How I unlearned what I was taught about the Civil War and Virginia’s fraught racial history

February 8, 2019 5:00 am

The Virginia Flaggers hoisted rebel battle flags on Boulevard in Richmond in 2019. (Rex Springston)

On a springlike winter day, my wife and I walked through Maymont, chatted there with a happy family from Guatemala, then headed to North Richmond for a late lunch.

As we zipped along the Boulevard, we saw the “flaggers,” men and women who fly Confederate flags to protest … something.

We live almost next door in the Fan District, so we’ve seen these folks and flags on and off for years. But this display was different.

It included a “Trump” flag.

I was hungry and wanted to keep moving, but my wife, Kathy, insisted we stop for a picture.

She was driving, and she won.

From across the Boulevard’s four lanes, we snapped photos. Then we noticed a couple of the flaggers, a man and woman, waving and calling out to us. They seemed to want us to visit.

We crossed over, and the man launched into conversation.

“Have you seen the (Confederate) monuments?” he asked, apparently taking us for tourists. We told him we had. The man was middle-aged, tall, bearded and friendly.

He looked like a rebel soldier in a red MAGA hat.

“You better put your earplugs in,” the man said. “You wouldn’t believe the vulgarities people throw at us. They don’t care if there are women or children out here.” We heard a couple of car horns beep in apparent support for the flaggers.

The man said he was protesting the removal of Confederate flags from the nearby Confederate Memorial Chapel, but he clearly had other grievances about the path of our country. “You can’t give in …They’re taking our rights away from us.”

He bounced from topic to topic. He said the Civil War was not about slavery but about tariffs and other issues.

The man was animated but civil. Kathy and I didn’t didn’t challenge him on anything. In fact, we barely got a chance to speak. The man’s wife, standing nearby, also said little. The man said they were from out of town. Two other flaggers sat in lawn chairs nearby.

Amid the battle flags and just above the Trump flag flew the banner of their group, the Virginia Flaggers, organized in 2011.

“People like you and me, we are just a speck,” the man said. That’s why we can’t let “these other people” into the country.

Moving on, the man said there there have been a lot of “false flag” operations in our country. He said 9/11 was one.

Who was behind 9/11? I asked. “The deep state,” he said.

Kathy checked her watch and said, “We really have to get to lunch.” Pleasantly, we said goodbye.

Full disclosure: This wasn’t an interview, and we didn’t take notes or record the man. We didn’t even get his name. But back in the car, realizing something had just happened, Kathy and I reconstructed the dialogue — well, monologue. I feel comfortable saying his words here are 90 to 100 percent verbatim. As paraphrases — that is, if you remove the quotation marks — the quotes are absolutely accurate.

‘The comments section in the flesh’

When we got home I wrote about the encounter on Facebook, and Facebook happened.

“Lucky you didn’t meet these folks AFTER lunch,” wrote Dale Eisman, a former Richmond Times-Dispatch political writer. “You might have lost your meal.”

“It’s like you encountered the comments section in the flesh,” said another former TD reporter.

But another friend, a supporter of President Donald Trump, offered a different take on the man.

“Perhaps he is just very sad that the world is pretty much losing its collective mind over many issues and he does see these flags as a symbol from a more sensible past.”

A Chesterfield woman, Jen Digney, wrote, “The inability to see the hurtful nature of the Confederate flag is something that continues to confound me.”

And on it went.

The flaggers are among the most visible examples of Virginia’s long, excruciating battles over the Civil War, race and the power of symbols.

Like the monuments to Confederate generals, those struggles are with us always, it seems, from Charlottesville’s deadly Unite the Right rally to the present furor over our governor and attorney general having appeared in blackface and the spectacle last month of Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, whose forebears include the enslaved, stepping off the Virginia Senate dais while Republican Sen. Richard H. Stuart praised Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee as “a great Virginian and a great American.”

Symbols can mean different things to different people, sometimes leaving no clear path to reconciliation.

