One of the organization’s most influential figures was Mildred Lewis Rutherford, of Athens, Georgia, a well-known speaker and writer at the turn of the 20th century and the UDC’s historian general from 1911 to 1916.
Rutherford was so devoted to restoring the racial hierarchies of the past that she traveled the country in full plantation regalia spreading the “true history,” she called it, which cast slave owners and Klansmen as heroes. She pressured public schools and libraries across the South to accept materials that advanced Lost Cause mythology, including proKlan literature that referred to black people as “ignorant and brutal.” At the center of her crusade was the belief that slaves had been “the happiest set of people on the face of the globe,” “well-fed, well-clothed, and well-housed.” She excoriated the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency charged with protecting the rights of African-Americans, and argued that emancipation had unleashed such violence by African-Americans that “the Ku Klux Klan was necessary to protect the white woman.”
UDC officials did not respond to our interview requests. Previously, though, the organization has disavowed any links to hate groups, and in 2017 the president-general, Patricia Bryson, released a statement saying the UDC “totally denounces any individual or group that promotes racial divisiveness or white supremacy.”
Confederate cemeteries in Virginia that receive taxpayer funds handled by the UDC are nonetheless used as gathering places for groups with extreme views. One afternoon last May, we attended the Confederate Memorial Day ceremony in the Confederate section of the vast Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond. We were greeted by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Virginia Flaggers, a group that says its mission is to “stand AGAINST those who would desecrate our Confederate Monuments and memorials, and FOR our Confederate Veterans.”
An honor guard of re-enactors presented an array of Confederate standards. Participants stood at attention for an invocation read by a chaplain in period dress. They put their hands on their hearts, in salute to the Confederate flag. Susan Hathaway, a member of the Virginia Flaggers, led the crowd of several dozen in a song that was once the official paean to the Commonwealth:
Carry me back to old Virginny,
There’s where the cotton and the corn and taters grow, There’s where the birds warble sweet in the springtime, There’s where this old darkey’s heart am long’d to go. “VERY LITTLE HAS BEEN DONE to address the legacy of slavery and its meaning in contemporary life.”
That scathing assessment of the nation’s unwillingness to face the truth was issued recently by the Equal Justice Initiative, the Montgomery-based legal advocacy group that in April 2018 opened the first national memorial to victims of lynching.
A few Confederate historical sites, though, are showing signs of change. In Richmond, the American Civil War Center and the Museum of the Confederacy have joined forces to become the American Civil War Museum, now led by an African-American CEO, Christy Coleman. The new entity, she said, seeks to tell the story of the Civil War from multiple perspectives—the Union and the Confederacy, free and enslaved African-Americans—and to take on the distortions and omissions of Confederate ideology.
“For a very, very long time” the Lost Cause has dominated public histories of the Civil War, Coleman told us in an interview. “Once it was framed, it became the course for everything. It was the accepted narrative.” In a stark comparison, she noted that statues of Hitler and Goebbels aren’t scattered throughout Germany, and that while Nazi concentration camps have been made into museums, “they don’t pretend that they were less horrible than they actually were. And yet we do that to America’s concentration camps. We call them plantations, and we talk about how grand everything was, and we talk about the pretty dresses that women wore, and we talk about the wealth, and we refer to the enslaved population as servants as if this is some benign institution.”
Stratford Hall, the Virginia plantation where Robert E. Lee was born, also has new leadership. Kelley Deetz, a historian and archaeologist who co-edited a paper titled “Historic Black Lives Matter: Archaeology as Activism in the 21st Century,” was hired in June as the site’s first director of programming and education. Stratford Hall, where 31 people were enslaved as of 1860, is revising how it presents slavery. The recent shocking violence in Charlottesville, Deetz said, was speeding up “the slow pace of dealing with these kinds of sensitive subjects.” She said, “I guarantee you that in a year or less, you go on a tour here and you’re going to hear about enslavement.”
In 1999, Congress took the extraordinary step of advising the National Park Service to re-evaluate its Civil War sites and do a better job of explaining “the unique role that slavery played in the cause of the conflict.” But vestiges of the Lost Cause still haunt park property. In rural Northern Virginia, in the middle of a vast lawn, stands a small white clapboard house with a long white chimney—the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, part of the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. The Confederate general died in the house in May 1863. “The tendency for the park historically has been to invite people to mourn Jackson’s death,” John Hennessy, the park’s chief historian, told us. He believes that the site should be more than a shrine, however. Visitors, Hennessey said, should learn that Jackson “led an army in a rebellion in the service of a nation that intended to keep people in
bondage forever.” He went on, “The greatest enemy to good public history is omission. We are experiencing as a society now the collateral damage that forgetting can inflict.”
A park ranger sitting in the gift shop rose to offer us a practiced talk that focused reverently on Jackson’s final days—the bed he slept on, the clock that still keeps time. The ranger said a “servant,” Jim Lewis, had stayed with Jackson in the small house as he lay dying. A plaque noted the room where Jackson’s white staff slept. But there was no sign in the room across the hall where Lewis stayed. Hennessy had recently removed it because it failed to acknowledge that Lewis was enslaved. Hennessy is working on a replacement. Slavery, for the moment, was present only in the silences.
DURING THE FALL MUSTER at Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis home, we met Stephanie Brazzle, a 39-year-old African-American Mississippian who had accompanied her daughter, a fourth grader, on a field trip. It was Brazzle’s first visit. “I always thought it was a place that wasn’t for us,” she said. Brazzle had considered keeping her daughter home, but decided against it. “I really do try to keep an open mind. I wanted to be able to talk to her about it.”
Brazzle walked the Beauvoir grounds all morning. She stood behind her daughter’s school group as they listened to re-enactors describe life in the Confederacy. She waited for some mention of the enslaved, or of African-Americans after emancipation. “It was like we were not even there,” she said, as if slavery “never happened.”
“I was shocked at what they were saying, and what wasn’t there,” she said. It’s not that Brazzle, who teaches psychology, can’t handle historic sites related to slavery. She can, and she wants her daughter, now 10, to face that history, too. She has taken her daughter to former plantations where the experience of enslaved people is a part of the interpretation. “She has to know what these places are,” Brazzle said. “My grandmother, whose grandparents were slaves, she told stories. We black people acknowledge that this is our history. We acknowledge that this still affects us.”
The overarching question is whether American taxpayers should support Lost Cause mythology. For now, that invented history, told by Confederates and retold by sympathizers for generations, is etched into the experience at sites like Beauvoir. In the wellkept Confederate cemetery behind the library, beyond a winding brook, beneath the flagpole, a large gray headstone faces the road. It is engraved with lines that the English poet Philip Stanhope Worsley dedicated to Robert E. Lee:
“No nation rose so white and fair, none fell so pure of crime.”
Vandals struck Richmond’s Lee monument in August. Opposition to the statue isn’t new; in 1890, leading African-Americans opposed its installation.