How Con­fed­er­ate lore sur­vives

Text­books and mon­u­ments lie, says his­to­rian James W. Loewen

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - JamesW. Loewen, emer­i­tus so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Ver­mont, is the au­thor of “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and “The Con­fed­er­ate and Neo-Con­fed­er­ate Reader.” Twit­ter: @JamesWLoewen

History is the polemics of the vic­tor, Wil­liam F. Buck­ley once said. Not so in the United States, at least not re­gard­ing the Civil War. As soon as the Con­fed­er­ates laid down their arms, some picked up their pens and be­gan to dis­tort what they had done and why. The re­sult­ing mythol­ogy took hold of the na­tion a gen­er­a­tion later and per­sists— which is why a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date can sug­gest, as Michele Bach­mann did in 2011, that slav­ery was some­how pro-fam­ily and why the public, per the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, be­lieves that the war was fought mainly over states’ rights.

The Con­fed­er­ates won with the pen (and the noose) what they could not win on the bat­tle­field: the cause of white supremacy and the dom­i­nant un­der­stand­ing of what the war was all about. We are still dig­ging our­selves out from un­der the mis­in­for­ma­tion they spread, which has man­i­fested in our public mon­u­ments and our history books.

Take Ken­tucky, where the leg­is­la­ture voted not to se­cede. Early in the war, Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Al­bert Sid­ney John­ston ven­tured through the western part of the state and found “no en­thu­si­asm, as we imag­ined and hoped, but hos­til­ity.” Even­tu­ally, 90,000 Ken­tuck­ians would fight for the United States, while 35,000 fought for the Con­fed­er­ate States. Nev­er­the­less, ac­cord­ing to his­to­rian

Thomas Clark, the state now has 72 Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments and only two Union ones.

Neo-Con­fed­er­ates also won parts of Mary­land. In 1913, the United Daugh­ters of the Con­fed­er­acy (UDC) put a soldier on a pedestal at the Rockville court­house. Mary­land, which did not se­cede, sent 24,000mento the Con­fed­er­ate armed forces, but it also sent 63,000 to the U.S. Army and Navy. Still, the UDC’s mon­u­ment tells visi­tors to take the other side: “To our he­roes of Mont­gomery Co. Mary­land: That we through life may not for­get to love the thin gray line.”

In fact, the thin gray line came through Mont­gomery and ad­join­ing Fred­er­ick coun­ties at least three times, en route to An­ti­etam, Get­tys­burg and Washington. Robert E. Lee’s army ex­pected to find re­cruits and help with food, cloth­ing and in­for­ma­tion. It didn’t. In­stead, Mary­land res­i­dents greeted Union sol­diers as lib­er­a­tors when they came through on the way to An­ti­etam. Rec­og­niz­ing the res­i­dents of Fred­er­ick as hos­tile, Con­fed­er­ate cav­alry leader Jubal Early ran­somed $200,000 from them les the burn their town, a sum equal to about $3 mil­lion to­day. But Fred­er­ick now boasts a Con­fed­er­ate me­mo­rial, and the man­ager of the town’s ceme­tery — filled with Union and Con­fed­er­ate dead— told me, “Very lit­tle is done on the Union side” around Me­mo­rial Day. “It’s mostly Con­fed­er­ate.”

Neo-Con­fed­er­ates didn’t just win the bat­tle of public mon­u­ments. They man­aged to re­name the war, call­ing it the War Be­tween the States, a lo­cu­tion born af­ter the con­flict that was among the pri­mary ways to re­fer to the war in the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tury, af­ter which it be­gan to fade. Even “Jeop­ardy!” has used this lan­guage.

