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Confederate statue Politics

Guardians of White Innocence

The Sons of Confederate Veterans want to convince Americans that Southern heritage isn’t about slavery and racism. Is it a lost cause?

B. Frank Earnest chokes up twice during our afternoon together at Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery. The first time, he’s describing his ritual of placing a fresh Confederate flag on the grave of his ancestor, Capt. Eusebius Fowlkes. The stone is only a marker. Fowlkes’ remains were never recovered from the field where he rode alongside Col. J.E.B. Stuart, the “Knight of the Golden Spurs,” before being killed in the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31, 1862. Earnest takes pride in the fact that his forefather fought on horseback. His people were horse breeders. In the Confederate army, unlike the elitist Northern one, joining the cavalry was just a matter of showing up with your steed.

According to family legend, Fowlkes implored his loved ones to care for his gravesite upon his demise, but they abandoned that charge when they couldn’t find a body. It took a little more than a century for Frank Earnest to realize his ancestor’s wishes. In 1978, he says, he erected a memorial to Fowlkes and adorned it with the banner of the doomed republic. For 39 years, he has phoned his cousin in Texas whenever he’s gone to pay his respects. That cousin died in July, Earnest tells me, his voice breaking. Edwin Ray, a longtime friend of Earnest’s who’s come along for the visit, turns to me and murmurs, “You see, for us, it’s all about family.”

As we walk through the graveyard, a burial ground that dates to 1847 and houses the bodies of 22 Confederate generals and thousands of Confederate soldiers, the air seems to shimmer with a hint of the occult: The South will rise again. The septuagenarian Earnest, a retired electrician and Vietnam veteran, has made it his life’s work to preserve a bygone era. He wears a dark suit speckled with Dixie-themed regalia, and his aubergine truck boasts the license plate “CF,” for “Confederate Frank.” When I’d explained on the phone who I was and what I hoped he’d show me, he offered to pick me up at the train station in Richmond, telling me to look for “a friendly older gentleman with a full gray beard and a big belly.” Now, in the cemetery, my tour guide sounds more melancholy than merry. Earnest suffers from a lung condition that can make breathing difficult, and he’s hoarse and cranky from talking to reporters all week.

He points out the great granite pyramid, 90 feet high, dedicated to the troops in gray in 1869. He says no one could figure out how to install the capstone until a convict traded the solution for a pardon. We pass Gen. George Edward Pickett, who, Earnest recounts, fell in love with the young Sallie Anne Corbell while preparing to march on Gettysburg. After Pickett’s disastrous offensive, his bosses granted him time off to get married. The devoted men of Virginia removed the carriage horses from their traces and fastened themselves in to pull the general and his bride to the train station. We linger at the mausoleum of Jefferson Davis, whom my escort refers to as “the president.” “You probably don’t like President Trump, and to be honest I’m not too thrilled with President Obama,” he tells me. “But like it or not, they were president, and President Davis was our president.” I must look skeptical. “Aren’t you the folks who want to go around giving everyone a participation trophy?” he snaps.

Frank Earnest of the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans stands at the base of the Robert E. Lee memorial on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia.
Frank Earnest of the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans stands at the base of the Robert E. Lee memorial on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. Katy Waldman/Slate

The bronze effigy of Davis winks in the sunshine, a participation trophy if I’ve ever seen one. Earnest, meanwhile, has withdrawn once more into the 19th century. Not among these dead, he intones, is Davis’ son Jim Limber, a black boy freed and then adopted by Davis’ wife. “Union troops took Jim Limber away” when the first couple of the Confederacy retreated to Danville, Virginia, he says mournfully. “They didn’t think it was right to have an African child in a white family. But I tell people that we Southerners were way ahead of President Obama: We put a black in the Confederate White House.”

I’ll learn later that the horse thief who placed the stone atop Hollywood Cemetery’s pyramid was not pardoned but “transferred,” that the fairy-tale image of Pickett’s soldiers pulling his coach to the railroad has no basis in reality, and that Mrs. Davis plucked Jim Limber from his home without much thought while the circumstances surrounding the child’s disappearance during the Civil War remain murky. In telling a series of made-up stories about the South and its standard bearers, Earnest was just doing his job. He serves as heritage defense coordinator and spokesman for the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that has avowed to teach “the true history of the War Between the States, especially in these times when our heritage is under constant attack.”

On the national level, the SCV—an organization that dates back to 1896—describes its mission as seeking to preserve “the history and legacy of these heroes so that future generations can understand the motives that animated the Southern Cause.” The sons, though, are not content merely to protect the sanctity of those monuments that have already been built. The group, which counts some 30,000 members in 800 “camps” across the United States, is responsible for funding the majority of the 31 Confederate icons constructed in the U.S. since 2000. Through fundraising, lawsuits, press events, and vigorous Facebooking, they are riding once more in defense of Dixie, promulgating a romantic vision of the Old South even as historians and activists try to tear that vision down.

