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Shrouding the Confederate past in Charlottesville

On the dark night of Aug. 11, hundreds of neo-Nazis and white nationalists marched across the University of Virginia campus chanting “White lives matter” and “Jews will not replace us!” Carrying tiki torches, they streamed across the great, grassy lawn behind the Rotunda, the oldest building on campus, made their way up the steps and down the stairs on the other side of the building to mass around a statue of Thomas Jefferson, the university’s founder.

The marchers were met by a small group of anti-racist protesters who circled the base of the statue, as if to protect Jefferson from the mob. Oddly enough, a few weeks later, a different group of student activists decrying Jefferson’s ownership of slaves shrouded the statue with a black plastic sheet.

Such are the complications on America’s college campuses where issues of identity drive passionate debates.

Last week, I visited the UVa campus with a group of participants in a Project Pilgrimage fact-finding tour and walked over to the Rotunda. Following the lines of the Pantheon in Rome, Jefferson designed the building as a structure evoking “the authority of nature and the power of reason.” It took the place of the church that, in his time, was generally set at the center of a university.

Affixed on the Rotunda’s brick wall above the Jefferson statue I found plaques memorializing UVa students killed in several of America’s wars. On the lawn side of the building, there were two more plaques, one in remembrance of the university’s World War I dead and one in tribute to President Woodrow Wilson, who attended the UVa law school. Between those were two places where the bricks were cracked, evidence of the recent removal of a pair of plaques. Black students had demanded that the plaques come down because they listed the names of UVa alumni who died fighting for the Confederacy.

On this college campus, even common soldiers swept up in a war not of their making have become casualties in a battle to revisit American history and represent all those — black Americans, in particular — who have been marginalized in our nation’s story.

Down in the town, I strolled through two parks and found more contentious targets of protest — equestrian statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. They have been covered with black tarps until city officials can figure out what to do with them. Liberal activists want the things removed because they were placed in those public squares in the days when white intimidation of black citizens was common practice backed by cruel law. To many, the statues are seen as just another tool of that intimidation.

When I was going through school as a kid fascinated by Civil War history, Lee was widely considered to be an American hero, not just a man venerated by the South. The simple biography of Lee said duty and honor compelled him to resign from his commission in the U.S. Army to fight for his beloved home state of Virginia, even though he disdained the institution of slavery.

Recent scholarship suggests that story is too kind. Lee’s own letters indicate he saw slavery as a burden for white people who, of necessity, had to keep blacks under their control until they could raise them to a proper level of Christian enlightenment. When he led the Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania, Lee allowed his troops to sweep up free blacks and take them south as slaves. When the North’s commanding general, Ulysses S. Grant, bargained with Lee for a swap of prisoners, Lee refused to return any black Union soldiers, insisting they were the property of Southerners. When Union troops took over one of the Lee family plantations, the resident slaves showed no regret at being liberated from Lee’s stern, paternalistic authority.

The students on the bus tour with me have no trouble perceiving Lee as a traitor to his country whose defense of the slave system cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Unburdened by other narratives and steeped in the dialectics of social justice, the matter seems rather clear to them: Lee and all the other Confederates were fighting for racism and, therefore, should no longer be memorialized in any public space other than a museum or battlefield.

That is a hard verdict for many Americans to accept.

In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln spoke of the need to “bind up the nation’s wounds.” In the decades after Lincoln’s death, that healing was done by treating the defeated Confederates as straying brothers who were welcomed back into the American family. Southern historians were able to concoct a noble “Lost Cause” narrative that came to dominate perceptions, even in other parts of the country, and which was popularized in Hollywood epics like “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind.”

Today’s challenge to that version of history is opening those old wounds. Southerners who grew up believing their ancestors were American heroes are now being asked to accept that they were traitors in a wicked cause led by leaders who, as far as the people they enslaved were concerned, were not much better than Nazis. That harsh narrative is not likely to be met with anything but resistance.

This leaves questions for all of us to face. How much understanding of complex human motivations are we willing to fold into our judgments about the past? How much ground will any of us be willing to give up for the sake of future reconciliation? How much truth can we handle? What does justice require?

This is part three of a five-part series.

Tomorrow: A secret history in Harper’s Ferry.

David.Horsey@latimes.com

Follow me at @davidhorsey on Twitter

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