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Book explores why Confederate memorials were put up

"Preserving the Old Dominion"

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis prompted more objections to Confederate memorials. Statues of generals who fought to enslave others are coming down. United States military leaders want forts named after generals who waged war against the United States to be renamed. Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans, humbly described how his perspective on Confederate statues changed, why they had to come down and how he oversaw their removal in 2017 in his book “In the Shadow of Statues.”

But SUNY Plattsburgh historian James M. Lindgren doesn’t argue why statues should be removed or names changed. His important “Preserving the Old Dominion: Historic Preservation and Virginia Traditionalism” was published 27 years ago but is very timely, for he answers an earlier, more foundational question: Why were the memorials erected in the first place?

As the title suggests, Professor Lindgren’s focus is not the South or public spaces in general, but the Old Dominion, a nickname for the state of Virginia. “Traditions, symbols, and rituals define a people’s identity,” Lindgren writes, and so he investigated why and how Virginia came to define itself in terms of colonial times and the Civil War.

That definition of Virginia, Lindgren says, began in the 1890s, a time of “social breakdown, national depression, popular-class revolt, and unsettling change,” which sounds like today. And the definition partially explains why Virginia erected Civil War memorials.

The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities was formed in 1888. Its basic tenets, according to Lindgren, were “white rule, local government, strict constructionism, traditionalist leadership, and a conservative philosophy.”

From that perspective, the APVA looked fondly on the first European settlement in North America, Jamestown. Elite Virginians bristled that Massachusetts, Plymouth Rock, Pilgrims and Thanksgiving, even the name The Mayflower — all of which occurred after the Virginia settlement — were more closely associated with the birth of America than Jamestown. Virginia’s historical rival was the industrialized North that lacked gentility and had just defeated them in war. For cultural and, eventually, economic/tourist reasons, the APVA wanted the Anglo-Saxon Jamestown colony to be recognized as America’s birthplace.

That the Confederacy was premised on the belief that the white race was primary, and had the right to “own” other people, also suited the APVA. In 1890 it bought and preserved the Confederate White House, the home of Jefferson Davis during the war.

The goals of the APVA and the “Lost Cause” (the belief that the South’s cause was noble) were not identical, but overlapped. The APVA wove these two strands, Anglo-Saxon Jamestown and the Civil War, together to “shape their contemporary world.” Focusing on Virginia’s traditions, preserving and developing its historic sites, and with influential people as members, the APVA helped articulate what was the good in the state, and restore the social hierarchical order that was destroyed by the surrender at Appomattox. Lindgren notes that states such as Alabama and Mississippi that did not have Virginia’s tradition of “elite rule … turned earlier and more conspicuously to physical intimidation, racial violence, and legal statute to restore order.”

The people who idealized Virginia’s past did it very publicly. For example, in 1928 a ceremony was held in Blackwell, England, the port from which the Jamestown settlers sailed. A plaque marking the settlers’ departure was installed that day, and speeches were made.

One of the speeches revealed the self-serving and inhuman perspective of an influential Richmond citizen. To the English audience at the dedication, Joseph Bryan of the APVA (he was also president of the Confederate Memorial Literary Society) celebrated the Englishness of the Jamestown settlers. Bryan, a loud opponent of emancipation and voting rights for former slaves, bragged that his hometown, Richmond, “was more English than London.” And he joked that the non-English Richmond residents arrived by a “special and pressing invitation.”

Bryan, who found enslavement of African-Americans humorous, was memorialized in Richmond by a statue erected in his honor. That statue was removed this July, less than two months after the death of George Floyd.

“Preserving Old Dominion” is a serious book, with 35 pages of notes and more than 200 entries in its bibliography. Every chapter is filled with important evidence drawn from primary sources. But Lindgren is also a skilled writer and helps the reader learn. His sentences are balanced, his transitions fluid. The book was published in 1993, but it speaks to us today, about history and how it can be reshaped, distorted, to make people more comfortable in the present.

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