As the conversation around Confederate memorials—what they stand for, and whether they should stand at all—grows increasingly turbulent, the SCV sees itself as a home for those Donald Trump described in his post-Charlottesville press conference as “very fine people”: patriots who might march alongside Klansmen and neo-Nazis in defense of a statue yet who disavow bigotry and violence. With monuments tumbling to the earth in Baltimore, Orlando, Louisville, and elsewhere, these self-appointed protectors of Southern heritage find themselves balanced on a moral high wire. Can you love Stonewall Jackson and shun white supremacy? Can a neo-Confederate be a “very fine person”?

Earnest is savvy enough, in the wake of August’s white nationalist violence, to understand why approximately 17 different press outlets have dialed his number in recent weeks. Standing at the foot of Davis’ icon in Hollywood Cemetery, both of us sunblind, he pauses like someone about to throw down his winning card.

“I like to think that Dr. Martin Luther King would have wanted these statues to stay up.”

The myth of Dixie has long served as a kind of racism laundry service. Most of the country’s Confederate statuary wasn’t built until the first third of the 20th century, as part of an advertising campaign for white supremacy. The monuments, many of them commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, sold “separate but equal” by shrouding racism in sepia romance, glorifying a status quo in which Southern whites didn’t have to sit next to black people on the bus or compete with them for jobs.

Mass-produced cheaply in Northern factories and shipped down South by railroad, likenesses of John Pelham, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Raphael Semmes, and Patrick Cleburne incarnated a tenuous moral argument, one that went something like: We don’t disrespect black people. We’re just reveling in the courage of those who took up arms against Lincoln’s aggression. We stand not for hate but for heritage. But the statues stood for both, united in an inextricable skein. Why else connect Jim Crow to Jefferson Davis?

This foregrounding of political agenda over artistic vision explains the casual approach to design, construction, and assembly. Monuments were crafted from budget materials (zinc, bronze), fastened loosely to their plinths (making them easier for protesters to drag down), and styled generically, as if their creators couldn’t be bothered to imagine a pose other than “parade rest.” Last month, I called them “bargain-bin racist tchotchkes.” They felt, then and now, like the perfect emblem for Trump himself—lazy effigies that ascribed glory to a sordid, white supremacist past.

While the United Daughters of the Confederacy slowed its building frenzy in the latter part of the 20th century, Lost Cause statues—a granite monument to gray-clad soldiers in South Carolina, a stele at a courthouse in Tennessee—continued to rise. Consider the Confederate Memorial of the Wind in Orange, Texas, a circle of 13 columns (for the 13 Confederate states) festooned with 32 regional military flags and eight fluttering iterations of William Thompson’s stars and bars that is currently under construction on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. (Yes, really.) These newer projects were sponsored by chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

In the last few decades, Earnest’s society has retooled itself into the propagandist arm of a vanished regime. Once a haven for history buffs and genealogical researchers, the SCV now champions Dixie “heritage,” often in the courts. The group has pursued lawsuits against local governments for planning to remove Confederate monuments, against the state of Texas for declining to offer Confederacy-themed vanity plates, and against a Virginia school for chastising a “young lady wishing to express her pride in her Southern heritage by wearing Confederate themed clothing.” Like the government it exalts, the SCV is loosely organized: Regional branches do the legwork of raising money for new sculptures, lobbying private landowners to instate them, swarming city council meetings, and organizing festivals and unveilings. They also maintain several lively Facebook pages, on which you can browse through photos of historical re-enactments, order an official SCV blazer, sign up to clean Confederate headstones, and read slanted press coverage of the culture wars.

After white supremacists paraded through Charlottesville in August to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee memorial, the sons felt compelled to distance themselves from the thugs whose hateful rampage left a counter-protester dead. The SCV’s chief of heritage operations, Carl V. Jones, told me that “the events in Charlottesville had nothing to do with us.” Jones’ Virginian compatriots had initiated a legal battle with the city over the statue, he says, but not because they viewed it as a racist rallying point. In a statement released shortly after the march, Jones repudiated “attempts by any group that advocates hatred, bigotry, or violence toward others to use our symbols.”

Since the late 1980s, the SCV charter has forbidden its members from associating with hate groups. Before that prohibition was codified, the sons’ moderate wing had accused moles from the secessionist, white supremacist League of the South of corrupting their “historical honor society.” (The ensuing conflict led to the creation of a splinter sect, Save the Sons of Confederate Veterans.) Yet in practice, the supposedly kinder, gentler SCV seems more interested in protecting antebellum insignias from the predations of political correctness than in wresting the stars and bars from the hands of racists. (None of the SCV’s lawsuits, for instance, target neo-Nazis for polluting the Confederate name.) “The memory and reputation of the Confederate soldier, as well as the motives for his suffering and sacrifice, are being consciously distorted by some in an attempt to alter history,” the group’s website reads. Jones’ post-Charlottesville statement is more explicit; in it, he “denounce[s] the hatred being leveled against our glorious ancestors by radical leftists.”

