Con­fed­er­acy

Smithsonian Magazine - - Shadows Of The Civil War -

One of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s most in­flu­en­tial fig­ures was Mil­dred Lewis Rutherford, of Athens, Ge­or­gia, a well-known speaker and writer at the turn of the 20th cen­tury and the UDC’s his­to­rian gen­eral from 1911 to 1916.

Rutherford was so de­voted to restor­ing the racial hi­er­ar­chies of the past that she trav­eled the coun­try in full plan­ta­tion re­galia spread­ing the “true his­tory,” she called it, which cast slave own­ers and Klans­men as he­roes. She pres­sured pub­lic schools and li­braries across the South to ac­cept ma­te­ri­als that ad­vanced Lost Cause mythol­ogy, in­clud­ing proKlan lit­er­a­ture that re­ferred to black peo­ple as “ig­no­rant and bru­tal.” At the cen­ter of her cru­sade was the be­lief that slaves had been “the hap­pi­est set of peo­ple on the face of the globe,” “well-fed, well-clothed, and well-housed.” She ex­co­ri­ated the Freed­men’s Bu­reau, a fed­eral agency charged with pro­tect­ing the rights of African-Amer­i­cans, and ar­gued that eman­ci­pa­tion had un­leashed such vi­o­lence by African-Amer­i­cans that “the Ku Klux Klan was nec­es­sary to pro­tect the white woman.”

UDC of­fi­cials did not re­spond to our in­ter­view re­quests. Pre­vi­ously, though, the or­ga­ni­za­tion has dis­avowed any links to hate groups, and in 2017 the pres­i­dent-gen­eral, Pa­tri­cia Bryson, re­leased a state­ment say­ing the UDC “to­tally de­nounces any in­di­vid­ual or group that pro­motes racial di­vi­sive­ness or white supremacy.”

Con­fed­er­ate ceme­ter­ies in Vir­ginia that re­ceive tax­payer funds han­dled by the UDC are none­the­less used as gath­er­ing places for groups with ex­treme views. One af­ter­noon last May, we at­tended the Con­fed­er­ate Me­mo­rial Day cer­e­mony in the Con­fed­er­ate sec­tion of the vast Oak­wood Ceme­tery in Rich­mond. We were greeted by mem­bers of the Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans and the Vir­ginia Flag­gers, a group that says its mis­sion is to “stand AGAINST those who would des­e­crate our Con­fed­er­ate Mon­u­ments and memo­ri­als, and FOR our Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans.”

An honor guard of re-en­ac­tors pre­sented an ar­ray of Con­fed­er­ate stan­dards. Par­tic­i­pants stood at at­ten­tion for an in­vo­ca­tion read by a chap­lain in pe­riod dress. They put their hands on their hearts, in salute to the Con­fed­er­ate flag. Su­san Hath­away, a mem­ber of the Vir­ginia Flag­gers, led the crowd of sev­eral dozen in a song that was once the of­fi­cial paean to the Com­mon­wealth:

Carry me back to old Vir­ginny,

There’s where the cot­ton and the corn and taters grow, There’s where the birds war­ble sweet in the spring­time, There’s where this old darkey’s heart am long’d to go. “VERY LIT­TLE HAS BEEN DONE to ad­dress the legacy of slav­ery and its mean­ing in con­tem­po­rary life.”

That scathing as­sess­ment of the na­tion’s un­will­ing­ness to face the truth was is­sued re­cently by the Equal Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive, the Mont­gomery-based le­gal ad­vo­cacy group that in April 2018 opened the first na­tional me­mo­rial to vic­tims of lynch­ing.

A few Con­fed­er­ate his­tor­i­cal sites, though, are show­ing signs of change. In Rich­mond, the Amer­i­can Civil War Cen­ter and the Mu­seum of the Con­fed­er­acy have joined forces to be­come the Amer­i­can Civil War Mu­seum, now led by an African-Amer­i­can CEO, Christy Cole­man. The new en­tity, she said, seeks to tell the story of the Civil War from mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives—the Union and the Con­fed­er­acy, free and en­slaved African-Amer­i­cans—and to take on the dis­tor­tions and omis­sions of Con­fed­er­ate ide­ol­ogy.

“For a very, very long time” the Lost Cause has dom­i­nated pub­lic his­to­ries of the Civil War, Cole­man told us in an in­ter­view. “Once it was framed, it be­came the course for ev­ery­thing. It was the ac­cepted nar­ra­tive.” In a stark com­par­i­son, she noted that stat­ues of Hitler and Goebbels aren’t scat­tered through­out Ger­many, and that while Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps have been made into mu­se­ums, “they don’t pre­tend that they were less hor­ri­ble than they ac­tu­ally were. And yet we do that to Amer­ica’s con­cen­tra­tion camps. We call them plan­ta­tions, and we talk about how grand ev­ery­thing was, and we talk about the pretty dresses that women wore, and we talk about the wealth, and we re­fer to the en­slaved pop­u­la­tion as ser­vants as if this is some be­nign in­sti­tu­tion.”

