Reflections on Confederate Memory in Virginia

By Emma Wiley

Driving down I-95 South to get to Richmond, you are constantly triggered by small indications that Confederate memory lives under the surface of everyday life in Virginia. While driving, I tried to keep track of as many Confederate names or symbols that I could recognize from the side of the major highway. Stonewall Jackson’s Shrine, Fort A.P. Hill, the enormous Confederate flag flying along the side of the highway, etc. As someone who has grappled with the persistence of Confederate memory and symbolism throughout my life growing up in Virginia, I decided to travel around to explore how Confederate memory is negotiated and portrayed in the public landscape today.

Walking down Monument Avenue in Richmond, I stopped by enormous monuments to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and JEB Stuart. The inscriptions on these statues convey messages of heroism, bravery, honor, and sacrifice. In their everyday lives, contemporary drivers have to literally stop in their tracks and navigate around these Confederate monuments; these men who, up on their high bronze horses, have become more symbols than humans. At the same time as these monuments loom over Monument Avenue, nearby things reveal less ostentatious ways that Confederate symbolism has filtered into the material landscape. For example, on the traffic circle created by the JEB Stuart Monument, there is an apartment building called “Stuart Apartments,” which cannot be a coincidence.

Several of these generals are buried in Hollywood Cemetery, which is known for the graves of many prominent Confederate generals, in addition to the graves of more than 18,000 enlisted Confederate soldiers. These graves are littered with small Confederate flags, including the highly recognizable and contentious version of Confederate Flag, but also numerous flags denoting different specific Confederate regiments. Also in the cemetery is a giant stone pyramid, which is the Monument of the Confederate War Dead, which has the inscription “Numini et Patriae Asto,” meaning “In eternal memory of those who stood for God and country.” Other monument and grave inscriptions have Lost Cause language like, “Fate Denied Them Victory But Gave Them a Glorious Immortality,” and in reference to the Confederate Flag, “Furled but not Forgotten.” In the Confederate section of Hollywood, there is a large Confederate flag flying high over the rest of the cemetery. While in Northern Virginia, I also visited the Arlington National Cemetery and the Fairfax City Cemetery, both containing memorials to the Confederate dead. It was compelling to compare the cemetery monuments/memorials between huge touristy cemeteries, like Hollywood and Arlington, and smaller local cemeteries like Fairfax City. Cemeteries raise an interesting and complicating aspect of my research into Confederate memory, because while they are a public entity, they are also a highly personal and often seen as an acceptable place to honor the dead, no matter what side.

I was, unfortunately, a few months too early to visit the new American Civil War Museum, but instead got the chance to see the older American Civil War Museum at Historic Tredegar and the Museum of the Confederacy at the former Confederate White House, which were important to see how things were interpreted and portrayed previously. Listening to the people at the museums, especially the White House of the Confederacy, talk about the changes to the museums over time exemplified just how much these institutions themselves have shifted memory of the Confederacy, especially from a “shrine” to a relatively holistic museum.

In terms of misfortune, the only time Virginia decided to have a blizzard this winter, was during the few days that I had my trip planned. Parts of my trip were cut short, but I did still get the opportunity to interview and communicate over the phone with the people that I was planning on meeting. I interviewed Tom Camden, who is an Associate Professor and the Head of Special Collections at Washington and Lee University, and Ted DeLaney, who is an Associate Professor of History, also at Washington and Lee. Both men were on the commission that was created after the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally in 2017 to review and advise on the University’s institutional history. While I spent most of my trip visiting places of relatively entrenched Confederate memory and memorialization, hearing from Mr. Camden and Mr. DeLaney brought my thesis thinking back to how the history affects and creates the contemporary. Their thoughts on the Commission and the process of reviewing the contentious Civil War and Confederate history reinforced for me just how nuanced, complicated, and personal this process of historical reckoning can be.

Even though my trip was focused on specific places of Confederate memory and memorialization, I tried to actively keep my eye out for subtle and possibly hidden remnants of the Confederacy and its memory. While significantly more focused research and observation is required of this topic for my thesis, I found that while there have been aspects of Confederate memory and memorialization bubbling to a contentious surface in the past few years, so much of Confederate memory and remnants of memorialization exist in a subtle, almost hidden Virginian historical landscape.