VCU history education professor: How Confederate monuments and the ‘Lost Cause’ narrative distort our understanding of the Civil War

Featured photo
The Jefferson Davis monument, on Monument Avenue in Richmond.
Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

Gabriel A. Reich, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning in the VCU School of Education, studies historical consciousness, a sub-field of history and social studies education that explores how young people come to understand history and apply historical frameworks to orient themselves in the world.

Gabriel A. Reich, Ph.D.
Gabriel A. Reich, Ph.D.

As part of this research, Reich’s work has recently focused on the collective memories of the Civil War and Emancipation, and how those memories are affected by state history standards, examinations, public monuments, family stories and the practice of teaching.

Amid the debate over Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Richmond and elsewhere, Reich recently spoke about his research and the role of monuments in how we remember and understand the past.

How did you first become interested in studying our collective memories of the Civil War and Emancipation?

I never had much of an interest in the Civil War at all until I came to Richmond. I’d never been south of D.C. in the United States. I’m from New York City, and my interest really was first sparked when I visited Richmond [as a candidate for a faculty position] and I was driven down Monument Avenue. I was shocked to see monuments to Confederate generals. In my mind they were traitors who fought against their own country to defend enslavement and lost. I was not conscious of the extent to which I was raised on a victorious narrative until I returned to New York City and realized I was surrounded by monuments to the Union that I had never really noticed before.

Historians are engaged in a perpetual argument over how to interpret the past.

So that experience began to spark some interest. I was doing other scholarly work on how kids answer multiple-choice test questions in history. Historians are engaged in a perpetual argument over how to interpret the past. Multiple-choice questions, however, have a single answer, and what does that mean? Looking at questions and answers, what I found was this idea of collective memory. That our country, and our states, promote a certain narrative about the past, and certain knowledge about the past. Those narratives are supposed to draw us together into a singular national identity, a political aim that has little to do with the work of academic historians.

Gradually, those two interests came together: collective memory and the Civil War. So I started researching that.

What did you find?

The first study that I did was of pre-service teachers here in the School of Education. That was looking at how they explained why the South seceded. And that was right around the beginning of the sesquicentennial [of the Civil War]. And then during the sesquicentennial, together with a colleague of mine named Amy Corning, we were able to get a grant from [VCU] to study collective memory of the Civil War and Emancipation here at VCU. We had a survey questionnaire and we got over 3,000 responses and we’ve been slowing working our way through the analysis.

We just had an article come out this year about the belief that African-Americans fought for both sides in the Civil War, which is not historically true. It’s a belief that we weren't looking for and that we were surprised to find. We asked an open-ended question about the nature of black participation in the Civil War. And when we were looking at the answers, this just kept coming up: “They fought for both sides.” And so we really looked closely at that, and did a mixed method — quantitative and qualitative — study where we had a number of hypotheses we could test quantitatively, and then we had a close look qualitatively at the answers that respondents gave. Almost all our hypothesis turned out to be wrong.

We thought people who went to high school in the South would be more likely to believe in this myth of black Confederates. And that wasn’t true. We also thought white respondents would be more likely to express that belief than respondents of color, but wasn’t the case either.

The one thing that did stand out was people who had an ancestor who fought in the Civil War on either side or both sides — it didn't matter — were more likely to say that African-Americans fought for both the Union and the Confederacy. We think that was probably because having that ancestor gave them an interest and a personal connection that would make them more likely to remember stuff they hear about the war, regardless of whether or not that information is true.

But when we did a close qualitative analysis of the responses, we were surprised again. This myth was promoted by groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans as a way to remove enslavement and race as important factors from the narrative of the Civil War. Neo-Confederate groups would say that everybody was just fighting for their homes, fighting for their love of country, and that there’s nothing particularly special about African-Americans in this war because it had nothing to do with slavery — they fought for their homes just like everybody else did.

We expected to see a lot of that in the answers when we looked at them qualitatively but we did not. We only saw a couple — like less than 2 percent — who were kind of echoing that neo-Confederate propaganda. The vast majority either just said they fought on both sides or tried to justify in some way why African-Americans would be fighting for the Confederacy. They would say things like: “They were forced to fight for the Confederacy but they chose to fight for the Union.” Or: “They fought in place of the sons of their white masters.” Or: “They fought in exchange for freedom.” So [respondents] were trying to justify something that doesn’t really make sense, and not echoing neo-Confederate propaganda.

