In July, a 62-year-old white man named Frank Earnest, one of the country’s most ardent defenders of Confederate monuments, traveled 200 miles from his Virginia home to Washington, D.C., and got in line at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. You could say he stood out among the throng of visitors, most of them black. At 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, Frank sported a thatch of chin whiskers straight from a daguerreotype — an ample goatee reminiscent of that of Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett, a rebel hero of his. In the lobby, as he emptied his pockets at a metal detector, I waited for the attendant, a cordial woman, to notice his key fob, bearing the Confederate flag and the legend “Don’t Mess With Dixie.”
She flashed him a wary glance: “Don’t mess with Dixie? What’s that supposed to mean?” Frank, a spokesman for the nation’s largest Confederate heritage group, replied evenly, “Means don’t mess with Dixie.” Otherwise, he managed to hold his tongue, a triumph of willpower in his case. With the legacy of his rebel ancestors under constant assault by “nutty liberals,” and with the future of Confederate monuments in jeopardy, he is easily irritated and given to bitter sarcasm. As usual, Frank, in a gray suit, wore an array of Confederacy-themed lapel pins, including two replicas of the flag. I suggested he take them off to avoid any hard feelings in the museum, but he refused. “It would be hypocritical of me,” he declared, breathing heavily as he lumbered toward an escalator. Frank, who is slowed by dire respiratory ailments, paused to rest against a wall, and as he leaned there, defiantly unreconstructed, he seemed a museum piece in his own right, a living relic up from the post-bellum ashes.
I had invited him here for a specific purpose — the same reason I had been spending time with him over the previous 10 months, trekking to far-flung Confederate historical sites. Frank is “chief of heritage defense” for the Virginia Sons of Confederate Veterans. Like others in the Sons, he insists that he is not racist and that the Civil War was not, fundamentally, about slavery. These days, you can find men (and women) like him at government meetings all over the South, fighting to keep Old Dixie, in granite and bronze, alive in the public square. You can hear them espousing a pseudo-history, the gauzy fiction of the Lost Cause, which soft-pedals the atrocities of slavery and accentuates Confederate grievance and gallantry.
As these local disputes play out, you can also hear the president of the United States defend Confederate statues as “beautiful,” as he seeks (successfully, it appears) to capitalize politically on neo-Confederate dogma. And you can hear the White House chief of staff describe Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee as “an honorable man” who “gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country.”
By spending time with Frank, I thought I might learn something about the persistence of monument defenders and the origins of their beliefs, which many Americans (me included) regard as offensive nonsense. In 2018, against all moral logic, why do Confederate sympathizers cling to debunked nostalgia? And can their attitudes be changed or tempered — in a museum or elsewhere — by evidence and facts?
On this summer morning at the African American history museum, we set out to tour the “Slavery and Freedom” gallery. Three centuries into the exhibit, after we had made our way from the 1400s to the Revolutionary War, Frank stopped at a display titled “Black Patriots” and “Black Loyalists.”
It was obvious by then that he wasn’t experiencing the museum viscerally; rather, he was inspecting the place for his notion of accuracy and balance. “See this?” he said. “You had blacks on both sides in the Revolution. … Blacks weren’t all thinking the same.” He and his heritage brethren contend that, likewise, legions of blacks chose to fight for the South in the Civil War — a dubious assertion. “So where’s the window with the Confederate colored troops?” he demanded. When agitated, Frank tends to forget his indoor voice. Towering over a flock of African American children in front of the glass, some of whom looked up, he said to me: “Well? Where is it?”
I muttered, “C’mon, Frank,” hoping we could move along, but he scowled. “They just don’t want to admit it.” Nor, when we got to 1859, could he find any mention of Heywood Shepherd, an African American railroad worker in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., who was the first man slain by John Brown’s band of marauding abolitionists. “Why am I not surprised they left that out?”
And on we went. “You know something else they don’t have in here?” he said a while later, and I cringed. We had arrived at “Emancipation,” near the end of the exhibit, and the corridor was filled with reverent visitors. “Feel free to please show me: Where is the Union Army recruiting poster that says, ‘Join the army and free the slaves’? If that was the cause, where’s the poster? … You know it’s not here, don’t you? Because there wasn’t one!”
Two hours had gone by, and it was time for Frank to be heading home to Virginia Beach. Before we started up a long ramp leading to the exits, he paused next to a slave cabin, resting his lungs for the climb. “I’ve been trying to walk around to build stamina for this,” he said of the tour. As he stood at the foot of the ramp, wheezing after his journey through “Slavery and Freedom,” I thanked him for coming. He waved a beefy hand and said to think nothing of it: “I would gladly drop dead on this floor to do my duty for the Confederacy.”
