Striking a Balance Between History and Diversity at VMI

J.H. Binford Peay III

by James A. Bacon

The Virginia Military institute will not purge monuments to Stonewall Jackson and VMI cadets who fought at the Battle of New Market, Superintendent J.H. Binford Peay III announced last week in a letter to the VMI community.

But the retired four-star general said the military college will intensify efforts to achieve diversity among staff and cadets, and it will alter its Cadet oath ceremony, which involves a reenactment on the New Market battlefield where VMI cadets helped win one of the last Confederate victories of the Civil War. In the future, he added, the college, which was founded in 1839, will emphasize recognition of leaders from its second century.

Peay justified retaining memorials to Jackson and the cadets who fought at New Market:

Unlike many communities who are grappling with icons of the past, VMI has direct ties to many of the historical figures that are the subject of the current unrest. Stonewall Jackson was a professor at VMI, a West Point graduate who served in combat in the Mexican War, a military genius, a staunch Christian, and yes, a Confederate General. Throughout the years, the primary focus on honoring VMI’s history has been to celebrate principles of honor, integrity, character, courage, service, and selflessness of those associated with the Institute. It is not to in anyway condone racism, much less slavery.

Peay said he wants to erase “any hint of racism” at VMI, and acknowledged that some African-American cadets and alumni have contacted him to say that “parts of the VMI experience did not live up to the standards that it should have.” He is committed, he said, to “fixing any areas of racial inequality at our school.”

In the letter, Peay elaborated upon the changes in VMI symbolism that will take place:

  • The parade ground flagpoles will be re-centered on the New Barracks, changing the focus from General Jackson and the Old Barracks and signaling VMI’s move to the future.
  • The Cadet Oath ceremony will be conducted on campus rather than the New Market Battlefield, where the ceremony has been followed by a reenactment of the Field of Lost Shoes charge. Cadets will continue to learn about the Battle of New Market “just as we introduce them to World War II battles and Normandy and service, leadership, pride in country, and courage of our few remaining veterans on their visit to the Bedford D-Day Memorial.”
  • New Market Day will be retitled as the VMI Memorial Parade and moved to the parade ground.
  • The Institute will accentuate Daniels Courtyard named in honor of Jonathan M. Daniels, a VMI valedictorian who actively participated in the Southern civil rights movement and was killed in a confrontation with a white deputy sheriff.

Meanwhile, VMI continues to develop its curriculum emphasizing American history and civics “within the context historically of national and world events, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and slavery.” Every cadet will take the “American Civic Experience” course. Also, wrote Peay, two courses on Virginia history will be reviewed “to ensure that they are taught with the proper context and from multiple perspectives.”

Bacon’s bottom line: As recently as a year ago, there was broad sentiment in Virginia to maintain traditions and monuments that celebrated enduring virtues — honor, integrity, character, courage, service, and selflessness — while placing the memorials in their historical context. Outside of VMI, there appears to be little appetite today for the view that one can honor the personal virtues of extraordinary men without honoring – indeed, while disapproving of — the slave-holding society in which they lived. Sadly, such nuanced thinking appears to be beyond the capacity of our intelligentsia, which views the world in increasingly Manichean terms. Some will see Binford Peay and the VMI board as hopeless anachronisms. If our society ever rejects identitarian politics and re-embraces the cultivation of personal virtue, history will treat them more kindly

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20 responses to “Striking a Balance Between History and Diversity at VMI

  1. It wasn’t just “the slave-holding society in which they lived,” it was the slave-holding society they fought to uphold! That’s the part that is inappropriate to honor. I will concede that it must be very difficult for Confederate descendants to accept the modern understanding that the slavery their ancestors fought for was just plain wrong, cruel, and worth fighting against. But it’s also wrong to treat the two sides as equal.