It’s interesting to me how stories about the past move through society and how people will change them and repurpose them once they hear them and incorporate them into their own understanding of the world.

In the context of your research, how do you view the issue of Confederate monuments and the role that they play in our understanding of the Civil War?

The Robert E. Lee monument, on Monument Avenue in Richmond.
<br>File photo
The Robert E. Lee monument, on Monument Avenue in Richmond.
File photo

First, I would say that I’m always skeptical when people make claims about what these monuments mean to large swaths of people. I did a study last year in a local school looking at how local high school students understand the monuments. It was before all the stuff happened this summer, and their views might be different today.

The students in this particular study were almost all African-American and there was tremendous diversity in how they understood the monuments. So I think often when issues about how we as a society come into conflict about how to remember the past are covered by journalists, the controversy gets portrayed as these people think this, and those people think that. So that’s my caveat, it’s complicated and the boxes we tend to put people in mask a lot of diversity of opinion.

Historically, the monuments were put up for two reasons: The first was to serve as a symbol to represent the fact that white supremacy had been re-established in Virginia and other parts of the South. [The statue of Robert E.] Lee goes up in 1890, that's not an accident. That’s when voting laws were disenfranchising African-Americans. There was only one black member of the city council at that time. And the monuments really symbolized that. “Whites can now say whatever we want, and there’s nothing anybody else can do about it.”

People say these monuments are history. Well, they’re history in that they’ve been there for a long time. But they were a political tool to make a statement about white supremacy, that’s the history they represent.

As an educator, it’s also really interesting to me that they were [meant to serve as] a teaching tool. They were put there to teach the younger generations — who wouldn’t necessarily know someone who fought in the war — to revere certain figures from the war. What’s interesting about Monument Avenue, it’s not filled with monuments to the common soldier. It’s these representatives of the landed aristocracy that people are supposed to revere. If you look at the speeches made the day of the unveiling of the Lee monument, that’s one of the points that was being made — that these were a teaching tool to pass on this reverence and the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War to the next generation.

So here we are today, quite removed from that time and we’re still trying to figure out what to do. One response to it was what Doug Wilder decided in 1995, which was to put Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue. He believed that would change the narrative that unfolds on Monument Avenue from only the Lost Cause to something more akin to Virginia’s greatest hits.

I wasn’t here at the time, but it was very controversial. Should we continue to add to Monument Avenue? Should we continue to change that?

The fact that the monuments become this rallying cry for white supremacists and Nazis is really disturbing.

When I first came here, I was shocked by the monuments. But the more time I spent here, the less shocked I was by them. I used to walk my dog down there. My daughter lived on Monument Avenue for a while. Over time, that shock wears off and it becomes normalized in your head. I don’t think I appreciated how disturbing that was until Charlottesville, as well.

So what exactly is being normalized here? Why should that be normalized? Sure, there’s Arthur Ashe, but there’s not a Nat Turner statue. There’s no Gabriel Prosser statue. So what exactly is being normalized? It’s this idea that it's normal that one increasingly small group of people gets to lord it over everybody else. And that's just not OK.

It sends a message to the African-American community, saying “You have to live with this and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

In my work preparing history teachers, I’m really pushing all the time, “You really need to have these difficult conversations. You need to look at history with a kind of unflinching eye because it’s mostly not pretty and it’s about humans and what they do to each other and how they try to justify it.” I don’t think that the monuments serve that purpose, however.

You're preparing the next generation of history teachers. Do you think we do a sufficient job of educating young people about the Civil War and Emancipation?

We have a lot of room to grow.

A document like state standards represents a compromise between adults about what young people should know — and not a compromise between all adults, but between the kind of adults who end up on the committees that set those standards.

That compromise has certainly changed for the better over time. If you went back to the 1970s, the most popular textbook in Virginia was called the “Cavalier Commonwealth,” and it unabashedly told the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War where enslaved people were happy under slavery and everything was great until the mean Yankees starting the “War of Northern Aggression.”

So we've come a long way since then. The standards in the state of Virginia very clearly state that the main cause of the Civil War was slavery. So that's good. But we do have a long way to go.