Frank and I first met in September 2017 in a courtroom in Charlottesville, where he was immersed in a lawsuit aimed at stopping the city from taking down giant statues of Lee and another rebel demigod, Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. It had been two years since Dylann Roof, a Confederate sympathizer brimming with racist hate, walked into a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., and fatally shot nine African Americans — a massacre that prompted a wave of monument removals in communities across the South. And only a few weeks had gone by since swarms of white supremacists descended on Charlottesville for a “Unite the Right” rally, nominally in support of the endangered Lee sculpture. Amid riotous clashes with counterprotesters that August day, a self-professed neo-Nazi allegedly rammed his car into another vehicle on a crowded street, killing a woman and injuring 35 other people.
By then, the lawsuit, filed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other plaintiffs, had been in a local court for months, moving glacially toward a trial (now scheduled for January 2019). Frank, serving as a liaison between the heritage group and its Charlottesville attorneys, was sitting in the courtroom’s front row, listening to pretrial arguments. From his Pickett whiskers and lapel pins, it was easy to tell whose side he was on. We chatted during a recess, and he kept assuring me that he was not a racist. He said he was “disgusted” by the supremacists’ rally, which he had watched on TV at home. In the courtroom, as if on cue, a stocky fellow in a Confederate T-shirt walked up to him and gushed, “I just want to shake your hand!” Frank replied, “Sir, I’d prefer not to,” and the man, unfazed, shrugged and went back to his seat. “Know why I did that?” Frank said quietly. “He’s Klan. I won’t tolerate that nonsense.”
As we got better acquainted that week, he explained to me why he thought the Civil War happened, beginning with his core belief that slavery wasn’t the main reason for the conflict. Instead, he argued, secession was a constitutionally permissible response to years of unfair tariffs and taxes imposed on the South by a tyrannical federal government.
Frank considers most journalists to be misguided liberals, and he said he wouldn’t be surprised if I harbored anti-Confederate sentiments. I told him, politely, that the narrative he believes in is an ancient load of bull — that it was promoted by the Confederacy’s adult offspring, the architects of Jim Crow, to burnish their fathers’ legacy and help foster the rebirth of legalized white supremacism in late-19th-century Dixie. Frank said nah, that’s not true. So I said I’d let him tell me his side of the story. I said, “You can explain to me why I’m wrong.”
His house in Virginia Beach is in a tidy 1970s subdivision. “Look for the flag,” he bellowed over the phone before my first visit. The flag, a replica of Lee’s 1862-63 headquarters pennant, flies day and night atop a pole out front. Spotlights illuminate it in the evenings, which not every neighbor appreciates. Frank’s Ford pickup was in the driveway, with its “CF” vanity plate, for “Confederate Frank.” A Johnny Reb garden statue stands in the mulch, and a placard on the porch reads, “The occupants of this residence are citizens of the Confederate States of America,” in case that wasn’t entirely clear. I rang the bell, which chimes “Dixie,” and Frank appeared, filling the door frame. He squinted at me, as if mulling whether to waste his time, then plodded toward his kitchen, growling, “All right … you might as well get in here.”
Before we even sat down, he reiterated his position on the Charlottesville chaos. “Two opposing groups of radical crazies that don’t understand a thing about Confederate history,” was how he put it. He meant the hundreds of ethno-fascists who, in his telling, besmirched Old Dixie by co-opting the city’s Lee sculpture for their rage parade. He said it pained him to see the Confederate flag divorced from its “heroic” origin and wedded to raw hate by white supremacists. And he also meant the hundreds of counterprotesters, most of whom, being “silly” progressives, are ignorant of the truth about the noble secessionist cause.
There was a newspaper open on the kitchen table, and, as he lowered himself into a chair, he jabbed a finger at an opinion column. “Just reading how they banned ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ” he said. A Memphis theater had announced that after 34 years, it would stop screening the film at an annual festival because the movie romanticizes the slaveholding South. “Shut down movies! … Take down our monuments! …” When Frank gets loud, his ailing lungs won’t abide it, and he is wracked by fits of desperate coughing. “I have an odd idea about this country,” he said after catching his breath. “We’re a free country! So if you don’t —”
“Oh, good morning!” his wife, Billie Earnest, said brightly, strolling into the kitchen and smiling at me. “Would you care for coffee?”
