UVA and the History of Race: The Lost Cause Through Judge Duke’s Eyes

September 4, 2019 By Elizabeth R. Varon, evaron@virginia.edu Elizabeth R. Varon, evaron@virginia.edu

Editor’s note: Even an institution as historic as the University of Virginia – now entering its third century – has stories yet to be told. Some are inspiring, while the truths of others are painful, but necessary for a fuller accounting of the past. The President’s Commissions on Slavery and on the University in the Age of Segregation were established to find and tell those stories. Here are some of them, written by those who did the research. One in an occasional series:


Why did Charlottesville’s white citizens choose to erect a statue to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in 1924 – nearly 60 years after the Civil War? One clue can be found in the personal papers of Judge R.T.W. Duke Jr., held at the University of Virginia’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

Duke, who literally presided over the Lee and Jackson monument dedication ceremonies as the designated “chair” of each event, was a fixture at Confederate Memorial Day celebrations and monument dedications all across Virginia in the early 20th century, known for his fiery defense of slavery, and attacks on emancipation and Reconstruction. The record of Duke’s public role as a Confederate memorialist, when read together with his extensive private diaries and memoirs, provides a window into the “Lost Cause” creed – and into the University’s role in promulgating it.

Duke was born in Charlottesville in 1853. His father, R.T.W. Duke Sr. (1822-1898), attended UVA as a student and then served on its Board of Visitors. A successful lawyer, Duke Sr. served during the Civil War as a colonel in the Confederate army, and after the war in the U.S. Congress, where he protested against extending citizenship rights to African Americans.

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Black and white photo of the Stonewall Jackson statue dedication

R.T.W. Duke Jr., a UVA graduate and judge, was a dedicated adherent to the “Lost Cause” and to Jim Crow-era discrimination. He presided over the 1924 dedication of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, depicted in a postcard. (Photo courtesy Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library)

The younger Duke attended UVA from 1870 to 1874, studying law under John B. Minor and editing the Virginia University Magazine. Duke Jr. then embarked on his own legal career, serving as judge of the Corporation (Circuit) Court and as commonwealth’s attorney for Albemarle County in the early 20th century.1

Duke Jr. was reared on the dogma of the Lost Cause, the pro-Confederate interpretation of Southern history that prevailed among white Southerners in the decades after the Civil War.  According to this mythology, slavery was a benign institution; secession was a constitutional defense of state sovereignty; the wartime emancipation of the slaves was a travesty; the Yankee victory in the war was a triumph of might over right; and the postwar experiment in black citizenship a failure, necessitating the “redemption” of the South by former Confederates. The essence of the Lost Cause was that the Civil War was not lost, and could yet be won by new forms of racial proscription and segregation.

Duke’s extensive memoirs are a compendium of Lost Cause talking points. Of slavery, Duke wrote that his own family’s treatment of their slaves “was so kind” and the slaves’ affection for their owners “so sincere” that he “never saw any of the ‘horrors’ of slavery – so called.”

But other passages in Duke’s memoirs contradict such claims of kindness and affection. The Duke household’s “Mammy,” an enslaved woman named Rose, he remembered as so “impatient of control” that she “required firmness in handling.”

The cook Jane was bought by his father in 1859 for $1,000, Duke recollected, to “save her” from the slave traders; as the historian Walter Johnson has noted, slaveowners often rationalized the act of buying human bodies as a benign way to “save” them from the market. Jane, Duke noted disapprovingly, was the first of the family’s slaves to leave Charlottesville when freedom came at the end of the war.

In further portrayals of the enslaved, Duke recalled that the housemaid Maria was so rebellious that his father sold her in 1858 or 1859.

