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Will VMI Move Further Toward Change and Away from Stonewall Jackson?

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tags: memorials, Confederacy, Virginia, Virginia Military Institute, colleges and universities, VMI



Wallace Hettle is Professor of History at the University of Northern Iowa and author of Inventing Stonewall Jackson (Louisiana State University, 2011).

 

 

 

Last week, in another victory for anti-racist activists, the Stonewall Jackson statue was removed from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI).  Since Stonewall taught at the Institute, he’s practically the school mascot, and removing him makes a difference. The school’s action was part of a larger effort that included alumni, to deal with racism on campus. Amidst the controversy over VMI and race, the superintendent, retired General J. H. Binford Peay III, an alumnus who graduated in 1962, resigned in October. VMI is a public institution serving all Virginians, but abundant evidence of racism on campus, including threats of lynching, have damaged the reputation of the school. VMI must do better, but removal of the statue is a good first step.

Even the movement for reform features abundant irony.  Gov. Ralph Northam helped pushed for a probe.  But after being elected, Northam was himself been called out over wearing blackface while a medical student.  He apologized, and claimed that as a young man he did not understand the significance of blackface, so central to American racism.  But he went to college in the 1960s.  Was such ignorance still possible for a man who went to college in the Civil Rights era?  Apparently it is possible, if the college in question is VMI, from which Northam graduated in 1970. 

There’s another irony:  Jackson’s widow, Anna, was no big fan of a monument to her late husband on campus.  Anna disliked and distrusted VMI’s superintendent, Francis H. Smith, and for good reason:  Smith nearly fired Jackson for his poor teaching. Jackson taught optics, a cross between physics and math, but didn’t understand the material well.  Therefore, according to his wife, he gave practice lectures at home, memorizing his work, while staring at the wall of his living room.  If students had questions, he rewound his lecture like a cassette tape, and then repeated the same material. Alumni sought to have him dismissed, and they nearly succeeded.

We have no account of any meetings with Smith to discuss Jackson’s teaching.  However, the Institute was a small school and Smith ultimately had a remarkable fifty-year stint there.  It’s hard to imagine that the two men would not have discussed the matter. Since Jackson never suffered fools gladly, and neither did Smith, their relationship would not have been friendly. 

Anna Jackson despised those who even gently mocked her husband as an eccentric.  Jackson had died in the war, and she suffered too.  When Jackson died, she held $22,000 in Confederate bonds, the product of a lucky investment and probably also the sale of slaves. Following her husband’s advice, Anna decided not to reinvest any of it in gold because he did not want her to exit the war with more money than when it had started.  The bonds became worthless, but she felt she had done the right thing.

After the war, she moved in with her father, the president of Davidson College, and later inherited the home. In 1895, she published her own biography of Jackson, which included some of his letters.  She made money on the book, but really she cared more about defending her husband.  She resented the charge that he was an incompetent teacher or a brutal general.  Those portraits did not mesh with the man she knew. 

She wanted a gravestone for her husband.  Initially that was impossible, since the Confederates feared desecration of his body by invading soldiers.  Before her finances collapsed, she planned a headstone shaped like a “pillow, square at the base, and rounded at the upper edges.” The stone “would bear the inscription—‘he sleeps in Jesus, in raised letters, of the finest workmanship.” It would be of perfectly white marble, + as simple as possible.” Anna believed that such a stone, “if properly made,” would be tribute to both Jackson and Jesus. The remarkably unmilitary headstone was never built.

A movement to build a monument to Jackson, presumably at VMI, gained support began in the 1870s. However, in a letter to Smith, Anna suggested that a monument at Jackson’s grave should come before anything at VMI.  Her feelings mattered as her support would be essential for fundraising. It took almost a full decade to raise $9,000 dollars for a monument in 1891. 

Finally, in 1912, VMI got its Jackson statue.  It was sculpted and donated by Moses Ezekiel, class of 1866. His philanthropy prevented any meddling by Anna, who lived until 1915. According to VMI’s website, Ezekiel was the first Jewish person to attend the school.  That VMI would know his status as the first Jew is impossible, as it would require knowledge of the religion and ethnicity of all previous students.   Since VMI wants to squelch campus racism, that reference should be removed.  

Even today, VMI does not quite seem to understand Jackson. For example, during the war, the theologian and family friend Robert Lewis Dabney wrote a biography of the hero.  In it, he called attention to Jackson’s commonplace book, which contained the memorable words “you may be whatever you resolve to be.” Dabney called this Jackson’s “most characteristic maxim,” an incongruous tribute to middle-class equality of opportunity rather than the slave-based hierarchical society Jackson fought to defend.  After all, the maxim book was composed entirely of excerpts from two books. One is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and the other is the best-selling Young Man’s Guide by William Andrus Alcott, an abolitionist and the uncle of Louisa May Alcott.  Ironically, his words are carved into the “Jackson Arch” on the campus, and erroneously attributed to the general. Coffee mugs and T-shirts available in the museum also attribute the saying to Jackson. The mugs and t-shirts are both historically wrong and a vestige of the Lost Cause.  They too should be removed from campus.

There is more that needs to change. The hide of Jackson’s horse, Little Sorrel, remains in the campus Museum, and his cremated bones lie next to the parade grounds with a suitable plaque.  The artillery used by Stonewall’s Brigade remains on the campus. 

VMI still has work to do.  First, it should put the statue out of circulation.  Currently, it appears that the statue will be moved to a Virginia Museum of the Civil War at the New Market Battlefield. At New Market, in May of 1864, VMI cadets as young as fifteen years old fought for the Confederacy.  The battlefield and the museum are tangled in VMI’s role in the Lost Cause.  To move a statue of Jackson there would just move, and not remove, the Lost Cause.

Far from erasing history, the statue’s removal offers historians to study change over time in the real world. It may offer a lesson about politics, too.  At Charlottesville in 2017, a fascist demonstration took place, ostensibly to defend a statue of Robert E. Lee. After Charlottesville, far-right operative Steve Bannon claimed that removing monuments would wreck the Democratic Party. However, Joe Biden not only has been elected nationally, he easily won Virginia.  VMI should move forward with squelching racism on campus.  The school has another opportunity to change.  It even has the opportunity to make progress faster than its neighbor and sometimes rival, Washington and Lee University.


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