“If you don’t like something,” Frank went on, “don’t go see it! They act like —”
“Easy, bud,” said Billie, 70, shooting him a fretful look. A few years back, she ordered a coffin-sized rebel flag for Frank after she read that a manufacturer would be halting production. She worries he’ll keel over one day in the midst of a rant, leaving her a Confederate widow.
“Billie will tell you! Tell him! They act like history never happened!”
The inside of his home, like the outside, is a shrine, the rooms filled with Confederate artifacts and tchotchkes from the war’s centennial. Commemorative plates and figurines crowd tables and shelves. Billie has collections of 19th-century kitchen implements and ancestral locks of hair. There are period hats and shoes set out on Victorian furniture; there are combs and ribbons, too fragile to touch.
There’s a cavalry saddle in the parlor that “belonged to this man,” Frank said, gesturing to a sepia photo. “Captain Joseph Shelton, my great-grandfather’s sister’s husband.” Other dyspeptic-looking rebels are framed throughout the house, their pictures taken before the smile was invented. “This is my great-grandfather’s older brother. … This is my great-great-grandfather. … This is my great-great-grandfather’s double first cousin, Eusebius Fowlkes, killed at the Battle of Seven Pines.”
The couple, childless together, has seven cats, most of them named for rebel generals or noted Confederate nurses — but not Prissy, Billie’s favorite, a black-over-white tuxedo cat wandering in our vicinity just then. Prissy is named for the slave girl in “Gone With the Wind” who, in the 1939 film, cries, “Lordy … I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies,” before an enraged Scarlett O’Hara belts her upside the head.
In our travels, Billie, a chapter vice president in the United Daughters of the Confederacy, would often be with us. “He has COPD,” she warned me over coffee while Frank was in another room. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: “Asthma, emphysema, all kinds of things. So he gets winded if he walks or talks too much, or if he gets worked up.” Billie, gentle in the way of a Dixie belle, leaned in close. “He does get worked up. Oh, my, all the time.”
Britton Franklin Earnest, born in 1955, was raised in Norfolk and attended a public high school that had only recently begun accepting African Americans. “The blacks we knew generally had jobs at the same places my parents did,” he told me, hastening to add: “We made sure, at Christmas and Thanksgiving, they had a turkey. I mean, we went out and got them a turkey and took it to them.”
His father, Lionel, who worked in a metal fabrication plant, “was involved in very conservative politics,” Frank said, without elaborating. The civil rights movement greatly vexed Lionel Earnest, who would arrive home from the factory, settle himself in front of the TV news and utter dire predictions for the country. In 1958, after Virginia’s governor closed a half-dozen Norfolk schools rather than see them integrated, Lionel and his wife gladly enrolled Frank’s older sister in a private school.
“Presentism” is a word Frank uses. “By today’s standards, were my parents racists? Yup!” But he won’t hold it against them in memory, just as he won’t condemn the Confederates in his family tree for their 19th-century racial beliefs. When I asked Frank whether his worldview had been shaped by his father’s “very conservative politics,” he paused, then stressed again that he is not a racist. As for civil rights in the current era — including giving deference to multicultural sensitivities — he said he tries to be understanding, despite his aversion to “political correctness.”
Still, in the end, he acknowledged, we are all our parents’ children. “Sometimes in the zeal to give equal rights, the pendulum swings too far,” he said. “That’s where my father was at. This is a horrible example, but it’s like slavery. … I understand if you were a slave, you wanted freedom now. But there were people questioning, ‘How do you just turn them loose?’ You had to prepare them. And I think that really goes to desegregation. My father thought it needed to be incremental, done in a reasonable manner. ‘Let’s not rush into it.’ ”
Confederate Frank was a Navy enlisted man for 20 years and an electrical contractor for 20 years after that, until poor health forced him to retire. Billie, who grew up on a farm south of Richmond, became an X-ray technician after graduating from high school. They were married in 1996 after he caught her eye at a heritage get-together. For the wedding (his second, her third), Frank donned the dress uniform of a Confederate Navy master, and Billie wore a gown fashioned from an 1860 bridal pattern.
Billie has three sons from her first marriage. She said the siblings, all in their 40s, are “aware of their heritage” but “too busy with life” to devote themselves to preserving it. Frank’s son and namesake, from his previous marriage, is a 39-year-old auto mechanic in Norfolk who goes by B.J., for Britton Junior. B.J. told me that as a teenager he had to be “dragged” to Confederate events. Then, about a decade ago, he said, he experienced an epiphany akin to a religious awakening during a pilgrimage with Frank to Gettysburg, Pa. There, in a three-day battle in July 1863, close to 5,000 rebels died in a disastrous defeat that put Lee’s army terminally on its heels.
