CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia – Many statues dot the Jeffersonian city of Charlottesville, a quaint, red-bricked and well-manicured college town host to the University of Virginia and, this past weekend, a neofascist rally the likes of which Americans have not seen in modern times.
On the campus itself, Homer, the ancient Greek author of the Iliad, takes center stage, while Thomas Jefferson and George Washington look upon each other across the quad. Enter town and you will pass Revolutionary War hero George Clark astride a horse, and then Sacagawea, a native American woman who guided Lewis and Clarke into the West and, according to the plaque beside her rusted base, represents “a symbol of unity and peace for all people.”
Only further in town do you reach the Confederate statues – of which there are many, as well.
An unknown infantryman stands above the stars and bars of the 1860s secessionist rebellion and Civil War, exemplifying the “defenders of the rights of the states.” Nearby, a horse-mounted Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson – one of the most revered Southern generals of the war – rides above a winged man and woman, sculpted like Soviet icons of strength and camaraderie.
But it is the statue of one particular man, with a singular grip on the Southern imagination, that is causing so much controversy here in Virginia that locals threaten to pull it down – a prospect egregious enough for white power activists to gather and march in its defense.
That man is Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate armed forces and the central icon of what is known as the “Lost Cause” of the South. It is, in short, a myth that the American Civil War was not primarily about slavery, and that Lee actually lamented the peculiar institution which brought Africans to the American colonies in chains.
As state assemblies voted to secede from the Union one by one, each explicitly wrote that their right to enslave others was their cause. Lee chose to lead this effort. But admitting this fact in light of defeat is to admit that Southern history is defined – from its origins to its crucible moment– by the inequality of its culture and people.
Thus a campaign began in the early 1900s to change this history, in the interest of moving on and in healing national wounds from a war that remains the nation’s deadliest.
Statues were erected and the Confederacy became a symbol to many – not of states’ rights to shatter the Union or proceed with the slave trade, but simply of states rights writ large. It has remained a consistent conservative principle in the South ever since, as its representatives advocate for local control and limitations on the federal government.
And so, in Emancipation Square here in Charlottesville, Lee still stands tall. A veiled woman has brought her children to play here less than a week after neo-Nazis declared this soil their own by blood. A homeless person idles. Three black residents sit under a tree, their backs toward Lee, in peace.
“Thank you, general!” two white men yell toward Lee from a passing car.
“They descended on us – it felt like bum-rush Charlottesville,” said Hope Jackson, a longtime resident of the city who works with small children. Hope chose not to attend Saturday’s events in order to avoid stress and fear. She now sits reflectively on a bench across from a painted memorial to Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old woman who was murdered by a rally participant, and a second painting of Lady Liberty stomping out a Nazi Schutzstaffel.
“We were warned ahead of time, but we didn’t know the magnitude,” Hope added. She is black. “It’s the South – it’s part of life.”
Some 100 public schools and roughly 700 statues across the nation are named after Confederate icons, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. This is a consequence of the unfinished 19th-century history that has now become a flashpoint between those who believe America needs to move on and those who have adopted the Lost Cause as fact.
Many Americans have given little thought to the details or meaning of the Civil War, and rather identify Lee, Jackson and Confederate president Jefferson Davis as the most famous and successful men ever to emerge from the South. To them it is pride of place and little more.
But these are not the individuals who marched on Charlottesville on Saturday, as President Donald Trump asserted in his extraordinary remarks from Trump Tower on Tuesday.
Those who organized the Virginia march fit by their own definition into three camps that have aligned themselves with the Lost Cause: White nationalists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis. And this is why understanding the meaning of a statue to Robert E. Lee is critical to understanding this modern surge in American antisemitism.
White nationalists believe the United States was founded by white Christians and is therefore, in every meaningful way, their birthright. They assert that– just like African- Americans, Muslims, Jews, and other minorities– they are entitled to their cultural heritage and to its preservation.
They claim the Confederacy is a part of this heritage, and thus statues to the cause are a part of their history.
White supremacists take this cause one step further by stripping away any pretense of concern over discriminating on the basis of race. They believe that whites are not only entitled to the nation by birthright – “blood and soil,” they say – but that laws allowing for the diversification of America, such as the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Voting Rights Act and more recent immigration and civil rights efforts, have all been part of a concerted effort to minimize the power of the white majority.
Neo-Nazis march for Robert E. Lee because they believe this concerted effort to thwart white power has been organized by a conspiracy of Jews. Their lexicon is similar to that of white nationalists who refer to a cabal of globalists, bankers and liberal media working against them – except that these fascists are more explicit, using terms such as Jewish globalists, Jewish money, Jewish media.
Material that promoted the Charlottesville event was evocatively antisemitic: “Unite the Right to End Jewish Influence in America,” read one advertisement for the August 12 rally on The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, depicting a man taking a hammer to the Star of David.
Another promotional poster featuring the names of prominent racist participants highlighted the statues under threat, complete with marching Confederate soldiers and Nazi-era Reichsadler eagles.
In his Tuesday press conference, Trump – the president of the Union and leader of the party of Abraham Lincoln – said that “very fine people” were among those marching here. This was despite the organizers of the event and the failure of any group – conservative or otherwise – to identify participants who have dissociated themselves from its stated original purpose.
Trump defended the Confederate statues that have become the frontline standards of America’s most undemocratic of movements. He compared Confederate icons to the nation’s founding fathers, Washington and Jefferson, as mere slave owners who happened to devise the Union, not secede from it.
Early in his career as a young man, Lincoln issued some of his first remarks on his fears over slavery’s effects on the American experiment.
“Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the Earth – our own excepted – in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years,” Lincoln said at Lyceum, Illinois, in 1838.
“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?” he continued. “If it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.”