In these passages, Duke adhered to the dehumanizing chattel principle, whereby slaves were defined as property. But he also unwittingly revealed the discontent of the enslaved and their resistance to white control.2

When Duke wrote of secession and Civil War, he expressed his implacable loathing of Northerners, Lincoln and the Republican Party. In his passages on Union Gen. Phillip Sheridan’s occupation of Charlottesville in March 1865, Duke vented his wrath at the Union soldier who led a raiding party that looted the Duke family’s foodstuffs. “I would like to kill him even now,” Duke fumed, “forty two years after the event – and I would like to do it slowly and with deliberation.”

drawing of a general standing between a segregated group who all had weapons
The Freedmen’s Bureau was an institution set up by the U.S. government during Reconstruction to help former slaves and others in the South. It was one of many targets of Duke’s anger and criticism in his writings and public speeches, which defended slavery and advocated for Jim Crow-style repression of African Americans.

Duke’s indignation at Confederate surrender was somewhat tempered by his joy at Lincoln’s assassination. “Lincoln was to us,” he remembered, “a clownish ape, who had brought on the war” and “stolen our slaves.”3  

In recounting the war’s immediate aftermath, Duke derided the Union soldiers and Freedmen’s Bureau officials who were stationed in Charlottesville to facilitate the transition between slavery and freedom. The Union Provost Marshal provided the Duke family a guard to help it protect its property from theft, but the guard, a “puritanical down-easter,” was not to Duke’s liking, as the Northern man “sat a great deal with the negroes – read to them [and] prayed in most unctuous tones with them.”

In an anecdote meant to illustrate his preference for the old ways over the “new order of things,” Duke related how a local white man gave a “good sound flogging” to a freedman, tasked with removing worms from tobacco plants, who “shirked his work” and became “saucy.”4

Congressional Reconstruction, instituted by the Republicans in 1867, Duke deemed “the worst crime in the history of civilization,” for it enfranchised African-American men such as James T.S. Taylor, the Union Army veteran who represented Albemarle County at the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867-68 (he was one of 24 black men among the 104 delegates). The purpose of Reconstruction, Duke insisted, was to place the South “under the heel of the negro”; he trafficked, in other words, in the Lost Cause myth of Reconstruction as a “tragic era” of “black rule” – a myth that flies in the face of the fact that even at the height of Congressional Reconstruction, blacks were underrepresented in Southern politics. In Duke’s world view, former slaves had no place whatsoever in Virginia politics.5

Black and white drawing of the Virginia Constitutional Convention
James T.S. Taylor, an African-American Union Army veteran, represented Albemarle County at the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867-68, one of 24 black men among the 104 delegates who reformed the state constitution after the Civil War. (Image courtesy Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library)

Duke rejoiced in the 1877 overthrow of Reconstruction by ex-Confederates and sought to prevent the return of blacks to political life; he campaigned, for example, against the Readjuster movement, which tried to fuse disgruntled white farmers and marginalized black voters in Virginia into a new coalition.

Duke’s politics went hand-in-hand with his Confederate memorialization activities. He became a popular speaker on the Confederate circuit and at Democratic Party events in Virginia in the early 20th century, and used both settings to hurl blame at the North and cast the Confederacy as faultless.

At a tribute to the Confederate dead at Richmond’s Oakwood Cemetery in May 1908, Duke defended the “deathless memory of an immortal cause,” proclaiming that “slavery was right and emancipation a wrong and a robbery.” “Truth is Truth” and “must be fearlessly told,” he cried out, adding, “Let it hurt who it may.”

Duke repeatedly vowed in his speeches that he would never forgive the Republican Party – the “miserable hounds who fastened their fangs upon our throats and humiliated the prostrate South for the negro.” Such sentiments won him acclaim from Democratic voters across the state. The Richmond Times-Dispatch declared in 1920 that “as a public speaker Judge Duke has no superior on the hustings or rostrum in all the broad bounds of Virginia.”6

Duke’s long career as a mouthpiece for Lost Cause politics secured him a conspicuous place in the Jackson and Lee monument ceremonies in Charlottesville. Jurists like Duke made ideal marshals and orators at Confederate memorial events, as they could cloak the proceedings in the authority of the state. Duke appeared before audiences at Confederate events as “the Judge”: a man who represented the legal regime of Jim Crow, which refers to laws enacted after the Civil War that enforced racial segregation.

