiveness within the so-called “neo-Confederate nation.” Like the Confederacy itself, where the seceded states professed to all be on the same general page, that’s not quite exactly the case once you start talking about details. One size ultimately does not fit all. All that butternut and gray and stars and bars and battle flags all mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
Washington & Lee seems to have given them all a common enemy, though. “Tell an American he can’t do something and watch him get his dander up,” one Son told me, embracing his own modern patriotism.
The university’s decision does and doesn’t surprise me. A university, in theory, is a place for debate and discussion, for learning and educating, so it would be natural for W&L to encourage an exchange of ideas on Confederate heritage, racism, loyalty, and Robert E. Lee’s complicated position at the convergence of all that. But universities these days tend to be oversensitive about anything potentially offensive, clamping down on free speech rather than encouraging it. (It should be noted that the whole purpose of academic tenure was to protect people who espoused potentially unpopular ideas, making W&L’s stance particularly ironic.)
And so, while Lee made a policy of welcoming veterans during his time as the university’s president, the university today does not welcome the sons of those veterans. The principles of free speech and assembly take a back seat to decorum and sensitivity.
In effect, Lee remains a prisoner in his own tomb, as frozen in marble as he is in time. His office, in the basement of the chapel, remains on view but off-limits, preserved exactly as he left it for the last time on Sept. 28, 1870. It presents a carefully curated image that’s become totally removed from the man entombed right across the hall.
Across town, Jackson stands in interesting contrast. He is a man of bronze just as Lee is of marble, with statues in the cemetery and overlooking the parade ground of the Virginia Military Institute. But one gets to put that heroic myth into a very personal context by visiting the Stonewall Jackson House on East Washington Street. Truly one of the most wonderful gems in the world of all things Civil War-related, the Jackson House depicts the day-to-day life of Jackson, removing him from the pedestals and showing him in the context of his domestic life: as a husband, teacher, community member, church deacon, gardener, and even slave owner. The Jackson House engages the story and, in doing so, offers deeper understanding.
That’s exactly why I came to Lexington to speak to the SCV. I was there to engage. If scholars and historians don’t engage the public, all publics, society will never come to grips with the long-term repercussions of the war. If we don’t engage, we can’t educate—or be educated. Heaven knows it’s a hard topic to discuss, but that makes it all the more imperative that we do it.
The assumption about Confederate heritage groups seems to be that because of the Confederacy’s unabashed embrace of slavery, heritage groups are tainted and are thus automatically discounted from having anything legitimate to add to larger conversations about the role of government, race, regionalism, or history. They seem to be the one group of people that it’s okay to diss.
But isn’t that the very same kind of stereotyping other groups of people get offended by when it’s done to them? No wonder they feel embattled.
I’m not saying that some of their poor reputation isn’t earned. One fellow lamented about the lack of respect the Sons get from so many people but then, a few minutes later, turned around and suggested that all Muslims are terrorists—completely unaware of the irony of what he’d just done. But such comments came from individuals, not everyone in those groups.
I know that not every individual wants to engage in discussion, and I did indeed hear some things on Saturday that I’d consider crackpot. But I also heard plenty of moderate voices, too. Mostly, I heard from people passionate about their family histories and about history in general. A lot of people I talked to on Saturday really did connect what they were doing back to their ancestors in a way that, they felt, honored those ancestors.
I get that.
After all, that was my other reason for being in Lexington: to honor Stonewall Jackson by sharing his story with as many people as I can. To do so in his hometown is an especial honor. To do it for fellow admirers is a particular treat.
The story I tell is of a man whose personal resolve drove him to do incredible feats on the battlefield—but it also served as his fatal flaw. It’s the story of a man who wanted nothing more in life than to be a father and husband but who was robbed of that joy, not only by war but, in part, by his own personal beliefs. It is a deeply human story full of personal drama and peril writ large. It is, I believe, a story that all people can get something from because it’s full of the contradictions and conflicts that make us human.
That’s the value in honoring someone like Jackson or Lee—or any number of other complex, colorful characters from our national past. Tell their full stories, then choose to look for the good in them so we can better see our similarities with one another rather than be so preoccupied by our differences.
Do we need a Lee-Jackson Day in order to do that?
I, for one, would rather have people spending more time talking about the past than less. Maybe then it won’t seem so strange and uncomfortable and offensive.
But I also don’t want people remembered as marble and bronze men, either. If we can see them as human, they can help us better see the humanity we all share.