“We were walking the field of Pickett’s Charge, and all of a sudden Dad got down on one knee,” B.J. recalled. Frank was wearing a Confederate cavalry uniform that day; B.J. was in civvies. “He picked up some dirt and he put it in my hand, and he put his hand over my hand, and he said, ‘Son, there’s blood in this dirt, the blood of our kin — our blood.’ ”
Now B.J. belongs to the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Norfolk camp and has a tattoo on his chest of a flag-waving rebel soldier. He also shares his father’s pessimism for the future of the cause, given the apparent tipping point of the Charleston mass murder. He said, “When I’m as old as Dad is, if I can still see a Confederate monument anywhere, I’ll be surprised.”
At home one evening, Frank got up from his kitchen table and came back with a framed photo, circa 1961. In it, a tow-haired boy of about 6 is outfitted for a make-believe battle — maybe like the Siege of Petersburg, at which an ancestral cousin of his fell. His rifle is a toy Sharps carbine. Strapped to his waist are a holstered cap pistol and a plastic saber in a sheath. His belt buckle is stamped “CSA,” for Confederate States of America, and atop his head sits a reproduction of a rebel soldier’s kepi.
“Earliest known photo of Confederate Frank,” said Confederate Frank, and he thought again of his father, long deceased. “He used to tell me as a child, he’d say the South was just taking a rest from the war. He said we were going to secede again, and he and I could have a footrace down to the recruiting office. We’d see who’d have the honor of being first to sign up for the new Confederate army.”
According to the gospel of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, President Abraham Lincoln ordered an invasion of the breakaway states not as a crusade for natural rights but to keep the union intact and perpetuate the federal government’s economic bullying of the South. As for human bondage, the practice had been dying organically worldwide, and, in due course, it would have ended in Dixie without bloodshed — incrementally, in a reasonable manner, the way Lionel Earnest thought desegregation should have occurred.
And it’s true that a few weeks before hostilities began in 1861, the Confederacy’s vice president, Alexander Stephens, declared in a speech, “This old thorn of the tariff, which was the cause of so much irritation in the old body politic, is removed forever from the new.” Yet it’s also true that in the same address, he said of his insurrectionist government: “Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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.”
One Saturday while we were traveling in rural Virginia, with Billie at the wheel of her minivan, Frank, sitting beside her, turned to me in the back and said, “Am I right in assuming you’ve heard of the Tariff of Abominations?” I pretended it sounded familiar.
“A tariff is placed on the Southern states,” he said, “and it’s so onerous they call it the Tariff of Abominations. South Carolina says remove the tariff or we’ll secede. The president says you can’t and sends additional troops to Fort Sumter. South Carolina responds by raising their own troops. Now, what’s the year?”
When Confederate Frank pops a history quiz, the answers are usually counterintuitive. It’s a favorite rhetorical ploy of his.
I said, “I’m guessing 1861,” which I knew was too obvious.
“Try 1829! And the president is Andy Jackson!”
I consulted my iPhone. “Wikipedia says 1832, the Ordinance of —”
“All right, all right, maybe I misspoke — my point being, as you can see, the pot was boiling for quite some time.”
We were motoring along, bound for a distant hamlet called Skeetertown, near the North Carolina border. In the back of the Dodge Caravan were new rebel flags for the Confederate graves in a burial ground there, deep in woods off a tire-track road. It used to be that you could buy these little Confederate pennants at any hardware store in the South, Frank said. Now Billie has to order them online. In the driver’s seat, Billie was navigating on her own, past barren cotton patches, past dilapidated mobile homes. Frank is befuddled by Google Maps and might have gotten us lost.
“Wayles Hurt was the boy’s name,” he told me during the trip, meaning his 17-year-old ancestral cousin killed at the Siege of Petersburg. “A brave, brave boy, Wayles Hurt.” As the story goes, Wayles was a home-guard lieutenant shot off a horse while carrying a message through Yankee fire. “Now I have to hear a bunch of crap that that boy cared about nothing but keeping slavery. ‘Oh, he didn’t care about his mother, his sister. He wasn’t out there protecting them.’ ‘Aww, go ahead, rape them, who cares? Burn my house! Just as long as you don’t take my slaves away’ — which, of course, he didn’t own any! The boy was fighting for his family and his state. I get so sick of hearing it.”
Billie, glancing at me in her rearview mirror, added, “I have at least nine Confederate soldiers’ blood running in my veins, and not one of them ever had a slave.”
