The original Lost Cause stands as a triumph of gaslighting, a distortion that disorients us to this day.
The South not only refused to accept the reality of its defeat, but pushed out a competing narrative that endures more than a century and a half later. This mythology holds that the South did not truly lose the Civil War; it merely was outmanned and out-resourced. In this revisionism, slavery became a mere footnote in the Confederacy’s righteous defense of states’ rights.
It proved to be a winning strategy, as noted by Stephen Budiansky in his book “The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox,” which includes this 1879 quote from North Carolina judge Albion Tourgée:
“In all except the actual results of the physical struggle, I consider the South to have been the real victors in the war. The way in which they have neutralized the results of the war and reversed the verdict of Appomattox is the grandest thing in American politics.”
Richmond was the most prominent set piece in the veneration of the Lost Cause before our monuments came tumbling down or were hoisted off their pedestals. For some folks, the long debate over the propriety of Confederate monuments was an abstraction. But this tolerance for idolatry needs re-evaluation as Donald Trump seeks to neutralize the result of a presidential election and reverse the verdict of the voters.
The Lost Cause provided a template for turning losers into winners and sedition into patriotism. Men who betrayed their oath to the Constitution somehow wound up on pedestals of honor, from the streets of Richmond to the halls of Congress.
Today, Trump is willing to dangle democracy off the edge of a cliff in feeding his supporters with a steady diet of lies, resentment and incitement, aided by congressional members with a similar amnesia about their oath. His bogus claims of a stolen election have resulted in election officials — including Republicans in Georgia, a former bastion of the Confederacy — enduring threats of violence because of their unwillingness to steal the election for Trump.
Someday, if it hasn’t already happened, someone will attempt to erect a monument to Trump, a man whose lifelong passion has been building monuments to himself.
In the meantime, the spotlight in our moment of racial reckoning has brightly and somewhat surprisingly shone on Richmond, a city that has come to realize the folly of fashioning bronze statues of men with clay feet.
Our notions of the past shape our present and our future. Richmond’s unabashed celebration of its Confederate heritage sent contradictory messages about the virtue of white supremacy, winners and losers, truth and reconciliation, and loyalty to nation. Our post-election turmoil dramatizes the historic willingness of a chunk of Americans to embrace misinformation and forsake this nation’s stated principles — be it freedom prior to Emancipation or free and fair elections today.
For too long, Richmond helped perpetuate this mass delusion. But finally, we appear ready to engage in the long, hard work of correcting a false and exclusive narrative.
Gov. Ralph Northam is proposing $25 million to develop new statues on Monument Avenue and support historic sites tied to the city’s legacy of enslavement, including Shockoe Bottom, the Lumpkin’s Jail site and the planned Virginia Emancipation and Freedom Monument on Brown’s Island.
Alex Nyerges, CEO and director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), said last week that the museum plans to bring together historians, artists and urban planners from around the world to work with the Richmond community in developing new plans for the circle around the Robert E. Lee statue and the rest of Monument Avenue.
“We’re looking forward to a 21stcentury future that’s going to be inspiring and bright for all of Virginia,” he said. “One hundred thirty years of having those monuments scar the landscape and the souls of the people who have lived in the city and Virginia will take a great deal of thought and effort.”
He spoke in front of the VMFA’s statue of a dreadlocked Black horseman wearing a hoodie and Nikes, created by artist Kehinde Wiley and inspired by Richmond’s statue of J.E.B. Stuart on Monument. Its title, “Rumors of War,” proved prescient as we soon became embroiled in a fight for racial justice and against a virus that exacted a disproportionate toll on people of color.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Abraham Lincoln said. But the house he spoke of was built on a foundation of lies.
The battles we fight — for justice, equality and democracy — will be in vain until we win the war on truth.