For the past few weeks, I’ve spent hours on the phone and in person listening to the Sons of Confederate Veterans tell me that everything I think I know about their forebears is wrong. If the Civil War was not about slavery, then what was it about? Taxes, naturally. Freedom and self-determination. It was about Lincoln sailing hostile ships into the sovereign waters of South Carolina, provoking Confederate forces into firing the first shot. The president said it himself in his first inaugural: I have no purpose to interfere with slavery, no lawful right, no inclination. Lincoln invaded for the sole purpose of maintaining properties belonging to the U.S.
government. He invaded because the South was too beautiful and proud and powerful. Did you know that the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 was conditional upon the South not rejoining the Union? Did you know that slavery was legal in the North? Only 6 percent of Southerners ran large plantations with multiple slaves. The Civil War was about brotherhood. Jefferson Davis understood that secession would mean the end of slavery, and he was fine with that. Southerners opposed slavery—even the slave owners!—but they wanted it to end on natural terms. It was about God and family. Have you heard of the Missouri Compromise? The Civil War was about honor.

In this poetic narrative, the South seceded from the Union to enshrine states’ rights in law, with race forming a distant second or third consideration. The SCV isn’t fighting to protect a set of historical facts about the Civil War so much as it’s fighting to control who interprets those facts and assembles them into a bildungsroman for the nation. The fantasy of the Lost Cause is a dream of white American innocence, one in which slavery is elided or explained away.

Even if slavery represented only one marginal point of contention between North and South—a view that no serious scholars would entertain—it still taints Dixie’s cause with irreducible evil. The Sons of Confederate Veterans see their legacy differently. To them, the South was no more complicit in perpetuating a system of human bondage than the North. “We’re historians,” Jones told me when I asked about the disconnect between his views and those of a growing number of Americans. “We don’t denounce the symbols, but we do denounce what people think they stand for.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans occupy an increasingly disorienting position. As monuments to the Old South fall like dominos and racial tensions flare under a president seduced by the music if not the lyrics of white nationalism, these men find themselves insisting on Robert E. Lee’s nobility even as they dutifully rebuke the Ku Klux Klan. It is not easy to argue, in this moment, that a memorial to Gen. John Bell Hood—whose forces nearly destroyed the Union army at the Second Battle of Bull Run—does not celebrate a regime dedicated to hatred and oppression.

For clarity on the tolerance question, Jones encouraged me to speak to the SCV’s “multiple” black members. When I asked for names, he could only come up with Nelson Winbush, an 88-year-old retired assistant principal from Kissimmee, Florida. Winbush, who as perhaps the lone black affiliate of the SCV boasts his own Wikipedia page, did not reply to my request for comment. But the Tampa Bay Times reports that his enslaved grandfather was pressed into fighting for the Confederacy; the younger Winbush has been known to sing at public events that “black is only a darker shade of rebel gray.”

I did talk to Neil Block, a white SCV commander (the organization favors military titles) from Huntsville, Missouri. Block, emphasizing that he spoke for himself rather than his camp or the organization as a whole, denounced what he termed the “lawlessness” in Charlottesville. (The SCV, incidentally, awarded then–Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio its “Law and Order” prize in 2011.) “We put a man on the moon, and there they are whapping on each other like a bunch of squirrels,” Block complained. In folksy, rambling sentences full of the same warm and misplaced equanimity I’d heard from Jones, he proposed that liberals and conservatives are engaged in a fruitless tug-of-war over the past. “You cannot judge history,” he said. “The only history you can judge is your last breath. There’s nothing that happened yesterday that can’t be whitewashed or blackwashed or tarred and feathered. We didn’t talk enough 150 years ago. Everyone was just scrapping over a dime. And now they’re at it again.”

It’s hard to resist the aw-shucks charm of an old man calling for fair-mindedness, communication, and the suspension of judgment. But the Sons of Confederate Veterans are not annalists meekly tending to antique gravesites. They are activists in the guise of pacifists, seeking to impose their views on a country that has not yet wrestled with its racial sins. As we (finally) contemplate discarding the symbols of our nation’s most wretched episode, the SCV wants to extend to our white forefathers a grace that black people haven’t seen in any American century.