On the evening of Oct. 18, 1921, to inaugurate the Jackson ceremonies, Duke delivered an “address of welcome on behalf of the City of Charlottesville and County of Albemarle” to an assembly at the Jefferson Theater. On Oct. 19, the day of the Jackson statue dedication, Duke “presided over the exercises of the unveiling,” and accepted the Jackson statue, a gift from local philanthropist Paul McIntire, on Charlottesville’s behalf.7

Black and white image of the Stonewall Jackson statue dedication
The Stonewall Jackson statue dedication in 1921 came three years before the Lee statue. Duke also presided over it, and statue itself was a gift from Paul McIntire, the namesake of several buildings and departments at UVA. (Photo courtesy Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library)

Duke played an equally visible role in the Lee statue unveiling three years later. He served on the “Reunion Committee” of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter that helped choreograph the monument dedication. Throngs of attendees gathered on May 20 to hear speeches by various ceremonial “commanders,” such as W. McDonald Lee, a member of the Ku Klux Klan who described Union soldiers as “hired mercenaries” and proclaimed, “I believe them wrong today, sixty years after the war.”

Duke moved to center stage on May 21, “Robert E. Lee Day.” He participated in a massive procession that snaked its way through Charlottesville to the new Lee Park downtown. After “the multitude assembled about the statue,” Duke was the first man they heard from, as he assumed his role as the “presiding officer” of the day’s events, welcoming a series of speakers who made the case that Robert E. Lee, a “Victor over Defeat,” represented “the moral greatness of the Old South.”

In what the local paper called the “most dramatic moment” of the unveiling, Duke brought to center stage 3-year-old Mary Walker Lee, to pull the cord unveiling the monument; Duke introduced her, to the roar of the crowd, as “the great-granddaughter of the greatest man who ever lived.”8

Duke’s career not only reveals the racial animus at the heart of the Lost Cause creed, it also reflects UVA’s role in promulgating Lost Cause propaganda. UVA was an incubator for Lost Cause ideology, just as it had been an incubator for proslavery ideology and secessionism. The very term “Lost Cause” was coined in 1866 by Edward A. Pollard, who attended UVA in the late 1840s and became an influential editor and proslavery ideologue; his 1866 book “The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates” offered a defiant defense of slavery and secession, establishing the template that Duke and countless other UVA students and faculty would follow in glorifying the Confederacy.

Prominent Lost Cause spokesmen with UVA ties include Confederate veterans Robert E. Lee Jr. and Randolph H. McKim (former students), the influential writer Thomas Nelson Page (who had attended UVA law school), and faculty member Charles Venable, who served during the war on Robert E. Lee’s staff. Through figures such as these, UVA lent its institutional prestige to the Lost Cause creed.

books on a metal booskshelf
UVA alumnus Edward A. Pollard coined the term “Lost Cause.” His 1866 book, shown here in Alderman Library, defends slavery and secession and laid a rhetorical groundwork for Duke and others. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Even as he rode the lecture circuit as an unreconstructed rebel, Duke himself remained very active and visible in University affairs, as an officer in the Alumni Society and as a mentor and employer for UVA law students.9

Moreover, UVA was central to the pageantry and propaganda of the monument unveilings in Charlottesville. Prominent among the featured speakers at the Stonewall Jackson unveiling was UVA President Edwin A. Alderman, who described Jackson as a “great Christian warrior”; Alderman ceremonially presented the Jackson statue, on behalf of McIntire (himself a UVA alumnus), to Duke.