Frank sat silently for a while, gazing out a window at the passing countryside, then said: “The Virginia history we were taught, they didn’t teach us we were evil and we should be ashamed. … We were taught that just as in the first War of Independence, when we stood up to King George III, our ancestors saw the federal government as a tyranny … and they stood up.” He said, “I have a book I’ll show you when we get home.”
Later, in his den, he pulled it down from a shelf — his eighth-grade civics book, titled “Virginia: History, Government, Geography,” copyright 1957, featuring cover illustrations of three U.S. presidents from Virginia, plus Robert E. Lee. About 150 of its 600 pages are devoted to “the War Between the States,” or “the great war between the North and the South,” or “the struggle for Southern independence.” The chapters on the 19th century are a model of Lost Cause literature for adolescent readers. Nowhere does the term “Civil War” appear.
The dog-eared volume, feathered with sticky notes, is a resource for Frank in preparing the lectures he occasionally delivers at heritage assemblies. After recounting the Old South’s economic grievances, which still feel fresh to Confederate Frank, the authors described “How the Negroes Lived Under Slavery” in Virginia. Frank and his classmates were taught that, as a rule, the basic personal needs of slaves were humanely seen to by their overseers. Thus, “a strong feeling of affection existed between masters and slaves,” and the slaves “went about in a cheerful manner.”
Chapter 30: In 1831, a bloody slave revolt in Virginia, led by Nat Turner, who was given to “strange visions,” coincided with the growth of abolitionism in the North and its “abusive” propaganda. Out of necessity, “It became unlawful to teach Negroes to read or write because of the fear that they would get dangerous ideas from the books and newspapers of the Abolitionists.” Other privileges also had to be curtailed, for the good of all concerned.
I looked for the chapter about summary hangings of recalcitrant runaways, about floggings and other brutal punishments inflicted after underproductive days in the fields. As Frank might say, “Why am I not surprised they left that out?” Slave labor, an economic engine of agrarian Dixie, wasn’t exactly free labor; a planter had to buy, feed, clothe and house his subjugated workforce. And he guarded his profit margin with a whip when necessary. I searched the textbook in vain for this bit of gruesome history.
Chapter 32: When the Republican Party, ideological home of tariff zealots, gained the White House in 1860, in the person of Lincoln, Southerners knew that “the time for action” had come. Having “joined the Union of their own free will,” they “believed that the Constitution gave them the right to leave the Union of their own free will.”
On another afternoon, while we were touring Confederate sites in Virginia Beach, Billie parked her minivan near a monument in front of an old municipal building, and the three of us got out. The memorial, a statue of a soldier on a 20-foot pedestal, had recently been the scene of an anti-racism rally by the Hampton Roads/Eastern Shore chapter of the Progressive Democrats of America. “Bunch of weird liberals,” Frank groused as he and Billie inspected the statue for vandalism, finding it undamaged. He quickly grew agitated — “Nobody’s offended until somebody tells them they need to be offended!” — and the harangue brought on one of his coughing spells. As he bent forward, palms on the pedestal, Billie reached to soothe him, whispering, “Easy, bud.”
“We’re not claiming bad things never happened,” he finally said, after pocketing his rescue inhaler, “but it wasn’t all whippings and killings, either.” This echoed a lesson from the eighth grade, page 401, about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The 1852 abolitionist novel “described scenes of horrible cruelty which were supposed to have grown out of slavery,” the textbook says. “Southern people knew that the [novel] gave a false picture. A Richmond magazine said that it was wicked for Mrs. Stowe to use her imagination in such a bad way.”
With most able-bodied white men off fighting, the authors wrote, “the Negroes could easily have run away.” Yet they “remained loyal to their white mistresses even after President Lincoln promised in his Emancipation Proclamation that the slaves would be freed.” The historic decree — which isn’t discussed anywhere else in the book — was issued after 21 months of war. Frank said he will argue to his “dying breath” that it was conceived as an appeal to anti-slavery sentiment in the European public, to discourage England and France from recognizing the Confederacy.
Although his adult readings about the war extend far beyond a junior high civics book, Frank has little use for most modern academic historians. He mentioned Princeton’s James M. McPherson, an eminent critic of Lost Cause ideology, as being especially irksome. “A lot of people think if you have half the alphabet after your name, you’re automatically right on everything,” he said. His favorite historian, Douglas Southall Freeman, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1935 for an admiring, multivolume biography of Lee. Like most Civil War historians of his era, Freeman belonged to the Lost Cause school, and today his ideas are in scholarly disrepute.
