It is to be expected that some people would take advantage of the 150th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox (sometimes seen as the end of the Civil War, although that’s wrong) to reflect on how Americans remember the Civil War. However, that topic tends to be confused with speculation on whether Confederate heritage persists or is eroding.
I find discussions about the persistence of Confederate heritage to be problematic. What, exactly, is Confederate heritage? Who defines it? Who interprets it? Who presents it to a broader public? These are not minor questions. Perhaps the easiest way to offer a devastating critique of Confederate heritage is to assume that certain groups define and represent that concept. After all, certain groups have provided a great deal of entertainment for us: critics of Confederate commemoration should be thankful that such groups exist, because they present easy targets. Members of such groups claim that contributions to their efforts increase in response to criticism of those groups: that’s a sad confession that on their own, these self-proclaimed defenders of Confederate heritage can’t raise funds based on the merits of their own appeals. Apparently they aren’t changing many hearts and minds, and, by their own admission, they aren’t opening up many wallets, checkbooks, and pocketbooks.
Thus, if we take these Confederate heritage advocates at their word, what allows them to have any chance of survival is to continue to be the targets of criticism from people who find it all too easy to pound away at Confederate heritage by claiming that these travelling circuses are representative of supporters of Confederate heritage as a whole. Complicit in setting that impression are other spokespeople for Confederate heritage (such as Ben Jones, chief of heritage operations for the Sons of Confederate Veterans), who are reluctant to distance themselves from such supporters because they need the numbers and the noise to generate controversy and discussion that they have been unable to spark on their own.
Confederate heritage in such hands has become an exercise in reaction to initiatives that revisit the display of Confederate icons and symbols, most notably the various forms of the Confederate flag. Without the actions of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of the Confederacy, the city of Lexington, Virginia, or Washington and Lee University, for example, there would be nothing to protest. That those institutions, once closely associated with the preservation of Confederate heritage by its advocates, have now reassessed their attitude toward how to address the issue of Confederate heritage, is at the heart of these protests, and that they continue to persist in holding their new positions will continue to fuel those protests. In places where, for one reason or another, efforts to alter the representation of Confederate heritage have met with frustration or simple compromise (Danville, Virginia, and Pensacola, Florida, stand out), heritage efforts fizzle quickly, because they, too, need targets in order to survive. Simply put, Confederate heritage groups have problems surviving primarily on the merits of Confederate heritage (that elusive term) nowadays: what inspires Confederate heritage’s loudest advocates is resistance to efforts to revisit that heritage.
Understanding this does not mean that one should criticize these institutions and governmental entities for revisiting their presentation of Confederate heritage. None of them seek to obliterate it. They offer different understandings of it within a larger historical context that sees the Civil War in a different light. Nor should one take out after critics of the more visible or more vocal Confederate heritage groups, as some historians have. One should not criticize those people any more than one should criticize the institutions whose decisions sparked the protests in the first place. After all, if historians today look at the formation of historical memory in the past and sometimes question the role played by historians in shaping certain narratives, then what will the historians of tomorrow have to say about those historians who criticized people who highlighted the problematic defense of Confederate heritage by certain groups?
At the center of all this, of course, is an effort to control historical understanding by all concerned–whether it be the institutions who initiated changes, the heritage groups that responded to these changes, the people who criticized the self-style representatives of Confederate heritage, and the people who criticized those critics. The discussion about African Americans’ involvement in the Confederate military is a case in point. One can comment on the people who propagate a myth of black Confederates or about those scholars and historians who offered a rather devastating critique of those claims–or one can comment on those historians who saw this debate as a distraction from what they wanted to talk about (I have witnessed prominent historians sigh in exasperation when someone in an audience brought up this theme, as if to say that any discussion would simply absorb the time they wanted to talk about what they thought was important).
I’m sure someone will get upset at the word “control,” just as others will point to it as a sign that there is indeed a conspiracy afloat on behalf of political correctness or its cousin, heritage correctness. However, anyone who offers a narrative of events knows that the narrative is inherently interpretive and entertains hopes that the understandings offered in that narrative will someday be a key part of a broader master narrative explaining an event, a person, or a theme. To deny this is foolish: historians offer interpretations believing that they are basically right, or at least more right than someone else. So do others. We may say that everyman is his own historian in the spirit of Carl Becker, but we don’t really mean that everyone is entitled to their own understanding of history as an understanding that’s equally valid with everyone else’s understanding. We may remark, “believe what you want to believe,” but implicit is this qualification: “but I think what you believe is wrong or at least badly flawed.”
Historians who are concerned about how Americans understand the Civil War and who want to contribute to the ensuing conversation should waste little time speculating about the resilience or decay of Confederate heritage. They should instead work harder at offering an interpretive narrative of that event that enriches and improves our understanding of it, and then endeavor to share that understanding with a broader public that pays scant attention to matters historical even as many of its members proclaim a love for history. It is in the end a contest for hearts and minds, with the understanding that some of them will never be changed. Let’s not worry about those people, whose minority view will persist for various reasons, many having to do with personality, philosophy, and political beliefs. There’s a much more worthy and worthwhile objective to be attained: helping Americans understand their past, in part so that they can address their present and future.