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.