It took some convincing on my part, and official permission from Billie, before Frank let me borrow his antiquarian textbook so I could peruse it at home. Handing it over hesitantly, he warned me to bring it back. “I’m glad I saved this,” he said. And Billie nodded, saying, “Because it’s the truth.”
In 2000, nine years after he joined the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Frank took part in his first big mobilization. Back then, the debate over Confederate iconography focused mainly on displays of rebel flags at public buildings. The Confederate flag had been flying above the State House dome in Columbia, S.C., since 1962, first hoisted as a middle finger to the civil rights movement, or simply to commemorate the war’s centennial, depending on whom you asked. With the NAACP threatening a tourism boycott unless South Carolina officials removed the banner, busloads of flag supporters showed up, staging rallies and pressuring lawmakers to resist.
Although the Sons’ national leaders had been trying to distance the group from its segregationist past (“Heritage not hate” was their slogan), their bedfellows in Columbia included the League of the South and the Council of Conservative Citizens, both overtly racist. The league and the council, unlike the Sons, are classified as hate groups by the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremist organizations. In the end, the heritage defenders left town happy: While the flag disappeared from the State House dome, another rebel flag, even more visible, went up elsewhere on the grounds, atop a 30-foot pole. “Oh, they swore to us it would fly forever,” Frank recalled.
Confederate Frank climbed the Sons’ ranks in the 2000s: camp commander, brigade commander, division commander, international chief of heritage defense and commander of the Army of Northern Virginia (Lee’s old title!), meaning he was the Sons’ top man for the eastern United States and Europe. That made him a prime candidate to run for national commander in chief, until the Sons’ internal politics, opaque and byzantine to most outsiders, conspired to deny him a nomination.
In 2007, he became a monument himself, after another heritage group decided to finish a partially built memorial in a Norfolk graveyard, installing a statue on a pedestal that had stood empty since 1912. Clad as a rebel infantryman, Frank posed for photos so that sculptors could get the details right. You can see him there now above the headstones — a leaner fellow rendered life-size, more or less, in a half-ton of granite, with his slouch hat and flinty visage, an eternal sentinel for the Confederate dead in Elmwood Cemetery.
We were traveling deep in Virginia one afternoon, skirting the Great Dismal Swamp on the way to a different graveyard, when we passed a hotel. Frank said, “Right over there — that’s where I found out I was division commander,” the No. 1 Confederate in the state. This was years ago at a convention of the Virginia Sons, before a shelf full of lung medicines ballooned his weight to 300 pounds. The election had been close, and afterward, savoring victory, he stood on the hotel veranda in the sweet spring air, gazing at the Nansemond River as a trio of serenading fiddlers played “Rose of Alabamy.” He thought, “It don’t get any better’n this.” And it sure hasn’t.
Out to dinner one night, Frank, exasperated, put down his fork and cocked an eye at me. “What, now you’re going to hold Reconstruction against us, too?”
We were arguing about the provenance of rebel memorials — why most of them weren’t erected until the early part of the 20th century, after the birth of Jim Crow. To monument foes, it means that Confederate statues stand for the reemergence of institutionalized white supremacism in the South. Ignoring his seafood platter, Frank got riled, insisting that “the boot heel of Northern oppressors” was the real reason it took so long. “You ruined us after the war — robbed us! And it was 50 years before we had the money to put these up — now you’re blaming us for waiting 50 years!”
Right after the war ended in 1865, the dominant wing of the Republican Party, the self-dubbed Radicals, controlled Congress, and its members moved aggressively to promote full political participation for freed blacks. From the mid-1860s into the 1870s, empowered by the Radicals’ Reconstruction acts and new constitutional amendments, blacks in Dixie voted (strictly Republican) and won elections in large numbers. Republicans soon ruled Southern politics, with hundreds of blacks holding state and local offices. Some even made it to Washington.
Angry ex-Confederates waged a murderous resistance to the new equality, including a reign of fear by the Ku Klux Klan in its original incarnation. Gradually, as the Radicals’ power waned, Reconstruction was abandoned, and by 1877 old-line Democrats had regained control of the South, restoring the antebellum, whites-only political order. Starting in the 1890s, eager to ensure that biracial governance would not afflict them again, these Southern Democrats, the so-called Redeemers, built the racist legal bulwark of Jim Crow, codifying the exclusion of blacks from civic and economic life.
