John William Jones: Historian of the Confederacy

John William Jones, as he appeared during the war. Image via his book, Christ in the Camp.

Emerging Civil War welcomes guest author Christopher Martin to share Part 2 of his research on John William Jones. (Find Part 1 here)

One of the least well known figures in the history of Confederate monument making was John William Jones. In fact, Jones gained such recognition for his efforts in favor of Confederate memorials that the Confederate Memorial Association elected him superintendant and secretary in 1903. The president of the Association, Clement A. Evans, wrote: “The well-known identification of Dr. Jones with all of the great movements for the promotion of Confederate interests, has given him a warm place in the affection of the people of the South,” and he hoped that Jones’s reputation and fund-raising talents would push “our great enterprise to an early completion . . . of erecting in Richmond . . . a beautiful Memorial Hall, which will be an enduring monument to our great leaders, our private soldiers and the heroic struggle we made.”[1] Evans’s faith in Jones’s reputation and enthusiasm was well placed, as Jones finished raising money for the Hall in less than five months, and the well known Battle Abbey still stands today as the residence of the Virginia Historical Society, one of the most important Southern archival repositories. Before Jones became so widely connected with the Confederate monuments, however, he built up an impressive reputation as a participant in, and historian of, the Confederacy.

Jones possessed not only firsthand experience, but also a unique perspective on Southern soldiers, serving as their chaplain for much of the Civil War. He had originally intended to share his Christian faith with the Chinese in Canton (Guangzhou) under the sponsorship of the Foreign Missionary Board in Richmond, but Southern secession canceled the Board’s missionary operations, and Jones volunteered for army service as soon as War came. He served as a private in the 13th Virginia Regiment up through the winter of 1861-1862, during which he received his commission as chaplain. Over the course of the conflict, Jones advanced to the position of corps evangelist, and helped to form the Chaplains Association of the Army of Northern Virginia. He became acquainted with numerous Confederate officers, including Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, even while he moved among the men, distributing tracts, preaching the gospel, and visiting the wounded. After the War, Jones frequently came into contact with Lee and his family at Lexington, where both Lee and Jones served Washington College. Significantly, Jones even credited Lee’s leadership as the primary factor in the supposed good behavior of Southerners after the end of the war: “the good order and law-abiding spirit of the soldiers and people of the South were due, in no small measure, to the quiet example of this noble man.”[2] It was probably at Lexington, too, that Lee passed on to Jones the desire to influence history in favor of the Confederates. Though the General had spoken mostly of getting “the world to understand the odds against which we fought,” hoping to gain recognition for Confederate gallantry, Jones took this as a starting point.[3]

Jones made his first major contribution to the Lost Cause in the writing of Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes and Letters of General Robert E. Lee. Following the General’s death in 1870, Jones agreed to compose a chapter for the Lee memorial volume sponsored by Washington College. When the project stalled, the College abandoned the effort, and turned the project over to Jones, who transformed it into a much larger, biographical work, capitalizing on the access he enjoyed to Lee’s letters on account of his friendship with the General’s family. Jones carefully framed his source material, misappropriated some of it, and overwhelmed his readers with evidence of Lee as superlative in every respect. The resulting text proposed  Lee as a righteous, symbolic vindication of the South, but also transformed Lee into a political figure as well, using Lee’s previously private political opinions to inspire Southern rejection of Republicans, Reconstruction, and black suffrage. Finally, Jones also carefully included a high degree of self-promotion as well, successfully elevating his prominence in the South, and leading to a new post as secretary of the Southern Historical Society and editor of its journal, the Southern Historical Society Papers (SHSP).

Jones the editor employed a number of methods to use the SHSP to shape Confederate history. This included a narrative that the Civil War, far from the result of a reactionary Southern defense of slavery, actually resulted from Northern intolerance of the states’s rights of the South. According to Jones and his writers, this offense, when compared to slavery, represented “a mischief far more extensive and deeper.”[4] Jones cast the Southern cause solely as a righteous struggle for independence and freedom, a conflict in the same vein as the American Revolution. Slavery, and its threat to debase the South, had no place in this narrative, and so he viciously denounced competing theories of the War’s cause as lacking “the calmness of the historian” and showing “the same bitter spirit of the partizan[sic].”[5] Similarly did Jones treat Reconstruction. He identified and denounced Southern collaborators, encouraged his peers to the same spirit, roundly criticized Reconstruction, and praised Southern acts of resistance, all while ignoring the plight of friends of black civil rights, who suffered the terrorism and violence of Southern white nationalists. By the time Jones resigned as editor in 1887, his reputation allowed him to seek out a variety of positions in the South.

The historian sought out offices that allowed him the ability to influence Southern education, and the freedom to continue his campaign to shape Confederate history. These included chaplain-general to the United Confederate Veterans, chaplain to the University of Virginia, chaplain to the Miller Manual-Labor School, and pastor at Chapel Hill on account of its proximity to the University of North Carolina. During this time, 1887-1909, Jones actively maintained and defended the Lost Cause interpretation of history, most often in the newspapers, where he frequently denounced any errors of events or mischaracterizations of Lee that he detected. Finally, Jones brought all of his sectional arguments to bear in his campaign against Yankee influence in the schools, including the writing of a School History widely used throughout the South.

Even by the time of his death, in 1909, Jones was being called “The Historian of the Confederacy,” and “The Bulwark of the Confederacy” by southern newspapers. Much of the Lost Cause, as an enduring cultural and historical ideology, is due to the work of John William Jones. It is therefore especially important to identify Jones, and other proponents of the Lost Cause, as the actors who shaped the history and meaning of the Confederate monuments which endure even today.

Christopher Martin holds BA degrees in Theology and History from Christendom College, 2007; an MA in History from National University, 2012; and a PhD in History from CGU, 2018. He has taught History and Ideologies in Literature for House of Gold Academy and Our Lady of Joy Academy in Oceanside, California, since 2013. Dr. Martin’s research interests include the Lost Cause, the Federalists & Anti-Federalists, and the Impact of Wars and Depressions Upon the American Social Mind. He presents at conferences and currently lives in Alpine, California, with his wife and three sons.  


[1] Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, D.C.), January 6, 1903, page 1.

[2] John William Jones, Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1875), 199.

[3] Robert E. Lee to J.A. Early, March 15, 1866, In Jones, Personal Reminiscences, 214-215.

[4] R.M.T. Hunter, “Origin of the Late War,” in SHSP 1:1 (January, 1876), 1.

[5] Jones, “Notes and Queries,” in SHSP 10:8-9 (August-September, 1882), 429.

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