Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Fascism and Chivalry in the Confederate Monuments of Richmond

Protestors gather at the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia on June 4, 2020. Photo: Ryan M. Kelly.

This article is part 44 of The Public Medievalist’s series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Larissa Tracy. Find the rest of the series here.

The death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has ignited a global groundswell of protests decrying systemic police brutality against Black Americans. The Black Lives Matter marches and rallies have forced a reevaluation regarding Confederate statues throughout the United States. These monuments became focal points during several demonstrations. Most were covered in graffiti, and some were toppled by protestors.

Nowhere is this call louder than in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederate States of America.

Along an idyllic tree-lined street—one designated as a “national heritage street”—on the outer edges of this evolving southern city sit four sentinels to the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy.” The “Lost Cause” is one of the great toxic myths of American History, the inaccurate idea that the Confederacy was defeated on the battlefield, but allegedly won the moral argument because its cause was just and heroic. This idea is a bedrock of the white supremacist cancer on the United States’ historical consciousness.

From east to west, you find: J.E.B Stuart, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. They punctuate the early-twentieth century grandeur of Monument Avenue.

These four statues have been sculpted into heroic postures that evoke the memory of their military service—both for and against the United States. But they also invoke a mythologized memory of a medieval past, a chivalric past in which knights became heroes for their deeds and their devotion in the service of their cause.

The fourth monument celebrates not just a man, but a movement. It casts the rebellion against the United States that tore this country apart as an ideal, and creates a legendary narrative that denies that these men committed treason.

They should all be torn down.

The case for and against them

Protestors at the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond Virginia. Photo by the author.

On June 3, 2020, the Richmond City Council signaled support for removing the statues of Stuart, Jackson, and Davis. The next day, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced that the Lee monument will be removed as soon as possible.

The movement to remove or relocate these statues, or to replace them with counterpoint statues, grew in the wake of the Unite the Right rally that resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in 2017, and has re-emerged now as protests have erupted across the world to denounce the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of the police. Those who defend the statues argue two main points:

  1. as a designated “national heritage street,” Monument Avenue should remain untouched, and
  2. these statues reflect “historical heritage.”

Neither argument holds water. These statues were erected in the late 19th and early 20th century to recast the southern cause as something more honorable and noble than the racist desire to maintain slavery. The monuments also deliberately hide the fact that the those who waged this war committed treason. Part of how the statues do that is in their use of medieval-style rhetoric about honor, glory, and sovereignty. They essentially repeat the same language that Confederate leaders used to justify their cause in the early years of the American Civil War.

These monuments, and the gravesite of Jefferson Davis in the nearby Hollywood Cemetery, are all part of the post-Reconstruction rebranding project carried out in large part by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), and intended to paint the racially-motivated cause of the Civil War with a varnish of chivalric idealism. For the better part of forty years, from about 1890 to the late 1920s, the UDC, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and other “heritage” groups erected statues all over the United States—north and south, east and west—to memorialize the men who fought for the Confederacy, and the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy itself.

In a 1946 article in the Atlantic, “Almost Touching the Confederacy,” Richmond-born author James Branch Cabell satirizes the medievalisms perpetuated by southerners in their attempt to rebrand its treason and defeat. In Cabell’s essay, Robert E. Lee is King Arthur, who, when elders spoke of him

“it was in the tones which other, less fortune-favored nations reserve for divinity, because a god, or at any rate a demigod, had come forth from the Northern Neck of Virginia to dwell in the Confederate States of America; and they who spoke had beheld with their own eyes his serene glory. There was no flaw in it when, upon tall iron-gray Traveller, [Lee] had ridden among them, like King Arthur returned from out of Avalon, attended by the resplendent Lancelots and Tristrams and Garoths and Galahads who, once upon a time, had been the other Confederate generals.”

Cabell writes that elders also spoke of Jefferson Davis,

“another sublime and gracious being, who resembled wise Merlin … telling about his downfall, and about his imprisonment in a place which was more discomfortable than Broceliande. All this had happened to Mr. Davis, so you learned gradually, after a great host of very bad people called Yankees, who reminded you of Modred’s ‘great host’ in the last chapter of the book that Uncle Landon gave to you one Christmas, had seized on the fair kingdom which really and truly belonged to General Robert E. Lee.”

Cabell is referring to Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century book Morte Darthur,the basis for most modern Arthurian medievalism. The UDC appropriated the rhetoric of medieval chivalry—heroism, knights, honor, valor, duty—distilled from texts like Malory’s Morte, and through later novels like Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819). In doing this the UDC engaged in a calculated revisionist narrative. With the erection of these statues all across the country, those who actively betrayed the United States could be valorized as defenders of the Constitution. They are recast as “consistent Americans” who were simply acting for a so-called nobler “Lost Cause.”

Richmond’s Monuments to “Southern Chivalry”

The statue of Jefferson Davis on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. Protestors tagged the plinth and put a noose around Davis’ neck. Photo by the author.