They have their work cut out for them. The 2015 murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, by Dylann Roof—a white supremacist fond of wrapping himself in the stars and bars—made the Dixie legend feel less nostalgic than poisonous, a lure for racist lunatics. Ten days after the shooting, activist Bree Newsome scaled a 30-foot pole outside the South Carolina State House and tore down the battle flag. Statues have fallen in New Orleans, and one was boisterously toppled in Durham, North Carolina, while another was vandalized by night in Kansas City. The Washington National Cathedral recently exiled two stained-glass panels picturing Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from its nave. (Church leaders decided that the windows, installed in 1953, did not represent “an appropriate part of the sacred fabric of a spiritual home for the nation.”) At a moment when even NASCAR has sped away from the stars and bars, B. Frank Earnest and his colleagues are feeling lonelier than ever, if no less convinced of their ancestors’ innocence, and their own.

Earnest’s capsule history of the Lee memorial on Richmond’s Monument Avenue unspools as indignant poetry. Defeated Virginians knew how difficult it had been for their general, the grandson of one of Washington’s lieutenants, to take up arms against the Union. Desperate to honor the man who strove to defend their hallowed land at tremendous personal cost, Southerners decided to raise a statue. The parts were cast in France and shipped to Richmond in 1890. Upon their arrival, a crowd of 10,000 loaded those parts into four wagons and dragged them to the spot where Lee stands today, on a broad, tree-lined stretch of road. Monument Avenue is full of Confederate heroes just like him. “And all of that just to irritate the blacks!” Earnest marvels facetiously.

The voices of Confederate sympathizers are no longer the only ones, or the loudest ones, in the conversation about which icons should rise above our cities. Levar Stoney, the black mayor of Richmond, put together a commission to examine removing “rallying point[s] for division and intolerance and violence.” Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe wants to see the memorials taken down and relocated to museums, while Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie advocates placing them in “proper historical context.” Lee and his bronze, granite, and marble brethren were installed at a time when white people controlled the stories we told about our collective past.

Earnest isn’t interested in relaxing his chokehold on those narratives. He prefers to excuse the South swiftly so we can all go back to venerating it. “I’m not saying slavery wasn’t an issue,” he says. “It was an evil that should have been ended, and thank God it was.” But he explains that the peculiar institution amounted to “a national sin, not a Southern sin,” one for which the Confederacy was unfairly scapegoated. He reminds me that slaves first arrived on this country’s shores in ships flying the American flag. “If slavery was a drug and Southerners were users,” he insists, “the Northerners were the dealers.” And setting aside that false equivalence, was human bondage really so terrible? “I agree with the South’s cause,” Block told me on the phone, repeating himself when I noted that the South’s cause included the propagation of slavery. “It can’t be all bad or the black folks wouldn’t have put up with it.” Earnest’s friend Edwin Ray glowingly detailed the “close ties of affection” binding owners and chattel. “It’s a myth that slavery was always violent and evil,” he said.

Ray ventured this to me, a white woman, without a whiff of aggression or confrontation. He and his colleagues are well-practiced at imprinting a willful, bottomless naiveté over unimaginable cruelty. They present as compassionate—big guys with big beards and big hearts—but choose to ignore the crimes of the Old South in order to revere their ancestors in peace.

Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond
Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond Katy Waldman

The sons have made a moral bargain: They will dehumanize black Americans to the degree necessary to pretend that every pro-Confederacy argument wasn’t rendered moot the minute the South decided to fight for its slaves. They have also made a vow: to heave the racist past into the present, erecting new monuments and holding new ceremonies. Their charm and gentility is part of their strategy. How could a message of celebration and honor possibly hurt anyone?

At a time when a growing number of Americans see their cause as hateful, the sons do not appear willing to reckon with why that might be. “When should the slaves have been freed?” I asked Ray, after he complained about the rancors and disruptions of a hasty Reconstruction. “When they died,” he answered.

The second time Frank Earnest gets choked up, he is talking about his dad. “One of the lowest times of my life was when my father died,” he tells me. The elder Earnest was felled by his own lung condition less than 12 hours after driving to the hospital as a precaution. At the funeral home, the director asked Earnest about pallbearers. “We had grandsons and nephews,” he remembers. “But there were two or three rows of Sons of Confederate Veterans sitting behind us, and my sister said: ‘What about them?’ And they just all rose at once.”

Behold the best version of the SCV: a band of brothers who’ve taken a solemn pledge to watch over monuments, graves, memories, and one another. “These are our dead,” Earnest says, gesturing at the 18,000 carefully tended tombstones of Confederate soldiers that dot the field below us. “Some came back by boat, some by train. There’s a lot more to our story.”

As he invokes the ghosts whose reputation is his life’s work, I again feel the air tremble with superstitious expectation. But the gravestones in Hollywood Cemetery don’t tell the full story either. In the Confederate age, Earnest explains, black men and women were interred elsewhere, in private and often unmarked tombs. They paid the cost of the Dixie fantasy, and their descendants are paying the cost of the sons’ nostalgia for it.

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