Per­haps most per­ni­ciously, neo-Con­fed­er­ates now claim that the South se­ceded over states’ rights. Yet when each state left the Union, its lead­ers made clear that they were se­ced­ing be­cause they were for slav­ery and

against states’ rights. In its “Dec­la­ra­tion of the Causes Which Im­pel the State of Texas to Se­cede From the Fed­eral Union,” for ex­am­ple, the se­ces­sion con­ven­tion of Texas listed the states that had of­fended the del­e­gates: “Maine, Ver­mont, New Hamp­shire, Con­necti­cut, Rhode Is­land, Mas­sachusetts, New York, Penn­syl­va­nia, Ohio, Wis­con­sin, Michigan and Iowa.” Gov­ern­ments there had ex­er­cised states’ rights by pass­ing laws that in­ter­fered with the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s at­tempts to en­force the Fugi­tive Slave Act. Some no longer let slave own­ers “transit” across their ter­ri­tory with slaves. “States’ rights” were what Texas was se­ced­ing against. Texas also made clear what it was se­ced­ing for— white supremacy:

“We hold as un­de­ni­able truths that the gov­ern­ments of the var­i­ous States, and of the con­fed­er­acy it­self, were es­tab­lished ex­clu­sively by the white race, for them­selves and their pos­ter­ity; that the African race had no agency in their es­tab­lish­ment; that they were right­fully held and re­garded as an in­fe­rior and de­pen­dent race, and in that con­di­tion only could their ex­is­tence in this coun­try be ren­dered ben­e­fi­cial or tol­er­a­ble.”

De­spite such state­ments, neo-Con­fed­er­ates erected mon­u­ments that flatly lied about the Con­fed­er­ate cause. For ex­am­ple, South Carolina’s mon­u­ment at Get­tys­burg, ded­i­cated in 1963, claims to ex­plain why the state se­ceded: “Abid­ing faith in the sa­cred­ness of states rights pro­vided their creed here.” This tells us noth­ing about 1863, when abid­ing op­po­si­tion to states’ rights pro­vided the Pal­metto State’s creed. In 1963, how­ever, its lead­ers did sup­port states’ rights; politi­cians tried des­per­ately that decade to keep the fed­eral gov­ern­ment from en­forc­ing school de­seg­re­ga­tion and civil rights.

So thor­oughly did this mythol­ogy take hold that our text­books still stand history on its head and say se­ces­sion was for, rather than against, states’ rights. Pub­lish­ers mys­tify se­ces­sion be­cause they don’t want to of­fend South­ern school dis­tricts and thereby lose sales. Con­sider this pas­sage from “The Amer­i­can Jour­ney,” prob­a­bly the largest text­book ever foisted on mid­dle school stu­dents and per­haps the best-selling U.S. history text­book:

“Lin­coln and the Repub­li­cans had promised not to dis­turb slav­ery where it al­ready ex­isted. Nev­er­the­less, many peo­ple in the South mis­trusted the party, fear­ing that the Repub­li­can gov­ern­ment would not pro­tect South­ern rights and lib­er­ties. On De­cem­ber 20, 1860, the South’s long-stand­ing threat to leave the Union be­came a re­al­ity when South Carolina held a spe­cial con­ven­tion and voted to se­cede.”

The sec­tion reads as if slav­ery was not the rea­son for se­ces­sion. In­stead, the ra­tio­nale is com­pletely vague: White South­ern­ers feared for their “rights and lib­er­ties.” On the next page, the au­thors are more pre­cise: White South­ern­ers claimed that since “the na­tional gov­ern­ment” had been derelict“— by re­fus­ing to en­force the Fugi­tive Slave Act and by deny­ing the South­ern states equal rights in the ter­ri­to­ries — the states were jus­ti­fied in leav­ing the Union.”

“Jour­ney” of­fers no ev­i­dence to sup­port this claim. It can­not. No South­ern state made any such charge against the fed­eral gov­ern­ment in any se­ces­sion doc­u­ment I have ever seen. Abra­ham Lin­coln’s pre­de­ces­sors, James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce, were part of the pro-South­ern wing of the Demo­cratic Party. For 10 years, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment had vig­or­ously en­forced the Fugi­tive Slave Act. Buchanan sup­ported pro-slav­ery forces in Kansas even af­ter his own min­ion, ter­ri­to­rial gover­nor and for­mer Mis­sis­sippi slave owner Robert Walker, ruled that they had won an elec­tion only by fraud. The seven states that se­ceded be­fore Lin­coln took of­fice had no quar­rel with “the na­tional gov­ern­ment.”