    • No, I’ve pretty much gotten that my whole life, thanks to my parents. That and growing up on military bases. When in Virginia for one school year I remember asking, why are the black kids on a different bus? (About 2nd grade….). But given VMI’s deep involvement in the Civil War, mainly (but not totally) on the Confederate side, I was never bothered by the art and history on display, and was also aware pretty early of Jackson’s interesting history on the question (that Sunday School he ran for black students, thwarting custom and law.)

      “Wrong to treat the two sides as equal….” Well, I’m not sure anybody does, but history is complicated, with plenty of sinners and scoundrels to go around. If you think Billy Yank went to war to free the slaves, well, that’s not what he was told and thought, and I have letters in my possession showing just how racist the Yanks were (sent to my grandfather’s grandfather in Sturgis, Michigan).

      Just getting to that point (the war) in the Frederick Douglass biography. But we’ll get only the Authorized Twitter Version of American history from now on. Don’t trust it any more than you should have trusted the old textbooks — the bias will be laid on just as thick.

      • “… Jackson’s interesting history on the question (that Sunday School he ran for black students, thwarting custom and law.)”

        P-cubed-I (Preplanned Product Improvement). A slave capable of reading and writing has to be worth more on the resale market. It’s hard to accept any concocted humanitarian excuse of anything less than simply freeing them.

        The South fought to preserve slavery and a slave-based economy. Billy Yank fought to preserve the Union. Abolition was a bonus of sticking it to Johnny Reb.

      • A little context on Jackson, his Sunday School class, and his views on slavery, from the biography by James Robertson:

        The Sunday School class: The church Jackson went into included eleven black members in the congregation. There had been previous attempts to “teach the tenets of Christianity” to slaves. According to Robertson, “Jackson became concerned about the lack of spiritual guidance among Lexington’s black population.” As his wife said, “His interest in that race was simply because they had souls to save.” The law permitted blacks to gather in daylight for religious services, but forbade the teaching of reading and writing. Because he discussed the Bible with them, he was probably treading a thin line and there were accusations that he was violating the law, which he strenuously denied.

        Slavery: Robertson: “In Jackson’s mind, slaves were children of God placed in subordinate situation for reasons only God could explain.”
        “Jackson neither apologized for nor spoke in favor of the practice of slavery. He probably opposed the institution. Yet in his mind the Creator had sanctioned slavery, and man had no moral right to challenge its existence.”
        Whether or not he opposed slavery, his household in Lexington included six slaves.

        On the war: In a letter to his nephew, Jackson said, “I desire to see the state use every influence she may possess in order to procure an honorable adjustment of our troubles; but, if after having done so, the free states instead of permitting us to enjoy the rights guaranteed to us, by the Constitution of our Country, should endeavor to subjugate us, and thus excite our slaves to servile insurrection in which our Families will be murdered without quarter or mercy, it becomes us to wage such a war as will bring hostilities to a speedy close…I feel pretty satisfied that the Northern peoples love the Union more than they do their peculiar notions of slavery, and that they will prove it to us when satisfied that we are in earnest about leaving the [Union] unless they do us justice.”

        His feelings about slavery and the reason for the war are pretty plainly laid out there.

        • “He probably opposed the institution. ”

          Robertson has no justification for this. In fact, his next sentence contradicts it. The Southern religions embraced the “God’s plan” (imported from England) to provide cover for slavery, and, if nothing else, Jackson adhered to his religion.

        • In today’s papers there is an obituary of a man, a friend of mine whose memory I hold in the highest of regards.

          He was an extraordinary advocate. A man deeply learned, unfailingly courageous, and a powerful presence, yet a humble man, as truly great men invariable are. Fearless, kind and wise, all at the same time, he often acted alone and quietly but with great force, on behalf of others, most particularly people otherwise alone and in great need.

          And typically when this happened, he would step out of the marching line of his powerful peers and he would go quietly, undetected if he could, to the aid of struggling souls who often had been abandoned by others. This exceptional man was keen student of history, particularly southern history, and he had learned deeply about human nature, and was a man of deep engagement and experience. Illusion, naivete, and sentimentality were totally foreign to him. And, never ever, not even once, in my experience, did he preen his virtue. Or use his words cheaply. His words worked like actions instead.