I think one of the problems is there is so much content in the Standards of Learning that there is very little time for teachers to go into depth on any one thing, and very little autonomy to do so.

And also because the standards represent a compromise among adults, they present history in the least offensive manner possible which avoids conflict and ends up being kind of boring. It’s often not until college or until students want to go off and study more on their own that they really encounter anything else. It’s also going to vary greatly from community to community in how well it’s presented.

So no, I don’t think we’re doing a good job in history education. But it goes way beyond history education. I think it’s unfair to put all that on the shoulders of history teachers. I mean, if you look at South Africa, they had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We’ve never done that. We did the opposite.

The people who decided it was better to secede and start a civil war fought for the unlimited expansion of slavery. After the war, in order to make peace, the North basically agreed, saying “OK, you can own this narrative.” And we need to remember, the Lost Cause narrative wasn’t just Southern. “Gone with the Wind” wasn’t written or made by Southerners. It was made by Northerners in Los Angeles, not part of the Confederacy.

So this became a national narrative. It was part of the reconciliation between Northern and Southern whites with this tacit agreement that not only could Southerners own the narrative but that white supremacy was something that the North and the South could bond over.

We have never taken a long hard look at this. And we’re not really doing it now either.

People are starting to see some of this ugliness because of things like Charlottesville but it’s also being validated by the highest levels of power in this country right now.

So I don’t want to put it all on history teachers to make that right. It’s too often that we put everything on schools. They’re supposed to make an equal society and teach kids all these skills for the 21st century and take care of the reconciliation that we never properly did for the last 150 years. That’s a lot.

Many people grew up with misconceptions about the causes of the Civil War, such as believing that slavery was not the primary cause. For people who were brought up believing this narrative, do you have advice on how to convince them of a more accurate narrative?

I think someone who is completely ideologically and emotionally committed to a position like that, it’s pretty difficult to change their minds. But I think that very few people are that consciously committed to it. I think a lot of people are sort of semi-conscious of all this stuff. So I would focus more on people who aren’t hard core committed. They’re the ones where some convincing is certainly possible.

If I was teaching U.S. history in high school and we were doing the Civil War, there are several things I would do. One thing is when assessing the causes of the Civil War, I would have my students read the Articles of Secession that seceding states wrote and passed. They made no bones about why they were seceding. It’s right there in the first couple sentences. South Carolina was the first. They mention states’ rights once or twice, but it’s always in the service of expanding slavery.

And they certainly weren’t for states' rights when Massachusetts passed a law prohibiting state officials from assisting in the capture or return of fugitive slaves. Then it was all, “No, no, no, you have to follow the national law.”

So one thing I would do is have students look at documents like those secession documents.

Another thing I would do is … because it’s another major myth that a lot of people hold about the Civil War, which is that the Civil War was fought mostly by white people over what should happen to black people. But African-Americans had a very active role and a lot of stake in the outcome in the Civil War and had a tremendous impact on the war itself. So I would want to look at the extent to which so many enslaved people emancipated themselves by running away to follow the Union Army and then joining the Union Army once the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

There’s some really great tools you can use to look at that. There’s an Emancipation map [created at the University of Richmond] with a timeline on the bottom where you can fly across it and see where Union troops were, where rail lines were and where emancipation events were happening. It’s based on documents, most of which were advertisements saying “This person ran away, please send them back if you find them.” They weren’t running to Canada at that point, they were running to the Union lines.

I would want [my students] to know about the free men who rode across the Chesapeake Bay to [the Union Army at] Fort Monroe and were the first escapees to be called “contrabands of war” and refused to return them to their owners. That little trickle led to a giant rushing river. I want them to know that this wasn’t just a war between parts of the country, it was a war about the desire to expand slavery. It was a war about the idea of liberty, particularly the liberty of very few people to control the liberty of very many people. And it was also a war of liberation — it got transformed into a war of liberation, and African-Americans helped transform it into a war of liberation.

I would also tell them that history doesn’t just flow in one direction. After the war, steps were taken to create a more equal society. And then steps were taken to reverse that.

Now, doing that when you have like a week and a half to do 1860 to 1920, because you have a pacing guide by your district, that’s no easy task.

It was a war about the idea of liberty, particularly the liberty of very few people to control the liberty of very many people.

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