But they often involve clear choices between myth and history — between right and wrong.

Children aren’t always taught the truth 

I am a son of the South, born in Norfolk and raised in Virginia Beach. When I was a child, I had a Rebel cap and a Johnny Reb cannon.

It fired a golf-ball-sized projectile that endangered your Christmas tree ornaments. My friends and I played Civil War and you always wanted to be a Reb, not a Yank.

I learned from friends and adults — not my parents, though — that slaves were happy, the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, abolitionists were bad guys and Lee was an almost Christ-like figure.

When I became an adult, I learned that children aren’t always taught the truth.

Some things I was slow to un-learn. A story: When Ken Burns’ “Civil War” series came out in 1990, I thought it showed a left-slanted view, overly heavy on slavery as the cause.

Then an editor at the Richmond News Leader, where I was a reporter, assigned another writer and me to ask some top Civil War historians what they thought of the series.

The show was OK, they said, but it didn’t tell us a whole lot new.

There it was. Civil War scholars had known for a long time that slavery was the main cause. It had absolutely dominated the national debate in the years leading up to 1861.

The seceding states also made it clear why they were leaving. (Mississippi, for example: “A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. … There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union.”)

Another story: Last year I was browsing the stacks of the Richmond library downtown. It’s amazing what you can find there. I came across an old Virginia history book that looked awfully familiar. It said, among other things, that an enslaved man “did not work so hard as the average free laborer, since he did not have to worry about losing his job.”

It turned out that the book, “Cavalier Commonwealth,” was one of three public-school histories commissioned in the 1950s by the segregationist Byrd organization — ruler of all things political in the state at that time.

Among other things, those books taught a generation of Virginians, from the late 1950s well into the 1970s, about the “Lost Cause” — a largely mythical view of history, spun by whites, in which the Old South was romantic, slaves happy and Confederates saintly.

In these books, Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson got more ink than trailblazing businesswoman Maggie Walker. Massive Resistance — Virginia’s campaign, beginning in 1956, against federally required school desegregation — never happened.

“Cavalier Commonwealth” was for 11th-graders. In Virginia Beach, I had been taught this alternative history from companion books for fourth- and seventh-graders. I wrote about the bizarre books for the Times-Dispatch’s Discover Richmond magazine.

What do these stories have to do with one guy flying the rebel flag beside a busy street in 2019? Does this man represent all Virginia Flaggers or lovers of the Monument Avenue statues? All Trump supporters? Surely not.

What ties all this together, though, is the inability of some people to discard old myths and expose themselves to the truth.

I feel for the flaggers. Their world is changing, and things they hold dear are now widely considered wrong.

But there is ignorance, and there is willful ignorance. One man I know, for example, believes the Earth literally is flat.

If you read closely, you’ll see I’ve largely stayed away from opinion here. I’m relating not what I think, but what I’ve learned.

Set aside flat-earth Civil War history and you find the war was indeed about slavery. That “great Virginian,” Lee,  opposed allowing former slaves to vote after the war.  And the Confederate flag, even if you fly it to honor your heritage, is hurtful to many people.

Finally, remember the Confederate chapel? Where the removal of two rebel battle flags sparked the flagger protest?

“There is no written or visual evidence that a flag flew on the chapel” for more than a century after it was built in 1887, according to a spokeswoman for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

The former place of worship for Confederate veterans, a beautiful and moving link to the past, sits on museum property. A Sons of Confederate Veterans group put up two flags when it leased the chapel in 1993. While renewing the lease in 2010, the museum had the flags removed, restoring the chapel to its historic appearance.

So it looks like this big chapel battle began with an error in judgment that nobody flagged.


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Rex Springston
Rex Springston

Rex Springston was a reporter for the Richmond News Leader and The Times-Dispatch for 36 years. He lives in Richmond and contributes reporting on history, wildlife and other topics for the Mercury.