          I would mention his named here but for the fact that I don’t want to soil his name by its use in the current discussion. You see he kept a portrait of Stonewall Jackson in his office. It sat on a side table, always in his plain view from his leather swivel chair where he sat behind his desk.

          Like my deceased friend, we all need to teach and care for our children and those need, instead of preen our virtue, and take the feel good easy way out.

          For example.

          The Civil war and everything it touched was horrible, complex, and saturated in pain and destruction for all involved, the vast majority of them innocents struggling to survive the awful forces rampant in their lives. For those of us who bore none of this pain and but now sit proclaiming our own high morality, our words tell us volumes about ourselves, and typically little or nothing worthwhile about others long dead.

          At the First Battle of Bull Run Union soldiers pulled the papers off a young dead Confederate soldier and on their way back into Georgetown DC, they hauled that dead young soldier’s mother out of her house, ransacked her home and confiscated it for their own barracks. Several of her other children didn’t learn of her plight since they were far off fighting on the Union side. Two other sons couldn’t intercede because they were Confederate soldiers. Fortunately, yet another son, strong Unionist New York Lawyer heard the news passing through Baltimore on his way back home. He turned his horse around and, within 24 hours, Lincoln had reversed the confiscation order, returned the ransacked house to the mother, and made other restitution as best he could. She was one of the very lucky mothers.

          By chance that young dead Confederate solder died in the army of Stonewall Jackson, a deeply religious man who spend much of his free time and money teaching and otherwise coming to the aid and support of poor black slave children in Lexington Va. For example, he got “… a famous black Sunday school underway. Whites had taught to tenets of Christianity to slaves and freedman as early as 1843 (but) local (Lexington Va.) opposition and lack of participation doomed all three … initial experiments … So Stonewall Jackson when in Lexington “studied” those earlier failures, organized a revival of Sunday school classes, and “threw himself into this work with all of his characteristic energy and wisdom … but the initial stages were stormy for all concerned. Many blacks were reluctant to engage in yet another attempt at Sunday school. Several residents openly laughed at the experiment.”

          “Apparently a small but vocal group of whites opposed what Jackson was trying to do. (Indeed it may have been the violation of Virginia law that forbade whites to teach blacks to read and write about any subject.) Some … of the “aristocracy criticized Jackson’s activities and even went so far as to threaten prosecution … and Jackson had to tolerate “taunts and scorns for the sake of those poor people that nobody cared for.”…. The truths of such claims are questionable; still Jackson had to toil long and dutifully to get the black class organized and meeting regularly. Once the starting pains had alleviated, progress surpassed everyone’s anticipation – except Jackson’s.”

          “He organized and managed, educated and monitored, encouraged and rewarded. The class, consisting of blacks of all ages, was conducted like a military operation with a benevolent hand in control. Black enrollment ultimately ranged from 80 to over a 100 if Jackson was there … Jackson used twelve teaching assistants “recruited from among the educated ladies and gentlemen” in town. (Jackson personally led the all the proceedings and studies and reported on progress of students)”

          “In Jackson’s mind, slaves were children of God placed in subordinate situations for reasons that only God could explain. Helping them was a missionary effort for Jackson. Their souls had to be saved. Although Jackson could not alter their social status as slaves, he could and did display Christian decency to those whole lot it was to be in bondage. He learned and used the names of each of his students. They in turn referred to him affectionately as “Marse Major.”

          “… It was a pleasure to walk about town (with Jackson) and see how the veneration with which to negroes saluted him, and its unfailing courtesy towards them … His servants reverenced and loved him, as they would have done a brother or father … He was emphatically a black man’s friend …”
          ” … Even after he left for the army and war, one of his first inquiries often made to Lexington friends who visited him in camp was, “how is the colored Sunday school progressing.” If the report was favorable (and it almost always was), “he never failed to respond with a strong expression of gratitude.”

