Do Confederates Have a Future in West Virginia?

Last week, one of West Virginia’s best-known native sons was removed from his pedestal on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. But while Stonewall Jackson has lost his position in Virginia’s capital, the Clarksburg native still stands in front of his home state’s in Charleston. 

Despite West Virginia boasting being “Born of the Civil War” in the interest of pro-Unionism, approximately 18,000 Mountaineers took up arms against the United States and fought for the Confederacy. Not immune from the 20th-century revisionism of the Lost Cause myth that occurred throughout the deep South, many West Virginians leaned into their Southern heritage. 

The state contains many schools, streets, and towns named after Confederate leaders, in addition to at least six Confederate monuments erected by local chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The UDC was founded at the turn of the 20th century by the wives and daughters of Confederate veterans to preserve their memory and has fought to keep those memorials intact. 

Some of those monuments make sense. Lewisburg, for example, was economically tied to Virginia more than to the industrial centers in the Ohio River Valley and was predominantly aligned with secessionists in Richmond. Greenbrier County’s strategic position along the James River & Kanawha Turnpike, however, led Union troops to occupy the area, which was solidified by victories at Lewisburg and Droop Mountain. Solidly under Federal control, the county was included in the new state of West Virginia despite not sending any delegates to either of the founding Wheeling Conventions

A postcard showing the Confederate monument in Parkersburg, WV, which still stands in the town’s City Park. Via WVU West Virginia & Regional History Center. 

Parkersburg, however, over 100 miles north of Lewisburg on the Ohio River, was solidly Unionist. The city produced West Virginia’s first governor and senator and was a major transportation and logistics center for the Union army. Despite this, the city’s only monument of the war is a memorial to the Confederate dead erected by Parkersburg’s UDC chapter in 1908. 

At the national level, those monuments push the myth of the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy into the public landscape. The argument is that the Civil War (often called  the “War Between the States” or the “War of Northern Aggression”) was fought for just and chivalrous reasons. The Lost Cause paints  an idealized picture of an agrarian and moral “Southern way of life” against the more industrial and modern North, arguing that secession was an attempt to preserve that culture, rather than defend slavery (an argument historians have definitively disproved).

Despite the counties of (now-West) Virginia having fewer slaves than plantation-based tidewater regions, trans-Allegheny Virginia still had a brutal history of selling, trading, and owning slaves. While West Virginia history books downplay the significance of this, the UDC planted a monument to revisionism at one of abolitionism’s central stages: Harper’s Ferry

Erected in 1931, the Heyward Shepherd Monument, also known as the “Faithful Slave Memorial,” memorializes Heyward Shepherd, a free black man who was the first person killed in the 1859 raid led by John Brown. In an effort to promote the Lost Cause narrative that most slaves lived happily under the paternal care of their masters, the monument was a direct response to a plaque in honor of John Brown placed by the now-defunct Storer College, a Historically Black College in Harper’s Ferry central to W.E.B. Dubois’ Niagara Movement. 

The UDC’s plaque reads: 

On the night of October 16, 1859, Heyward Shepherd, an industrious and respected colored freeman, was mortally wounded by John Brown’s raiders. In pursuance of his duties as an employee of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company, he became the first victim of this attempted insurrection.

This boulder is erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans as a memorial to Heyward Shepherd, exemplifying the character and faithfulness of thousands of negros who, under many temptations throughout subsequent years of war, so conducted themselves that no stain was left upon a record which is the peculiar heritage of the American people, and an everlasting tribute to the best in both races.

The Heyward Shepherd Monument, also known as the “Faithful Slave Memorial” in Harper’s Ferry, WV. Via WV State Archives

In West Virginia, like much of the South, memorializing the Lost Cause and its heroes goes beyond statues and plaques. Stonewall Jackson is a recurring figure throughout West Virginia, as well as Robert E. Lee and general P.G.T. Beauregard. Streets, parks, and schools throughout the state have been named in their honor. 

Stonewall Jackson is a central figure in the Lost Cause primarily due to his perceived martyrdom at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. While the character and reconciliatory spirit of other Confederate  generals such as Lee and Longstreet can be judged by their post-war actions, Jackson is absolved from the sins of Reconstruction and remains ideologically pure in the Lost Cause story. Confederate apologists cite Jackson’s extreme piety, benevolence toward enslaved people, and loyalty to Virginia as evidence of the South’s superior morality. 

Despite the claim of his Virginian loyalty, both his birthplace and boyhood home were Unionist counties that seceded from the Old Dominion.

As a result, the remembrance of Jackson is complicated by the fact that he is a loyal Virginian from a Union state. Yet, despite the dominant Republicanism of 1860s West Virginia, the UDC placed Jackson firmly in the mythos of the Mountain State, erecting statues of him on the grounds of the Capitol in Charleston and in front of the Harrison County Courthouse in his native city of Clarksburg. In fact, the first Union monument in the Capitol complex was not erected until 1912, a direct response to the Jackson Monument two years earlier. 

The Stonewall Jackson Monument in front of the Harrison County Courthouse in Clarksburg, WV. Via Clarksburg Convention & Visitors Bureau. 

Perhaps the most egregious example of Jackson’s memory is his namesake school on the West Side of Charleston. The neighborhood is the historic heart of the city’s black community and nearly half of its students are black. Despite this—or perhaps precisely because of it—West Siders have passed through the halls of Stonewall Jackson Middle School and eventually Stonewall Jackson High School since the 1940s. Constructed and named during the height of segregation and Jim Crow rule in Charleston, its name in one of the state’s most concentrated black communities is hard to ignore. 

Recently, activists have made calls to remove both statues from the grounds of the state’s civic buildings. The Harrison County Commission voted down removing the statue in Clarksburg, against the calls of Jackson’s descendants to take it down. The state Capitol question continues to be debated, with Governor Jim Justice attempting to punt the issue to the state legislature. The Kanawha County Board of Education voted to rename Stonewall Jackson Middle School early this week, while discussions for the new namesake are ongoing. Booker T. Washington and Katherine Johnson—two nationally prominent black leaders from the state—have been proposed as alternative namesakes. 

West Virginia—like much of central Appalachia—exists in the American borderlands. The “southernmost northern state” contributed men to each army, but the numbers are hardly equal. 

Over 32,000 Mountaineers served in the Union army and navy, and numerous civilians contributed to the war effort through the state’s strategic industries and railroads. While the 20,000 West Virginians in the Confederate military are a testament to the divisions of 19th-century West Virginia, the state’s overt secession from Confederate Virginia places it squarely on the Union side of the conflict. 

Civic monuments to the Confederacy in the state’s city parks and courthouse lawns fly in direct conflict with the spirit of the state’s Unionist founding. It is Lincoln, not Lee, who is the embodiment of the state’s ethos. 

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Nick Musgrave first became fascinated with West Virginia’s history while growing up in Parkersburg. He continues to read, research and write on the Mountain State’s past from its birthplace in Wheeling. For more neat history and some political snark, follow him on Twitter: @NickMusgraveWV.