Civil War 150th: It is Time to Reclaim History and Move Forward
Growing up in New England, the Civil War was ancient history and not altogether that significant in our lives other than the fact that the North and slavery ended. We marveled at the south’s obsession with the “lost cause” and I recall talking to a school teacher who migrated south and was shocked to see how much time was spent on the civil war. As a result, when I heard a southerner talk about the war I often deferred to them assuming they knew their history.
In 2006, I did my own research and wrote a column in the Santa Monica Daily Press about the Confederate Battle Flag and much to my surprise began getting bombarded with emails from a white supremacist group with members across the country and in combat in Iraq. They objected to my linking to slavery and racism, which was not hard to do since when it was introduced the Savannah Morning News proclaimed that it would “be hailed by the civilized world (as a) white man’s flag” and as symbol of “our higher cause, the cause of a superior race.”
I responded to each one of them and began to realize how Southern revisionism and neo-confederates had to an extent succeeded in recasting the war as about state’s rights – which is what is taught in many schools. One need only look at the Articles of Secession, however, to determine that the first, second and third cause of the war was slavery. The following is from Texas’ statement:
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.
In the press leading up to today’s 150th anniversary, I noticed a new-found willingness to challenge this and the continued glorification of the war in the south. Brian Beutler wrote a brilliant piece in the New Republic that today’s anniversary of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox should be a national holiday and that we should rename the 10 U.S. military bases named after Confederate generals. Beutler also referenced a piece by The Atlantic highlighting the millions spent in federal funds on Confederate War Memorials.
Why is this a big deal? The problem is that the modern’s South embrace of the Confederacy has it origins in defiance to federal civil rights initiatives. As I wrote a decade ago:
After the war, all southern states except for Mississippi abandoned use of the[Confederate battle flag] until 1954 when the Supreme Court delivered a fatal blow to segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education and the “white man’s flag” was resurrected as a symbol of southern defiance. In Georgia, for example, the leader of the effort to add the Southern Cross to the state flag has since conceded it was intended to demonstrate defiance of the Brown ruling. Similarly, Alabama Governor George Wallace first flew the Southern Cross over the statehouse in 1963 to protest a visit by his nemesis U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
This is evident even today as in five of the eleven states of the Confederacy, the Martin Luther King holiday is observed in conjunction with either Robert Lee’s birthday (Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi), Lee/Jackson Day honoring Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson (Virginia) or Confederate Heroes Day in Texas. Another four states celebrate also Confederate Memorial Day.
It is time to bring the glorification of this dishonorable cause to an end. Progressives should add amendments to budget bills requiring the renaming of bases or limiting federal funds to only cemeteries for soldiers who fought under the American flag. They also should protest new confederate memorials – yes new ones are still being built. With Republicans controlling Congress, such an effort is unlikely to succeed at first, but let’s start that debate now.
Let us reclaim the history that is rightfully ours, not to boast of any moral superiority since the North also has a sad legacy involving slavery, but to instead exalt American values and American heroes – none of which include slavery.