Among the many other alumni who participated in the program of events was Richard Heath Dabney, a professor of history at UVA and outspoken segregationist, and E. Lee Trinkle, the Democratic nominee for governor, who proclaimed, on an unmistakably political note, that Virginia would be “careful that the evil days of reconstruction shall not return.”10

Three years later, UVA was the staging ground for the Lee unveiling ceremonies. The procession to Lee Park began at the Rotunda, and it included not only Gov. Trinkle, assorted city and county officials, and the police and fire departments, but also UVA faculty, officers and students. Alumnus M. Ashby Jones of Atlanta gave the chief address, in which he referred to the “dark days of ‘Reconstruction’” as “worse than war,” and celebrated the subsequent “social triumph of the South” as a “reincarnation of the spirit of Lee.” Alderman was again a featured speaker, this time declaring Lee a “faultless” man, who had become a “majestic ideal to a whole land.” The festivities closed with a reception and “Grand Ball” in Memorial Gym.11

Southern whites were “conscious that the rituals of black memory represented a form of cultural resistance,” the historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage has observed, and whites therefore “ensured that public spaces conspicuously excluded any recognition of the recalled past of blacks.” One could never glean, from R.T.W. Duke’s versions of the past, that blacks had outnumbered whites in Albemarle County during the Civil War era, or that blacks experienced the Union Army’s arrival in the city in March of 1865 as a moment of liberation, or that more than 250 black men born in Albemarle County fought in the Union Army.

The Lost Cause creed sought to distort the South’s complex history. We at modern-day UVA have a profound responsibility and unprecedented opportunity to recover that history, in all its complexity.12

Elizabeth Varon is the Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia and author of “Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War” (2019).



1. “Death of Editor-in-Chief: Judge R.T.W. Duke, Jr.,” Virginia Law Register (April 1926), pp. 757-60; Michael Peter Charles Smith, “Richard Thomas Walker Duke (1853-1926),” Dictionary of Virginia Biography, http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Duke_Richard_Thomas_Walker_1853-1926.

2. R.T.W. Duke, Jr.  “Recollections,” Volume 1, Duke Family Papers, Small Special Collections, UVA, pp. 17-26.

3. Duke Recollections, Volume 1, pp. 216-17; Volume 2, pp. 34-35.

4. Duke Recollections, Volume 2, pp. 46-51.

5. Duke Recollections, Volume 4, pp. 73-78.

6. Duke Recollections, Volume 4, pp. 136-37; Richmond Times Dispatch, May 10, 1908, Oct. 27, 1909, May 27, 1920.

7. Charlottesville Daily Progress, Oct. 19, 1921; Staunton News Leader, Sept. 22, 1921; “The Jackson Monument at Charlottesville, Va.,” Confederate Veteran (February 1922), p. 44.

8. John S. Patton, ed., Proceedings of the 37th Annual Reunion of the Virginia Division of the Grand Camp U.C.V. (1924), pp. 1-6, 13-15, 20-21, 39-41; Brendan Wolfe, “History Writ Aright,” http://brendanwolfe.com/lee-monument/; Charlottesville Daily Progress, May 19, 20, 21, 1924.

9. Caroline E. Janney, “The Lost Cause,” https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Lost_Cause_The; on Duke’s alumni activities, see the University of Virginia Alumni Bulletin.

10. Proceedings of the Thirty-Fourth Annual Meeting of the Grand Camp Confederate Veterans Department of Virginia (1922); Staunton New Leader, Sept. 22, 1921; “The Stonewall Jackson Monument” University of Virginia Alumni News (Sept. 1921), p. 327; Charlottesville Daily Progress, Oct. 19, 1921.

11. Patton, ed., Proceedings of the 37th Annual Reunion; Charlottesville Daily Progress, May 21, 1924; University of Virginia Alumni News (May 1924), pp. 222-24.

12. W. Fitzhugh Brundage, The Southern Past:  A Clash of Race and Memory (2005), pp. 6-10. On African-American soldiers from Charlottesville, see for example http://naucenter.as.virginia.edu/blog-page/401.

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