          See Stonewall Jackson, The Man, The Soldier, The Legend By James I. Robertson, Jr. Distinguished Professor in History at VPI and State University in Blackburg, Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1997

          Jackson owned six slaves during the late 1950s. The first came to Jackson and begged to be purchased and offered to get a job and reimburse Jackson for the price he paid and thus gain his freedom. Jackson agreed. The second, a 45 year old women on the verge of being sold at public auction also begged Jackson to buy her instead. Jackson did and found her a home where she worked until Jackson had a home for her of his own. Jackson’s four remaining slaves was a woman and her two teenaged sons who were gifted to Jackson by his father in law (the Founder of Davidson College) on his mother in laws death, the slave mother had been Jackson’s wife’s nurse maid. The sixth slave who Jackson accepted the care of in 1859 was a 4 year old orphan that he took in at the urging of an aging widow who could not longer take care of the child.

          Recall that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (who died roughly 30 years earlier) were among the largest slaveholders in Virginia. Jackson bore no comparison.

          With regard to tolerance of the Civil War dead, and all peoples of all colors ravaged by it, also recall Abraham Lincoln who directed the War against the South, this from his 1st Inaugural Address:

          “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passions may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will, by the better angels of our nature.”

          In his 2nd Inaugural Address, after four years of an inconclusive Civil War, Lincoln closed with this:

          “With Malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nations wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

          I believe Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were noble men and noble soldiers, doing the best they could under terribly difficult times. Like in all wars there was a great splintering of selfish interests on both sides before, during, and after the Civil War. George McClellan, Lincoln’s preening failure of a General went from “the slows and constant excuses” to endless carping and scapegoating to chronic subordination then morphed into Lincoln’s political enemy bent on undermining all of Lincoln’s efforts to save the Union. A military commander gone bad, it’s a common plague. Those spoiling for a fight to gain private advantage or feed self-loathing or to seize power and control for its own sake, or to simply rape and pillage, use violence for obscene self-expression. These types typically operate on the edges at first to inflame bad situations into ever more strife by the use of cunning, demagoguery, rant and harangue to demonize imaginary enemies into real ones finally. Too often they succeed, ignite the deep-seated fears and worst instincts of people. And succeed again and again. Most frightening is the fact that they can succeed despite being few in number, as happened on both sides of the American Civil War. These extremists ignited flash points into the flames that drove America into civil war “to settle things once and for all” in ways that never do. Unless confronted and forthrightly addressed, such people keep evil spirals of violence going for centuries. Like is happening now everywhere around us.

          Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson were not these sorts of men. Quite the opposite. Our children – all of them have the right to know and understand this, and learn from these examples, among many others.

          Here too we can learn from Doris Lessing’s profound book Prisons We Choose to Live Inside:

          “Anyone who reads history at all knows that the passionate and powerful convictions of one century usually seem absurd, extraordinary, to the next. There is no epoch in history that seems to us as it must have to the people who lived through it. What we live through, in any age, is the effect on us of mass emotions and of social conditions from which from which it is impossible to detach ourselves. Often the mass emotions are those that seem the noblest, best and most beautiful. And yet, inside a year, five years, a decade, five decades, people will be asking, “How could they have believed that?” because events will have taken place that will have banished the said mass emotions to the dustbin of history.

          People of my age have lived through several such violent reversals. I will mention just one. During the Second World War, from the moment the Soviet Union was invaded by Hitler and became an ally of the democracies, that country was affectionately regarded in popular opinion. Stalin was Uncle Joe, the ordinary chaps friend, Russia was the land of the brave, liberty loving heroes, and Communism was in interesting manifestation of popular will that we should copy. All this went on for four years and then suddenly, almost overnight, it went into the reverse. All these attitudes became wrong-headed, treasonable, a threat to everybody. People who had been chatting on about Uncle Joe, suddenly, just as if all that had never happened, were using slogans of the cold war. One extreme, sentimental and silly bred by wartime necessities, was replaced by another extreme, unreasoning and silly.

