This week marks the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to the Union—an occasion for celebration, or mourning, depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon line you fall on.
In this way, the historiography of the Civil War is somewhat unique. Rarely in human history has a conflict’s losing side been lent such considerable say in how the textbooks remember it. As such, American social studies curricula have long been hobbled by one of the most pervasive myths in US history: that the Civil War was fought to preserve (or undermine) the spectral concept of “states’ rights.”
It’s a self-delusion some use to justify neo-Confederate pride: stars-and-bars bumper stickers, or remnants of Confederate iconography woven into some of today’s state flags. “It’s about Southern pride,” they insist. “It’s about heritage”—forgetting, intentionally perhaps, that slavery and its decade-spanning echoes are very much a part of the collective American heritage. Confederate denialism, in the form of states’ rights advocacy, permits sentimentalists to keep their questionable imagery without having to address its unsavory associations.