Meanwhile, the Confederacy’s grown children set about trying to rewrite their fathers’ legacy. The Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy were founded in the 1890s. Around dinner tables and campfires, and in white classrooms, a stirring tale was told of chivalry and fortitude — the enduring creed of the Lost Cause. At the same time, a similarly distorted history of Reconstruction took root, asserting that Southern whites had been victimized not only by the war, but by the peace. The way the Redeemers told it, black officeholders, corrupted by greedy Yankee carpetbaggers, had prolonged the agony of war-ruined Dixie, bringing 12 years of crippling mismanagement and larceny to Reconstruction governments. “Punishment is what it was,” Billie said calmly, sitting with us in the restaurant, enjoying her flounder.
By the early 1900s, this pseudo-history of the war and its aftermath was cemented in academic curriculums, and it would stay there for decades, until the flowering of the modern civil rights movement. You can find it today in Frank’s eighth-grade textbook.
Confederate apologists think that the foisting of black suffrage on the defeated South, purportedly resulting in wholesale waste and thievery, was an act of Yankee vengeance. Although Frank assured me, again, that he is not a racist, he said I needed to realize: Freed slaves were woefully unprepared for civic responsibility. He said political integration should have been accomplished incrementally, in a reasonable manner. As Lionel Earnest would say 100 years after the war, “Let’s not rush into it.”
Most modern scholars cast Reconstruction in a positive light overall, describing a lofty but thwarted effort to enforce the ideals of Emancipation, and say stories of official malfeasance were exaggerated by Lost Cause historians. In the restaurant, Frank wasn’t buying it. “Liberals just come up with the silliest stuff!” he declared, not quite loudly enough for every patron to hear. “Like, ‘Oh, you waited until Jim Crow to put these up; it’s all racism; it’s white supremacy.’ People don’t —”
“Easy, bud —”
“People think it was public money. No! … It was donations that paid for them. And like we had the money two days after Appomattox to start building monuments!”
With Jim Crow burgeoning in the new century, violent white supremacism was rampant at the time of the war’s 50th anniversary. Lynchings and other forms of terrorism were epidemic. In 1915, filmmaker D.W. Griffith, son of a rebel colonel, released “The Birth of a Nation,” a luridly racist box-office smash that heroized the Reconstruction-era Klan and helped spur a huge resurgence of the dormant Invisible Empire. These were the years, from about 1900 through the 1920s, when the tragic glory of the Confederacy was firmly settled in popular imagination — when a sorry past became a proud heritage. And these were the years when a majority of the Confederate monuments in America went up, like crowns of the Old South’s redemption.
In Charlottesville, the equestrian statues of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, donated by a philanthropist, were installed in 1921 and 1924, respectively. By then, nearly 60 years after the South had surrendered, the Confederacy’s sins had been cleansed from memory in a small city steeped in Jim Crow racism. To celebrate the Lee unveiling, the knights of a new local fraternal order, Klan No. 9, burned a cross on a mountain and marched along Main Street in their robes and hoods — not the last public outpouring of white supremacism Charlottesville would witness. There were no counterprotesters then, just “an immense throng of spectators” jamming sidewalks “in eagerness to see the parade of the Ku Klux Klan,” the press reported.
Almost a century later, in communities all over the South, Dylann Roof’s murderous rampage prompted civic introspection and a reckoning with unlovely history. The rebel banner on the State House grounds in Columbia, flying 30 feet high since 2000, was the first major icon to disappear, three weeks after the gunshots. “They not only took the flag down,” Frank lamented, “they yanked out the pole the same day, to make sure it would never go up again.” And in Charlottesville, the City Council voted unanimously to have the two bronze generals dismantled and trucked away — which will happen if the city wins the lawsuit.
The two sides aren’t litigating the cultural appropriateness of the monuments. At issue is a 1904 Virginia law that generally prohibits the removal or altering of public war memorials. The heritage defenders argue that the law applies to the Lee and Jackson statues; the city contends it does not. The plaintiffs say the law even forbids “new interpretive information” at the sites, which Frank assumes would amount to “a bunch of liberal crap about how evil my ancestors were.”
One February morning, Frank and I were back in Charlottesville for a hearing in the case. An hour before it started, we stood in a chill wind in the former Lee Park, now Market Street Park, staring up 26 feet at a sculpture we couldn’t see. Municipal workers had draped a huge black tarp — “a trash bag,” Frank called it — over Lee and his beloved steed. Confederate Frank’s mood was extra sour. The tarp (since removed by judicial order) annoyed him. Plus, on the drive from Virginia Beach, we had heard on the radio that Kings Dominion would be changing the name of its Rebel Yell roller coaster. “It’s reached the point of ludicrous,” he grumbled, then looked at me, asking, “Wouldn’t you agree?”