The statue of Lee, erected twenty years after his death—in direct contravention of his wishes—was the first to go up. It is a 21-foot high monster on a 40-foot granite pedestal. Located at the time on the outer edge of Richmond City, which was just starting to stretch its legs past the old Confederate defenses to the West, it dominated the landscape. For many in the South, especially Virginia, statues of Lee like this one don’t represent military achievements, (which were not actually all that laudable) but the god-like stature he assumed after his death. His statue was followed by one of J.E.B. Stuart in 1907, and those of Jefferson Davis and “Stonewall” Jackson in 1919. There are two other statues, one to Matthew Fontaine Maury (oceanographer who resigned from the US Navy to serve the Confederacy) unveiled in 1929, and one to Arthur Ashe (African American tennis player and HIV activist) placed in 1996 in an attempt to counter the Confederate narrative of the other five. The official explanation is that Maury’s statue reflects his achievements as an oceanographer and scientist before the war, rather than his time as Chief of Sea Coast, River, and Harbor Defenses for the Confederate Navy.

The inscription on Stuart’s statue proclaims that he “gave his life for his country and saved this city from capture.” It was erected by his “comrades” and the City of Richmond. It quotes Robert E. Lee’ announcement of Stuart’s death: “His grateful countrymen will mourn his loss and cherish his memory to his comrades-in-arms he has left the proud recollection of his deeds and the inspiring influence of his example.” This valorizing eulogy epitomizes the idea of chivalric sacrifice and fellowship appropriated from medieval romances like the Morte. At the very end of Book 21, Sir Ector eulogizes Lancelot as

“ahead of all Christian knights … never matched by the hand of earthly knights … the most courteous knight that ever bore a shield … the truest friend to your lover that ever bestrode a horse … the kindest man that ever struck with sword … the goodliest person that ever came among press of knights … the meekest man and the gentlest that ever ate in hall among ladies … the sternest knight to your mortal foe that ever put a spear in their breast” (my translation).

The monument to Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by the author.

Davis’ monument, which incorporates a neo-classical design of thirteen Doric columns representing the eleven states that seceded from the United States and two that sent delegates to the Confederate Congress, dominates its roundabout on Monument Avenue. The UDC was responsible for its placement and its final form. It is adorned with medieval-style shields and battle-flags, and sentiments similar to those mocked by Cabell.

The Davis monument commemorates not only his tenure as Confederate President, but the whole idea of the Confederacy as an allegedly noble but lost cause. One plaque lauds the Army of the Confederate States for:

“Four years of unflinching struggle against overwhelming odds. Glory ineffable these around their dear land wrapping wrapt around themselves the purple mantle of death. Dying, they died not at all, but, from the grave and its shadows, valor invincible lifts them glorified ever on high.”

While another one celebrates the Navy of the Confederate States for

“[g]iving new examples of heroism, teaching new methods of warfare, it carried the flag of the South to the most distant seas. If to die nobly be ever the proudest glory of virtue, this of all men has fortune greatly granted to them, for, yearning with deep desire to clothe their country with freedom now at the last they rest full of an ageless fame.”

Davis himself takes the central role like a chivalric king, willing to sacrifice for his cause, just as Cabell suggested. On the pedestal of Davis’ statue, the inscription—partially in Latin, no less—reads:

“Exponent of Constitutional Principles, Defender of the Rights of States, Crescit Occulto Velut Arbor Aevo Fama [may it grow as a tree through the ages] … As citizen, soldier, stateman, he enhanced the glory and enlarged the fame of the United States. When his allegiance to that government was terminated by his sovereign state, as President of the Confederate States he exalted his country before nations … With constancy and courage unsurpassed, he sustained the heavy burden laid upon him by his people. When their cause was lost, with dignity he met defeat, with fortitude he endured imprisonment and suffering, with entire devotion he kept the faith.”

The inscription, especially with its Latin, re-envisions Davis as the glorious architect of a noble but unsuccessful undertaking which required the termination of his allegiance to the United States without any tarnish to his honor.

The statue on top of the column that rises behind him—a female figure called Vindicatrix—the “Spirit of the South”—bears the inscription “Deo Vindice” [God will Vindicate]. This suggests that, even in military defeat, the South will be morally vindicated. It’s the mission statement of the racist, treasonous Lost Cause.

White nationalists at Charlottesville and across the United States have heeded this call. Those opposed to this message of racism and terrorism, have taken some of these statues down.

The grave of Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by the author.

The monument to Davis models the rhetoric of faithful chivalric sacrifice that is also etched on his nearby tombstone. It lies in his family burial plot in Hollywood Cemetery, over which flies the third national flag of the Confederacy and a statue very similar to the one found on Monument Avenue. This statue was erected in 1899, ten years after his death, by his wife and daughter. It faces the city that Davis evacuated and lost in 1865. Since then the UDC has inducted his female relatives into their order and placed plaques there commemorating them as “real daughters” of the Confederacy as recently as 1997.

