Writing about his early education, Ulysses S. Grant remarked on how his classroom instruction proceeded by rote and repetition until he had heard that “a noun was the name of a thing” so many times as to believe it. Words are important, and which words we use to describe things are important.
I have been most forcibly reminded of this recently due to the flurry of activity associated with efforts by various groups to celebrate secession and offer explanations of the coming of the Civil War which minimize the role of slavery and the debate over that institution in precipitating conflict. I expect this to continue in years to come with stories of outnumbered Confederates (presumably white as well as black … how dare some people neglect the contributions of white Confederates in their politically-correct rush to embrace black Confederates) fighting with skill and bravery for state rights and independence (and certainly not slavery) before being forced to submit to overwhelming numbers … you know the story … it’s the one we’ve heard ever since General Robert E. Lee issued General Orders No. 9 at Appomattox Court House. For folks who cling to this tale as the only story worth telling, the war had next to nothing to do with slavery, and to say otherwise is dismissed as an exercise in political correctness. For years people have floated different terms to express one aspect or another of this tale, from “the myth of the Lost Cause” to “neo-Confederates,” a term which I believe both means something else and something distinct from “Lost Cause.” At Civil War Memory Kevin Levin’s questioned the descriptive utility of “neo-Confederate,” a word I’ve used somewhat imprecisely myself. As Kevin’s pointed out, there are people who brag about being neo-Confederates, which I now take to be some present manifestation of endorsing the principles of the Confederacy, identifying with the Confederacy, and expressing a vague hankering to try secession again, even if that rarely gets past some sort of boisterous verbal defiance. Y’all know who you are.
What prodded me to set aside editing footnotes as I endure the final stages of manuscript preparation is a post by Andy Hall in today’s Dead Confederates, in which he draws attention to an editorial in South Carolina’s The State, which is published in Columbia, the state capital. It bluntly reminds its readers that secessionists seceded to protect slavery, period. Coming after weeks of various Confederate heritage groups tripping over themselves and being ridiculed by the media, this is an interesting development (and goodness knows someone in South Carolina may have learned something from the fate of Confederate History Month in Virginia). Apparently the effort by some groups to deny or obscure the primacy of slavery is being slapped down as never before. It’s almost as if the Civil War Sesquicentennial has a chance of becoming a truth and reconciliation exercise.
It’s clearly a tough time for those people who are enamored of the Confederacy and who work hard to downplay slavery, one way or another. One of those groups embraces the slogan, “Heritage not Hate,” but frankly I don’t see it that way. Some of the very people who espouse that perspective seem pretty hateful to me (“hateful,” by the way, is a word I learned while I lived in Tennessee). Given some of the recent projects endorsed by such groups, I think it would be better to restyle the slogan as “Heritage, not History,” because the evidential basis of their version of events is, to be kind, often lacking.
That said, I think people who point out the flaws in the reasoning and the evidence offered by such folks also miss the point. These critics operate under the assumption that this is an intellectual exercise in which reason holds sway. Wrong. Simply and plainly put, wrong. I find present in many of the people who hold such beliefs about the past (whatever their beliefs about the present) two characteristics. First, their understanding of the past is an article of faith and belief, not an interpretative narrative rooted in empirical evidence. Basically, when you argue with these folks, it’s akin to arguing issues of religious faith. In the end, I believe because I believe. Related to that is a second issue: these folks take it personally. This is as much about the present as it is about the past: this is just as much about people today as it is about people 150 years ago. When good old boy Trace Adkins explains to people his understanding of history, for example, he wants to make sure that southern children should not be ashamed of their ancestors’ past as slaveholders and Confederates (obviously Trace may have forgotten about desegregation or the fact that not all white southerners supported the Confederacy), and he wants to tell us about learning history at his grandfather’s knee and how granddaddy was never in it for slavery (which is a good thing, because, unless granddaddy’s really old, he was not around during the war and could not have contemplated owning slaves in light of the 13th Amendment). The point is that in the mind of Trace Adkins, facts be damned. It’s really about him and what he wants to believe. He’s going to take it personally, precisely because it is personal. You write about the past, you’re writing about him.
So I’ve considered Kevin Levin’s lament about the use of the term “neo-Confederate.” I understand his reservations. At the same time I confess that “Lost Cause” has limited explanatory power for me. So I propose a new term: Confederate romantics. This term, I think, recognizes the emotional roots of belief, and helps pull together several strands of argument (cue the music). After all, we hear, slavery wasn’t so bad, it was best for black people, the war was over tariffs and state rights, white people were fighting for liberty, freedom, and to protect their homes and way of life, they fought out of a sense of duty and honor where they were almost certainly doomed to defeat (thanks to that tyrant Lincoln, that drunken butcher Grant, that arsonist Sherman, that thief Butler, and that turncoat Longstreet), blacks flocked to support the Confederacy because they supported the cause … and on and on, including for some a tale of Reconstruction in which white supremacist terrorists are celebrated as freedom fighters who were just looking to restore law and order by whatever means they could, because, after all, the ends justify the means.
Sure, I exaggerate. But not by much.
There really is no use to resort to traditional modes of historical scholarship, including the proper use and understanding of evidence (such as, for example, the very words used by secessionists at the time) in contesting this narrative. You aren’t going to change any minds. Some people believe sincerely in what they say: others, including Kevin Weeks and Ann DeWitt, have now demonstrated that either they are clueless or corrupt in using (and continuing to use) a quote from Bruce Levine, just as others have warped Ed Bearss’s words beyond recognition. Such people are entangled in fraud.
The best reason to challenge this narrative is to make sure that other people don’t get sucked up into the cant and misrepresentation, the construction of strawmen, and so on. Sure, it’s hard to find out what happened, how it happened, and why: otherwise our good old boy Trace would be holding an endowed chair of American history so he could teach students at his knee. Nor should one want to counter this absurd narrative with one equally absurd as some sort of mirror image (the ever-virtuous Yankee tale which I see more in the writings of its critics than as a view of history actually articulated by scholars). Indeed, historical scholarship should not be an exercise in moral judgment (although some will make those judgments): it should be, first and foremost, an effort to understand our past in all its complexity and messiness. If we believe that in order to understand ourselves, we must understand our past, then it behooves us not to cheat or delude ourselves by constructing a version of the past to justify ourselves and make us feel good about ourselves. Besides, it isn’t about you: it’s about them.
History’s difficult, but it’s also important, which is why it is worth doing and learning.
Now, back to those footnotes …