Letting Go of the Lost Cause
As a child I was fascinated by history, and always took great pride in being from Virginia.
From a very young age, I knew that Virginia was the oldest of Britain’s colonies in North America and that many Virginians were prominent in the early history of the United States. The author of the Declaration of Independence, the Father of the Constitution, and four of the first five presidents were all from Virginia. I felt bad for kids from lesser states.
Admittedly, my home state’s preeminence waned a bit as the country expanded in the early 1800s. But in 1861 Virginia once again took center stage in U.S. history as the most populous and industrialized of the states that seceded to form the Confederacy.
Much of the Civil War was fought across Virginia, from the First Battle of Bull Run near Manassas to Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign to Robert E. Lee’s surrender near Appomattox.
I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, the site of Jackson’s campaign, where memorials and reminders of Civil War history are everywhere.
The first elementary school I attended, named after Jackson, sat across the road from a church that had taken cannon fire during the Battle of McDowell in 1862. Walking over to the church with my third-grade class to look at Civil War artifacts is the first field trip I remember.
Shenandoah Valley Academy, where I spent my last two years of high school, is within walking distance of the New Market battlefield, where cadets from Virginia Military Institute famously fought and died to help secure a Confederate victory in 1864.
My maternal grandmother came from Pamplin, near Appomattox, and one of my favorite childhood memories is a trip with my grandparents to the national park at the site where Lee surrendered.
I could go on. For me and many who grew up in the South, the Civil War was far from a distant memory. Historical markers, names of highways and prominent buildings, and Confederate battle flags on proud display offered constant daily reminders. They still do.
As an adult, I discovered that all those reminders were no accident. Glorification of the Civil War and veneration of Confederate leaders was the intended outcome of one of the most effective propaganda campaigns in U.S. history: the portrayal of the Confederacy as a just and noble Lost Cause that should be remembered, honored, and even celebrated by white Southerners.
That effort — which included naming schools and streets and parks after Confederate leaders, erecting monuments and statues in prominent public spaces, and changing how the war was described and understood — was spearheaded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the first half of the 20th century. They worked in close partnership with many other groups, including segregationists and white supremacists, during the height of Jim Crow.
The textbooks used to teach history in Virginia’s public schools are an example of their success. According to my fourth-grade Virginia history textbook, which was commissioned and approved by the state government, the Civil War was not really about slavery, most slaves were content and well treated, and Robert E. Lee was a heroic figure who made a difficult but understandable decision to defend his native state against Northern aggression.
Even as a fourth-grader, I had questions. I was pretty sure, for example, that the Civil War really had been about slavery. But students have little incentive to challenge the contents of their textbooks, and I didn’t realize until much later just how much misinformation I’d been taught, and how that shaped my views about the Civil War, the South, and Virginia.
Even into my 20s, I had positive feelings about the Confederate battle flag, believing that it symbolized Southern pride and nothing more. I only changed my mind after some non-Southern friends explained what that flag meant to them.
Last summer I was reminded of what I’d been taught about the Civil War as I sat in the back of a packed gymnasium listening to public debate over whether to remove Robert E. Lee’s name from Staunton’s public high school.
Tensions ran high, and many speakers repeated Lost Cause talking points that could have been lifted, almost verbatim, from my fourth-grade textbook. Listening to their arguments, I wasn’t optimistic that the name would be changed. But last October, the school board voted 4-2 to revert to the school’s pre-1914 name, Staunton High School.
More than a year after white supremacists marched in nearby Charlottesville, I was encouraged and proud when Staunton voted to change the name of the school. I’m also proud that communities around Virginia are having conversations about race and taking actions, including removing statues and renaming schools, that are long overdue.
But things I’ve learned as an adult and events of the past few years have led me to reconsider the fierce, boosterish Virginia pride I felt as a kid.
Virginians did indeed play leading roles in founding the United States. But the Virginia Founding Fathers all owned slaves, and they promoted a deeply flawed constitutional compromise that devalued black lives, allowed slavery to take deeper root, and eventually led to the Civil War.
Virginia also played a leading role in an armed rebellion aimed at preserving slavery. And after the war many people and organizations, including the state government itself, sought to marginalize, disenfranchise, disadvantage, and terrorize black Virginians. That legacy is nothing to be proud of.
For a young person who was deeply invested in my identity as a Virginian, letting go of the Lost Cause narrative didn’t come easily or naturally. In fact, it might not have happened at all if I hadn’t come to understand and appreciate the perspectives of folks who hadn’t learned their Virginia history from textbooks endorsed by white supremacists.
I still appreciate feeling rooted in a place where my family has lived for generations, and I’m still fascinated by history. And Virginia has a long history that I would never want to see erased. Not because it’s all noble and just and full of heroes, but because whitewashing and romanticizing history — especially when that history includes hundreds of years of state-sanctioned oppression and discrimination based on skin color — makes it harder to understand the present.
Virginia is so much more than the Founding Fathers and the Civil War. Our history is written across an achingly beautiful landscape, and in the stories of our people. All our people, not just a handful of men who fought on the wrong side of history more than 150 years ago. So long as Virginians allow the Lost Cause to define and divide us, we remain trapped in the past.
I’d rather imagine a future we can all take pride in.