The truth is that speakers on behalf of the Confederate monuments rarely deviated from a single point. “Let it stand,” Archer Anderson said of the Lee Monument, “as a memorial of personal honor that never brooked a stain, of knightly value without thought of self, of far-reaching military genius unsoiled by ambition.” Anderson and his cohort of memorialists said little else and it remained a remarkably consistent claim about the past, not just on the Monument Avenue statues. Military prowess and women’s sacrifice became the chief points of veneration at reunions, speeches, literature, and in the public history that the United Daughters of the Confederacy and veterans groups curated in museums and schoolbooks.
Veneration was more than just nostalgia and gooey romanticism. Ex-Confederates and their descendants often used their history to actively define their place in the modern world—a world some of them embraced. But others despised it, and Confederate history—the Lost Cause—became a usable past in their hands.
Virginia governor Charles T. O’Ferrall stepped to the podium at the 1896 dedication of the Confederate Museum in Richmond. Governor O’Ferrall praised Southern women and then introduced the orator, former Confederate General Bradley T. Johnson. Johnson unrolled an uncompromising defense of the Confederate cause—claiming that they hadn’t actually lost because subsequent events had proven them right. His rough barbs may have shocked the otherwise genteel proceedings; or they may have been warmly received, but he made a clear point.
Johnson warned of a fearsome cultural and economic force unleashed by Union victory in the Civil War that threatened the present United States in the 1890s. It accumulated power through “labor-duplicating machinery,” (which, he warned, would make Black people redundant) and drove institutions of “corporate property, of stockholders and bondholders.” This force would victimize the South even further in pursuit of Yankee values of efficiency, power, and wealth.
The former general alluded to the industrialization of the American economy at a time we call the Gilded Age. Indeed, banks, railroads, and factories—drawing deeply and destructively on natural resources and pulling in migrants from across the globe—just then appeared to be upending the traditional social order. Even Richmond—on the eve of monument building—had been shaken by Gilded Age labor unrest.
Richmond bustled with energy in the 1880s, crowded with migrants, laborers, and new money. Private companies and the city itself invested in gas, water, and telephone services, and a progressive group of Republicans championed the nation’s first electric streetcars—signaling a transformation from antebellum dimness to modern illumination. The Democratic Party defeat of the biracial Readjuster Movement in 1883, however, did not secure its complete control of government. In 1885, a political coalition centered on the Knights of Labor gained an electoral victory in the city’s Common Council and for the next two years, labor unions initiated numerous strikes—often of black and white workers together, and often successful.
Many ex-Confederates embraced industrial progress. Archer Anderson, the keynote speaker at the Lee Monument unveiling, sat atop Richmond’s industrial order as president of the Tredegar Iron Works. Lewis Ginter, another former soldier and Vice-President of the Jefferson Davis Monument Association, pioneered corporate holding companies. James Dooley, a former Confederate marshalled southern railroads from his seat at Maymont on the outskirts of town, and after 1900, styled himself a “capitalist.” These men, along with Governor Fitzhugh Lee, embraced the civic boosterism that called for the former Confederacy to join in the national industrial economy by inviting northern investment in southern factories. Some southerners, such as Atlanta’s Henry Grady, went further and called for the South to leave the past behind and jump without reservation into the modern world. They branded their vision the “New South.”
Many ex-Confederates, for example Bradley Johnson, denounced the New South and its aspirations because of its tendency to erode social cohesion and steamroll a cherished history. Georgia senator and former Confederate M. Pope Barrow couldn’t even bring himself to utter the phrase New South in his bitter condemnation at the Savannah, Georgia, Memorial Day celebration in 1895.
Barrow complained of
“New men, men with new names, mentioned for the first time in history, names that are not to be found on any muster roll of any army, [who] go about prating of a ‘N—South,’ and sneering at the Old South. Boasting of a new civilization, of which they are the apostles, and mammon is the titular divinity, they embrace every opportunity to proclaim the fact that they belong to the ‘N—South,’ and not the old. They are correct. The Old South knew them not… there are yet to be found some who believed that they know better, and could have done better, than the men of the old regime, and who would teach our children that their fathers who were Confederate soldiers have nothing to be proud of, and that the least said about the war the better.”
After Barrow’s genealogical swipe, he furiously critiqued the New South pursuit of wealth. “I care not how many millions one such may amass, I care not how much influence and power his wealth may purchase; as for me and my house, its doors will open with a quicker welcome and its hearthstone will more cheerily warm for the poorest Confederate veteran, in his tatters and rags, than for this ‘N—South’ Dives in all his purple.” Here Barrow invoked the biblical parable of the rich man [Dives], draped in the purple robes of wealth, who dismissed the entreaties of the poor man, Lazarus, to his eternal agony.
Confederate memorialists and historians found inspiration in the Old South of their imagination and memory—unsullied by any alleged obsession for shareholder value or the turbulence of mass immigration and labor strife—and held it up as a potential alternative for the United States; a return to the virtues of a pure agricultural republic.
In Richmond, conservatives responded to the Knights of Labor insurgency by rallying behind J. Taylor Ellyson for Mayor. Ellyson had been the first president of the Jefferson Davis Memorial Association. Elected mayor in 1888, Ellyson’s administration marked the beginning of Democratic Party rule in Richmond for another century. Richmond’s elites preferred the safety of an imagined homogenous past to the noisy present. Monument Avenue reflected, according to historian Michael Chesson, a decision to be the “old city of the new south.”
The Confederate statues on Monument Avenue, and the larger Confederate history they represented, said different things to different people. To those who built it, like Fitzhugh Lee, Monument Avenue embodied southern civic boosterism. It was, after all, a city beautification initiative and a real estate venture designed to gild a ragged factory town. But to others like Bradley Johnson and M. Pope Barrow, the men on the monuments expressed uncomplicated virtues of steadfast honor that stood as perfect examples for a nation—and maybe even their own region—going wrong and needing to be set aright.
For further reading on the New South, see Edward L. Ayers, The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)