          To have lived though such a reversal once is enough to make you critical for ever afterwards of current popular attitudes.”

          From Doris Lessing, Prisons We Choose to Live Inside.

          I suspect that we all need to study up and take a far deeper and more independent look at Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee – what went into their place in history, and what were its consequences and end results, including the alternatives their actions saved us from as well as the wrongs they perpetuated or delivered us into. Only then can we pull Lee and Jackson out from todays passions and ignorance, so as to gain a mature and clearer perspective of what actually happened: what went wrong and why or what didn’t go wrong but went very well under the circumstances, so as to learn and apply those lessons today. This is far better than getting caught up in todays trends and angry forces, our making “feel good” decisions that erase whole peoples, and cultures and histories of our fellow Americans, whoever they might be. For that solves nothing. It’s breeds only false solutions leading to ever more ignorance and violence.

          Names revered and admired, feared and reviled now, or at earlier times, erasing those names and their histories by the fiat of today’s popular opinion is most always a dangerous and counter productive exercise. One too easily done for no good end but to feel good by hurting others when what we need to do is to try to erase the myth, disinformation, and simplistic popular notions by confronting human history squarely, forthrightly, and honestly, in all its pain, agony, evil and greatness. Only this will deepen our learning and competence instead of handing out cheap victories that perpetuate ignorance, fear, and violence.

          Only respect for the past in all its ugliness, paradox, ambiguity, greatness and evil, and how it was overcome or it came to rule, only this hard learning will heal us and give us the means to escape the prisons that our minds now otherwise inhabit. For only then are we liberated to instead shape a better future fashioned from a clear understanding of our past, even when, indeed every time, we see the name Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson beside that of Grant, Sherman, Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass.

          Otherwise falsehoods mandated as certainties will always twist and distort our histories and our futures. The good and the great, the bad and ugly – it all must shape our chances for better future for all of us. And unless we each do this hard work of learning for ourselves and impose it on those we pay to teach and educate instead of leaving those critical tasks to those with axes to grind or special interests to promote, or hated in their heart feeding nothing but blind passions, we’ll be left with nothing more than cycles of evil.

          When one digs back into history, searching for ones best sense of the original, of what really went on, instead of what other people tell us, one is most always greatly surprised at what one finds, how much greater it is than our blind imaginings, and how it changes not only us but the world we inhabit.


    • But, but, Virginia didn’t fight to uphold slavery. It says as much in the articles of secession…

      “… the Federal Government having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slaveholding States.”

      Oh, wait. Nope. You’re right. They fought to uphold slavery alright. It says so right there in the articles of secession.

  2. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Mrs. Baldwin VMI has only delayed the inevitable in regards to the legacy of VMI graduates in the Confederate Army. It won’t happen today or next year but there are no longer any fall back positions for public institutions that have a Confederate legacy. VMI produced more soldiers and officers for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia than any other institution including West Point. I do admire the leadership at VMI attempting to preserve their legacy with a nuanced interpretation. It will not last. My 3rd great grand uncle Thomas Booker Tredway was a young cadet at VMI in 1860. He left the Institute to join with his brother and childhood friends in Company I, Chatham Grays 53rd Virginia Infantry. Tredway’s father was a judge and congressman that signed the Virginia Ordinance of Secession. If you read Tredway’s letters from school at the outbreak of the war (VMI possesses them) you will find a troubled American who felt it was his duty to defend Virginia from Mr. Lincoln’s invasion. Slavery was not mentioned in his correspondence. We all know slavery was the central cause but for many like Tredway it was about defending home first. Thomas Booker Tredway gave the last full measure at Gettysburg in Pickett’s Charge. He was with Armistead and others who pierced “the angle” and went to the very high water mark of the Confederacy. When Colonel Rawley White Martin was about to shot and killed, young Tredway placed himself over Martin to spare his life. Tredway died at the age of 18 a few days later from his wounds. His body was exhumed and carefully reburied with the Gettysburg Dead in Hollywood Cemetery. 4 stones down from General Pickett himself. 155 years later the name of Thomas Booker Tredway is still being passed along in the Whitehead family. His name represents all the great attributes our youth and soldiers can ascribe to. VMI awarded his degree posthumously in 1866.