During our travels, after many a Lost Cause lecture, Frank had implored, “Now, do you see the logic?” Again and again, he had beseeched, “Doesn’t that make sense?” But it never did. In the park that day, I told him (not for the first time) what I thought of his nostalgia. I said he was so enamored of his forebears’ soldierly mettle that he was downplaying the institution of human bondage, as if slavery and the rebel cause weren’t inextricable. I remembered McPherson, a historian with half the alphabet after his name, ridiculing this “virgin birth” notion of the Confederacy. I told Frank that the statue in the trash bag conjured images of African captives on the auction block.
Of course this got his dander up: “Wrong! … Wrong premise!” Then, after a few minutes, we turned and headed for the courthouse, side by side yet worlds apart.
Why does Frank Earnest hold so fervently to a misbegotten rendition of history? It was clear to me that his convictions are informed by his upbringing and by illusionary cultural memory. Yet there are plenty of people of Frank’s age and background — children of segregationists, students of mid-20th-century public schools stocked with anachronistic textbooks — who scoff at his moonlight-and-magnolias mythology. It’s impossible to say for sure what keeps him grounded in a fanciful past — but this much I know: You can’t change his mind. I already tried.
On our final trip together, a few months ago, we visited Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Va. It was Sept. 22: “Dick Poplar Day 2018,”a yearly ceremony honoring Pvt. Richard Poplar of the Sussex Light Dragoons. Poplar is a hero of rebel lore, held dear in Lost Cause hearts for having acquitted himself splendidly in the crucible of a Yankee POW camp — and because he was a black man who served the Confederacy. In asserting, contentiously, that hundreds of blacks volunteered for Lee’s army, Frank and his comrades point to Poplar as emblematic.
As Frank stopped his pickup at the foot of a knoll, he was flustered to see only 15 people assembled at Poplar’s headstone on a gorgeous Indian summer Saturday. “This must be … I don’t … normally there’s a band … that’s 10 times smaller than I’ve ever. … ” When we joined the gathering, the organizer, a fellow named Ashleigh, was apologizing, saying he’d been busy with this and that, and he’d neglected to get a city permit for the usual big to-do.
Ashleigh stepped aside, and his friend Terry gave a speech, the theme of which was grievance. “I think many of you are well aware of the vicious hit piece that was done on our program by this so-called reporter last year,” he began.
He meant a female journalist in 2017, not me. I stood anonymously behind the group with my hands clasped, a presumed Confederate, nodding like the others. “She wanted to stress that the main reason we did this for Dick Poplar was guilt,” said Terry, clad in an old-timey, double-breasted shirt. “I got one comment to make about that. First of all, in 1861, Southerners did not care what anybody thought about them. And today, we still don’t care.”
Dick Poplar Day was over in 30 minutes, and Frank, driving out of the cemetery, said he was sorry for the disappointment — though he had been pleased to count three African Americans among the 15 attendees. (“Twenty percent,” he noted, telling me to write that down.) We passed beneath a towering arch of granite, inscribed, “Our Confederate Heroes,” and exited through old iron gates, back into the 21st century. Petersburg, nearly 80 percent black, is a hardscrabble city of 32,000, and the graveyard is bordered by sagging bungalows and cheap motels, a tattoo parlor and a title-loan outlet.
Earlier in the day, Frank had told me the story of yet another Confederate hero, named Lawrence Berry. A week before the South capitulated, as Union troops were overrunning Petersburg, they attacked 300 holdouts in a fort, many of whom wouldn’t quit. With Yankee soldiers just feet away, yelling at him to surrender, Berry hollered back, “Shoot and be damned!” Then, as he fired a cannon, a hail of bluecoat Minié balls sent him to his grave.
“You can look it up,” Frank had said, and when I did, I read that Berry’s last stand is sometimes called “the Confederate Alamo.”
As he drove, he wanted to talk about Berry again. “This friend of mine,” Frank recalled, “he once said to me: ‘I get it now! You don’t really think you can win. You know it’s your last stand. But you’re Lawrence Berry. You’re going to go down pulling the lanyard on that cannon.’ ”
When I glanced at Confederate Frank behind the wheel, he was staring at the road ahead, eyes narrow. “Now, I don’t deserve that honor, and I’ve been called everything in the book. But, yeah, Lawrence Berry. I guess that’s right. Just shoot and be damned.”
Paul Duggan is a staff writer for The Post.
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the term Stars and Bars was used to refer to the most commonly acknowledged Confederate flag. In fact, Stars and Bars refers to a different Confederate flag.