Teach­ing or im­ply­ing that the Con­fed­er­ate states se­ceded for states’ rights is not ac­cu­rate history. It is white, Con­fed­er­ate-apol­o­gist history. “Jour­ney,” like other U.S. text­books, needs to be de-Con­fed­er­a­tized. So does the history test we give to im­mi­grants who want to be­come U.S. cit­i­zens. Item No. 74 asks them to “name one prob­lem that led to the Civil War.” It then gives three ac­cept­able an­swers: slav­ery, eco­nomic rea­sons and states’ rights. (No other ques­tion on this 100-item test has more than one right an­swer.) If by “eco­nomic rea­sons” it means is­sues with tar­iffs and taxes, which most peo­ple in­fer, then two of its three “cor­rect an­swers” are wrong.

The legacy of this think­ing per­vades Washington, too. The dean of the Washington Na­tional Cathe­dral has noted that some of its stained-glass win­dows memo­ri­al­ize Stonewall Jack­son and Robert E. Lee. There’s a statue of Al­bert Pike, Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral and re­puted leader of the Arkansas Ku Klux Klan, in Ju­di­ciary Square.

The Army runs Fort A.P. Hill, named for a Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral whose men killed African Amer­i­can sol­diers af­ter they sur­ren­dered; Fort Bragg, named for a gen­eral who was not only Con­fed­er­ate but also in­com­pe­tent; and Fort Ben­ning, named for a gen­eral who, af­ter he helped get his home state of Ge­or­gia to se­cede, made the fol­low­ing ar­gu­ment to the Vir­ginia leg­is­la­ture:

“What was the rea­son that in­duced Ge­or­gia to take the step of se­ces­sion? This rea­son may be summed up in one sin­gle propo­si­tion. It was a con­vic­tion . . . that a sep­a­ra­tion from the North was the only thing that could pre­vent the abo­li­tion of her slav­ery. . . . If things are al­lowed to go on as they are, it is cer­tain that slav­ery is to be abol­ished. . . . By the time the North shall have at­tained the power, the black race will be in a large ma­jor­ity, and then we will have black gover­nors, black leg­is­la­tures, black ju­ries, black ev­ery­thing. . . . The con­se­quence will be that our men will be all ex­ter­mi­nated or ex­pelled to wan­der as vagabonds over a hos­tile Earth, and as for our women, their fate will be too hor­ri­ble to con­tem­plate even in fancy.”

With our mon­u­ments ly­ing about se­ces­sion, our text­books ob­fus­cat­ing what the Con­fed­er­acy was about and our Army honor­ing South­ern gen­er­als, no won­der so many Amer­i­cans sup­ported the Con­fed­er­acy un­til re­cently. We can see the im­pact of Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols and think­ing on Dy­lann Roof, ac­cused of killing nine in a Charleston, S.C., church, but other ex­am­ples abound. In his mugshot, Ti­mothy McVeigh, who bombed the Al­fred P. Mur­rah Fed­eral Build­ing in Ok­la­homa City in 1995, wore a neo-Con­fed­er­ate T-shirt show­ing Abra­ham Lin­coln and the words “Sic sem­per tyran­nis.” When white stu­dents in Ap­ple­ton, Wis. — a re­cov­er­ing “sun­down town” that for decades had been all white on pur­pose — had is­sues with Mex­i­can Amer­i­can stu­dents in 1999, they re­sponded by wear­ing and wav­ing Con­fed­er­ate flags, which they al­ready had at home, at the ready.

Across the coun­try, re­mov­ing slav­ery from its cen­tral role in prompt­ing the Civil War marginal­izes African Amer­i­cans and makes us all stupid. De-Con­fed­er­a­tiz­ing the United States won’t end white supremacy, but it will be a mo­men­tous step in that di­rec­tion.


The pres­i­dent of the Con­fed­er­acy oc­cu­pies a place of pride in the Ken­tucky capi­tol. Ac­tivists want to have him re­moved.


Con­fed­er­ate mem­o­ra­bilia and mon­u­ments, and even our history books, ob­fus­cate the real history be­hind the Civil War.

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