Strat­ford Hall, the Vir­ginia plan­ta­tion where Robert E. Lee was born, also has new lead­er­ship. Kel­ley Deetz, a his­to­rian and ar­chae­ol­o­gist who co-edited a pa­per ti­tled “His­toric Black Lives Mat­ter: Ar­chae­ol­ogy as Ac­tivism in the 21st Cen­tury,” was hired in June as the site’s first di­rec­tor of pro­gram­ming and ed­u­ca­tion. Strat­ford Hall, where 31 peo­ple were en­slaved as of 1860, is re­vis­ing how it presents slav­ery. The re­cent shock­ing vi­o­lence in Char­lottesville, Deetz said, was speed­ing up “the slow pace of deal­ing with th­ese kinds of sen­si­tive sub­jects.” She said, “I guar­an­tee you that in a year or less, you go on a tour here and you’re go­ing to hear about en­slave­ment.”

In 1999, Congress took the ex­tra­or­di­nary step of ad­vis­ing the Na­tional Park Ser­vice to re-eval­u­ate its Civil War sites and do a bet­ter job of ex­plain­ing “the unique role that slav­ery played in the cause of the con­flict.” But ves­tiges of the Lost Cause still haunt park prop­erty. In ru­ral North­ern Vir­ginia, in the mid­dle of a vast lawn, stands a small white clap­board house with a long white chim­ney—the Stonewall Jack­son Shrine, part of the Fred­er­icks­burg & Spot­syl­va­nia Na­tional Mil­i­tary Park. The Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral died in the house in May 1863. “The ten­dency for the park his­tor­i­cally has been to in­vite peo­ple to mourn Jack­son’s death,” John Hen­nessy, the park’s chief his­to­rian, told us. He be­lieves that the site should be more than a shrine, how­ever. Vis­i­tors, Hen­nessey said, should learn that Jack­son “led an army in a re­bel­lion in the ser­vice of a na­tion that in­tended to keep peo­ple in

bondage for­ever.” He went on, “The great­est en­emy to good pub­lic his­tory is omis­sion. We are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing as a so­ci­ety now the col­lat­eral dam­age that for­get­ting can in­flict.”

A park ranger sit­ting in the gift shop rose to of­fer us a prac­ticed talk that fo­cused rev­er­ently on Jack­son’s fi­nal days—the bed he slept on, the clock that still keeps time. The ranger said a “ser­vant,” Jim Lewis, had stayed with Jack­son in the small house as he lay dy­ing. A plaque noted the room where Jack­son’s white staff slept. But there was no sign in the room across the hall where Lewis stayed. Hen­nessy had re­cently re­moved it be­cause it failed to ac­knowl­edge that Lewis was en­slaved. Hen­nessy is work­ing on a re­place­ment. Slav­ery, for the mo­ment, was present only in the si­lences.

DUR­ING THE FALL MUSTER at Beau­voir, the Jef­fer­son Davis home, we met Stephanie Braz­zle, a 39-year-old African-Amer­i­can Mis­sis­sip­pian who had ac­com­pa­nied her daugh­ter, a fourth grader, on a field trip. It was Braz­zle’s first visit. “I al­ways thought it was a place that wasn’t for us,” she said. Braz­zle had con­sid­ered keep­ing her daugh­ter home, but de­cided against it. “I re­ally do try to keep an open mind. I wanted to be able to talk to her about it.”

Braz­zle walked the Beau­voir grounds all morn­ing. She stood be­hind her daugh­ter’s school group as they lis­tened to re-en­ac­tors de­scribe life in the Con­fed­er­acy. She waited for some men­tion of the en­slaved, or of African-Amer­i­cans af­ter eman­ci­pa­tion. “It was like we were not even there,” she said, as if slav­ery “never hap­pened.”

“I was shocked at what they were say­ing, and what wasn’t there,” she said. It’s not that Braz­zle, who teaches psy­chol­ogy, can’t han­dle his­toric sites re­lated to slav­ery. She can, and she wants her daugh­ter, now 10, to face that his­tory, too. She has taken her daugh­ter to for­mer plan­ta­tions where the ex­pe­ri­ence of en­slaved peo­ple is a part of the in­ter­pre­ta­tion. “She has to know what th­ese places are,” Braz­zle said. “My grand­mother, whose grand­par­ents were slaves, she told sto­ries. We black peo­ple ac­knowl­edge that this is our his­tory. We ac­knowl­edge that this still af­fects us.”

The over­ar­ch­ing ques­tion is whether Amer­i­can tax­pay­ers should sup­port Lost Cause mythol­ogy. For now, that in­vented his­tory, told by Con­fed­er­ates and re­told by sym­pa­thiz­ers for gen­er­a­tions, is etched into the ex­pe­ri­ence at sites like Beau­voir. In the wellkept Con­fed­er­ate ceme­tery be­hind the li­brary, be­yond a wind­ing brook, be­neath the flag­pole, a large gray head­stone faces the road. It is en­graved with lines that the Eng­lish poet Philip Stan­hope Wors­ley ded­i­cated to Robert E. Lee:

“No na­tion rose so white and fair, none fell so pure of crime.”

Van­dals struck Rich­mond’s Lee mon­u­ment in Au­gust. Op­po­si­tion to the statue isn’t new; in 1890, lead­ing African-Amer­i­cans op­posed its in­stal­la­tion.

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