  3. Having an “open and honest dialogue about the past and how that past informs the present” is in everyone’s interest, even the students attending VMI, or especially those students, some who fought at New Market against the United States of America.

    There is a historical site that has been around for over 10 years, the Encyclopedia Virginia, that does just that. I had never heard of it and suspect most other Virginians, past and present, have not either.

    It would probably serve many to visit it to catch up. Here is a link to a recent relevant blog post from its main editor.

  4. I’m a fan also of EV –

    on Northern racism. Yes, without question and at that point in time it extended to Asian, Irish, Italians and others.

    But the issue was should anyone be a slave and on that there was a stark difference between North and South – and the South not only believed it “ok”, they were willing to die to defend it.

    on “history” – We confuse “history” with memorializing things in history. No all things in history are memorialized.

    When something is memorialized in a public place – and it’s not the kind of “history” some want to memorialize what does that mean?

    here’s another worth reading:

    “The lies our textbooks told my generation of Virginians about slavery”

    • Steve’s moral relativism is showing.

      The Yanks didn’t have to believe in the equality of men to know they weren’t simply property or animals.

  5. Isn’t VMI a state school? If so, why am I paying for retaining the Lost Cause? What about the “Christian” thing? I am one but why should non Christians have to support this?

    • Yes, why yes it is. If they want Jackson to have a statue, let ’em move it across the street to Washington, Lee and Jackson University.

      Now shut up, rise, and repeat after me, “Our Father,…

      Virginia — The only place in the world where the people would think Lee-Jackson-King Day could be a thing.

  6. This ain’t about changing history. It’s about changing the future.

  7. For a different perspective on the attitude of a Southside Virginia family regarding its Confederate forbears, see the book by my cousin, Bill Sizemore, “Uncle George and Me.”

    Our ancestors fought in the Civil War, were wounded, and captured. They had owned slaves, a good many of them.

    By accident, several years ago, Bill discovered that another group of Sizemores was having an annual family reunion, coincidentally on the same weekend that our immediate Sizemore family had its reunion, in adjoining counties, no less. The main difference between the groups was one group was white and the other Black. Bill made a few inquiries and discovered that the Black Sizemores were descendants of a slave owned by one of our ancestors. (To answer the obvious question, he and some of them conducted DNA tests and found no biological link.) He became good friends with the patriarch, Uncle George, and his book is the story of trying to come to terms with our family’s history.

    • fascinating history! How did the slave descendants get the name Sizemore? Did slaves take the name of their masters? (dumb question I’m sure).

    • Cool. That there was no DNA connection is not entirely surprising since the use of former slave-owner surnames was not an uncommon practice after the war.

      In my case, except for immediate known family, and one well-known actress, I have never met someone with my surname who was white, which begs all sorts of other questions.

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      Great story Mr. Dick. A few years back I went all the way to New Jersey to attend the Baskerville Family Reunion. I was hoping to connect with kinsmen from my 5th great grandfather Colonel William Baskerville of Mecklenburg County. My big surprise was being the only white man attending the reunion. It was the reunion for the descendants of hundreds of slaves from the Baskerville Plantation (Buena Vista) in Lombardy Grove. I connected instantly with the elder members of the family. I had brought copies of the Baskerville Ledger from the Virginia Historical Society. Colonel Baskerville had taken great care to record names, birthdates, marriages, deaths, skills, and values for all of the Baskerville slaves. I was able to fill in the missing links that the handed down oral stories were missing. It was a great time and I get invited back annually to the reunion.

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