The front of the statue’s pedestal records his service to the United States, while the back celebrates his disservice to the US as President of the Confederacy:

“Faithful to all trusts, a martyr to principle, he lived and died the most consistent of American soldiers and statesmen. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

Like the prominent display on Monument Avenue, the rhetoric on Davis’s statue at his gravesite perpetuates the myth of the “Lost Cause” by appropriating the language of medieval heroism and martyrdom, while also promising that the cause will not remain lost. As Director of Jewish Studies and Professor of English at Eastern Michigan University Martin Shichtman and Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Kenyon College Laurie Finke write in their article “Exegetical History: Nazis at the Round Table,” “the knight also stands prepared to re-claim, by force, his inheritance, all that belonged to him and his kind in ‘the old days,’ prepared to bring about the restoration of a time when men of chivalric orders ruled without question” (284).

Casting the Old South as the New Round Table

A stained glass window of a southerner dressed as a medieval knight, designed by the Tiffany Studios in New York and commissioned by the Alabama division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy at the height of the cult of the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy.” It currently is installed in Hoole library at the University of Alabama.

The monuments in Richmond are hardly alone in their use of medieval rhetoric and imagery in an attempt to rehabilitate the Confederacy. Most of them do so through the invented idea of “southern chivalry” and by recasting Confederates as Arthurian knights.

Chivalry is an invented concept in which sovereignty and fidelity feature heavily. At the end of Book Three in Malory’s Morte, King Arthur invents an oath for his men in response to a particularly unfortunate series of adventures that ends with one of his best knights (and his nephew) Gawain wearing a woman’s severed head around his neck. In this Pentecostal Oath, the knights swear

“never to do outrage or murder and always flee treason; also, by no mean be cruel but to give mercy to whomever asks for it upon pain of forfeiting their honor and the lordship of King Arthur for evermore, and always give ladies, damsels, and gentlewomen succor upon pain of death; also, no man shall accept battles in a wrongful quarrel for no law nor for worldly goods” (my translation).

All the Knights of the Round Table swear this oath every year at the high feast of Pentecost and are bound by its tenets. The inscription on Davis’ tomb recalls this language by casting him as “Faithful to all trusts, a martyr to principle”, and the monument repeats these claims.

The Confederacy, both in the lead up to secession in 1860 and in the period of Reconstruction from 1865 to 1877, appropriated the idea of chivalry to elevate its cause to one of heroic idealism. There is an unsavory kinship, in Shichtman and Finke’s words, between Confederate soldiers and romanticized medieval knights. This kinship is found in the rhetoric of glorious vindication etched on the monuments to the so-called Southern cause.

For example, the rhetoric of chivalric devotion—infused with ultra-nationalist and militaristic rhetoric—was consistently deployed in the idealized myths of the Old South. This was the bedrock of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ “Corner Stone” speech which he delivered March 21, 1861. He urges the Confederate States facing the possibility of war to “keep your armor bright and your powder dry.” He lays out the changes made to the Constitution by the new Confederate government, retaining “the great principles of Magna Charta [sic]” in which no citizen “is deprived of life, liberty, or property, but by the judgment of his peers under the laws of the land.” He asserts that “All the essentials of the old constitution, which have endeared it to the hearts of the American people, have been preserved and perpetuated.”

But in order to achieve this, Stephens claims a “greater truth” of racial inequality. He wrote that the foundations of the Confederate government

“are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

To support his assertion, he argued that feudalism did the same thing, but to people of the same race—which he saw as a violation of natural law:

“Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system.”

These southern medievalisms were revived by the placement of statues like those in Richmond. The construction of the South’s “cause” as some noble, medieval quest was meant, not as a record of history, but as a way of justifying white supremacy, treason, and rebellion. The medievalisms dressed up the motives for the war as something other than the preservation of slavery.

After the war, as freed slaves were allowed to vote with the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and were elected to state legislatures, the Southern “cause” began to lose ground. The UDC sought to bolster enthusiasm for that cause by planting reminders of “heroic” sacrifice across the country. They were joined by the Ku Klux Klan who embraced the image of chivalric knights as a so-called invisible empire.

The Medieval Fantasy of White Supremacy

The upper echelons of southern society that propelled the South towards secession and reframed the narrative post-war used a fantasy of the Middle Ages and its vision of aristocratic privilege. They took it as a model for their own assertion of state sovereignty and the right to maintain slavery and racial oppression. The fantasy of medieval chivalry fueled the creation and continuation of the Ku Klux Klan. This medievalism persists in the current desire of white nationalists, many of whom wave the Confederate flag and carry “medieval” shields painted with fake runes, to defend the statues to this fantasy against removal.

The narrative of chivalry on monuments like Jefferson Davis’s gravesite and the Davis memorial on Monument Avenue is meant to wipe out any sense of treason by making “the cause” seem heroic. These monuments, like every monument placed by the UDC at the turn of the century, were acts of violence meant to maintain white supremacy in their distortions of honor. The medievalism of the “Lost Cause” unsuccessfully attempts to exonerate traitors and to recast those who fought for the South as the most true and noble knights, with these monuments as sentinels to their racism and treason.

Now, adorned with anti-racist slogans, these monuments speak with a different voice—one that denounces the hatred they have promoted for more than a hundred years. Removing the statues and leaving the spray-painted plinths will create new monuments, ones that correct the fake-chivalric narrative of the past and look to a more-just future.

1 Comment

  1. Wonderful article. I also love the idea of leaving the statues with the spray paint on to turn them into more appropriate monuments.

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