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Editorial: Botetourt County faces an unusual debate over its Confederate monument. Here's why.

Editorial: Botetourt County faces an unusual debate over its Confederate monument. Here's why.

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Fincastle Confederate monument (copy)

The Confederate memorial in Fincastle.

Sometime this month, Botetourt County supervisors will be formally presented with a proposal to move the Confederate monument in front of the courthouse.

After awhile, all these debates over Confederate statues start to sound the same: Are we honoring the Confederate dead or the Confederate cause? This one, though, could be quite different — and quite instructive — because of three little words.

That’s because this isn’t just a Civil War monument, it’s also a Reconstruction monument.

One side of the obelisk commemorates “the deeds and services” of the 12 Botetourt companies that went to fight for the Confederacy. The other is dedicated to “the women of Botetourt in remembrance of their constant encouragement, steadfast devotion, tender ministrations and unfailing providence and care during the war and in the dark Reconstruction years.”

Those last three words make all the difference. We know of no other Civil War monument in the region that makes reference to Reconstruction. Here’s why that matters: Those who argue for a reappraisal of Confederate symbols make the case that they are effectively propaganda and point out that most weren’t erected in the immediate aftermath of the war — but in the late 1800s and early 1900s when there was a movement across the South to both glorify the Lost Cause and impose Jim Crow laws. Indeed, it’s notable that the Botetourt monument was erected in 1904 — two years after Virginia imposed a new constitution for the express purpose of keeping Black citizens from voting. (It also had the effect of preventing a lot of poor white men in Southwest Virginia from voting, too). That chronology is persuasive to some, but not others. After all, there’s often a delay between when a war ends and when we start putting up monuments — think of how the commemorations of D-Day didn’t get serious until about 40 years after the fact.

The fact that the Botetourt monument references “the dark Reconstruction years” puts that marker in a very different context, though — because that is clearly a political statement. This monument doesn’t just honor the county’s Confederate soldiers, it effectively condemns the Reconstruction period that followed. To those indoctrinated by Virginia’s official history textbooks in the ’50s and ’60s and even into the ’70s, that reference would seem both obvious and inoffensive. After all, Virginians of that era were taught about “the evils of the times” and a Reconstruction that was “so harsh that few Virginians could forgive or forget it.”

Let’s look, though, at what actually happened during Reconstruction in Virginia. First, Botetourt County suffered relatively little physical damage during the war. There was a single skirmish — in Buchanan in June 1864 — which resulted in 11 homes being burned. Irony: It was Confederates who started the fire when they tried to burn the bridge as a defensive maneuver and the blaze got out of hand. Union soldiers took credit for extinguishing the flames. In any case, Botetourt farms were not devastated the way that farms in the Shenandoah Valley were by the Union Gen. Philip Sheridan. That means the monument’s reference to the “dark Reconstruction years” must mean the political side of Reconstruction because there was little physical Reconstruction to be done in Botetourt.

What were the political effects of Reconstruction in Virginia? The big one was a new state constitution. That constitution did three big things. It extended the right to vote to Black men. (The convention’s presiding officer, John Underwood of Clarke County, tried to persuade delegates to allow women to vote, as well, but delegates weren’t interested in going that far). It mandated a free public school system — a requirement laid down by Congress for readmission to the Union. It required that local boards of supervisors be elected. Previously, they’d been appointed by judges. In effect, this constitution introduced democracy to local government in rural Virginia. Or maybe all of Virginia: It also mandated a secret ballot to replace the previous public voice vote.

As we look back on that state constitution now, those provisions seem quite ordinary — but the constitution was hugely controversial at the time, primarily because it allowed Black men to vote. A century later, Virginia’s textbooks still condemned “the Underwood constitution.”

Technically, Reconstruction in Virginia ended in 1870 when the state was readmitted to the Union. So what happened in Virginia during those five years when the state was run by the U.S. military? “The state experienced almost none of the corruption or violence that plagued some of the other states of the former Confederacy,” says Encyclopedia Virginia. Instead, the main thing that happened was that Black men got the right to vote — and some got elected to office. That was enough for some white Virginians to regard those as “the dark Reconstruction years.” What really happened was that the state’s pre-war establishment was temporarily overthrown.

That political upheaval continued for nearly two decades after Reconstruction. State politics pitted a Democratic Party composed of the state’s conservative leaders against a Readjuster Party, a variant of the Republican Party that forged an alliance between newly enfranchised Black voters and whites in the western part of the state who had long felt alienated from state affairs. When the Readjusters briefly won control of state government in the 1880s, they pursued an agenda that was shockingly progressive for its day. They abolished the poll tax. They abolished the whipping post. They founded Virginia State University, the South’s first public college for training Black teachers. They cut taxes on farms and small businesses and raised them on large corporations. They turned a state deficit into a surplus and used that revenue to more than double spending on public schools. For all that, they were punished by white voters at the polls. Conservative Democrats regained control of state government and wouldn’t relinquish it until Linwood Holton’s election as governor in 1969. They also set about getting rid of that Reconstruction-era constitution that enabled all those progressive reforms.

So what, exactly, did Botetourt mean in 1904 when it erected a statue bemoaning “the dark Reconstruction years”? And what will it mean in 2021 if the county decides it should stay?

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