The American Civil War ended over 150 years ago with the defeat of the Confederate States of America, known as the Confederacy. This unrecognized state seceded from the United States, fought for the preservation of slavery, and eventually lost a war that left hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians dead. One would think that such traitors would be unapologetically condemned in the United States, with the flag of the Confederates reviled alongside other historical adversaries such as the Cold War-era Soviets and World War II-era Nazis. Yet the Confederate Flag is shockingly looked upon with admiration by many Americans. This reverence of the Confederacy is not new; it is the result of the so-called Southern heritage being passed down through generations, seemingly tolerating treachery and racism at best and advocating for them at worst. It is in this way, and many others, that the legacies of racism and white supremacy in the United States are directly connected to the persisting legacy of the Confederacy. Thus, if racism in the United States is ever to truly cease, modern glorification of the Confederacy must end.
Although no one should be personally held accountable for the actions of their ancestors, it is an individual’s willful choice to defend or denounce the actions of those who have come before them. For example, in an episode of the PBS television series Finding Your Roots, comedian Larry David was shocked to discover that his paternal great-grandfather was a slave-owner who fought for the Confederacy. Upon learning this information, David did not attempt to glorify his ancestor whatsoever; rather, he immediately apologized to host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. saying simply, “I’m so sorry” (“The Impression”). His ancestral history is not his choice, but the actions he takes in response to his ancestral history are all his own. Meanwhile, actress Ellie Kemper has faced criticism for participating in a St. Louis debutante ball known as the “Veiled Prophet Ball” when she was a teenager. The ball is organized by the Veiled Prophet Organization, an institution whose history is tied to institutional racism and sexism and whose founding is connected to the Confederacy. In response, Kemper did not defend her actions or make light of them; rather, she apologized and took full responsibility, saying, in part, “Ignorance is no excuse . . . I want to apologize to the people I’ve disappointed, and I promise that moving forward I will listen” (Alter). Her apology is not for her family’s connection to the Veiled Prophet Organization, instead it is for her conscious participation in it. In both instances, family and ancestral history are outside of one’s control, but the actions taken in response to such history are, generally speaking, within one’s control and should be treated as such.
However, when Americans in the present-day choose to proudly wave the Confederate flag and advocate for the preservation of monuments of Confederate generals, it is not merely a recognition of heritage. Instead, it is a conscious participation in, and advocacy of, a culture which actively chooses to revere the Confederacy. Therefore, I solely and specifically take issue with those who in any way consciously attempt to glorify the legacy of the Confederacy. The legacy of the Confederacy is the legacy of literal traitors to the United States.
Acknowledging the traitorous nature of the Confederacy is crucial in quelling any misinformation claiming that the principles of the United States should in any way reflect the history of the Confederacy. After all, the Confederacy seceded from the Union, breaking away from the United States of America. It is not as if the United States ceased to exist during the Civil War; it was very much involved in the war, specifically as the side the Confederacy was fighting against. Although Confederate widows were granted pensions, the United States Department of Veteran Affairs does not recognize Confederate veterans as United States veterans (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; Lynch; Veterans’ Benefit Act of 1957).
Standing against the Confederacy and its legacy is in no way an attempt to erase the Confederacy from the history of the United States. The Civil War was one of the most pivotal points in American history. It is crucial that the Confederacy’s existence and role in American history never be erased; however, remembrance is not reverence. One can remember the Confederacy without revering it, in a similar way that one can remember the Holocaust without revering it. For instance, on Finding Your Roots, Larry David acknowledged his ancestral history, but he did not endorse it in any way (“The Impression”). Fighting against the erasure of history is generally a noble fight, but it is simply not the reality of the general cases against things such as the Confederate Flag and Confederate monuments. On the whole, no one is saying that the Confederacy should be erased from the historical record.
Rather, the reality of the debate largely concerns the way in which America should remember the Confederacy. For example, PBS (who airs Finding Your Roots) preserves historical accounts of the Civil War and electronic copies of notable documents on its website (The Civil War). This is a way of preserving the historical record and making it accessible for those who use the Internet. Voicing anti-Confederate opinions in Finding Your Roots does not diminish this historical record because the discussion is not about whether the historical record should be preserved. Rather, it is about whether the causes of the Confederacy presented through the historical record should be glorified.
Many misconceptions, distortions, and outright falsehoods relating to the Confederacy have been intentionally passed through the American education system. A national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 48% of Americans were under the impression that states’ rights were the main cause of the Civil War (Pew Research Center). There is only one problem: states’ rights were not the main cause of the Civil War, slavery was. There’s no need to take my word for it because the Vice President of the Confederate States of America, Alexander H. Stephens, said so himself in a speech given shortly after the secession of the Confederacy from the Union: “The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution–African slavery as it exists amongst us–the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rapture and present revolution” (Stephens 721). So, why is it that so many Americans have a fundamental misunderstanding of the Civil War and, by extension, the cause of the Confederacy?
After the end of the war, many who identified with the cause of the Confederacy started organizations to ensure that textbooks would not disparage the South (Coleman). Notably, in 1919 pro-Confederate educator Mildred Lewis Rutherford outlined criteria approved by an organization named the United Confederate Veterans to ensure that all books used by said authorities accorded “full justice to the South.” Among its many guidelines: “Reject a book that says the South fought to hold her slaves” (Rutherford). Rutherford’s guidelines were implemented across the country, spreading Confederate talking points and downplaying slavery to the point where the NAACP felt the need to launch their own textbook campaign in 1946. Because it was not until the 1970s that textbooks saw significant changes, there are many leaders currently in positions of power who likely grew up learning from textbooks filtered through a pro-Confederate “measuring rod” (Coleman; Rutherford). Thus, pro-Confederate sentiment in parts of the country today is not some coincidence, rather it is partially the result of the careful planning of pro-Confederate organizations that sought to use the American education system to spread falsehoods and gain sympathy for the Confederate cause.
Simultaneous admiration for the United States and the Confederacy is unjustifiable given that, fundamentally, the two are the antithesis of one another. Alexander Stephens discussed this point during the same speech referenced earlier:
The prevailing ideas entertained by [Thomas Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically . . . Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the ‘storm came and the wind blew.’ Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery-subordination to the superior race-is his natural and normal condition. Stephens 721
Stephens describes his view that the Constitution was informed by beliefs that are untrue and ultimately folly. He views the Confederacy as being built on a separate, stronger, and fundamentally true core set of beliefs, unlike the foundation of the United States. That said, slavery existed and persisted for a century after the founding of the United States, with many basic civil rights not granted to non-white males until the twentieth century; the fight against discrimination carries on well into the twenty-first century. And yet the Confederacy did not see itself as the United States plus slavery; the Confederacy saw itself as being a fundamental juxtaposition to the United States and as being built on values opposing those of the United States.
One cannot in the present day say justifiably that they love the United States and the Confederacy because the two statements contradict each other. For instance, self-proclaimed Southern nationalist organization League of the South, an organization with chapters across sixteen states and that identifies itself with the mission of the Confederacy, describes the importance of Southern cultural, social, economic, and political independence. This is reflected in a disturbing poll conducted by Public Policy Polling, which found that 29% of Mississippians polled would side with the Confederacy if there were another Civil War today. The poll found that an additional 21% of those polled said that they were not sure who they would side with (Jensen). In this debate there is simply no getting around the fact that it is not a “yes/and” debate but rather an “either/or” one. Either one defends the Confederacy or the United States. In that respect, the issue of glorifying the Confederacy is fundamentally an issue concerning racism and white supremacy.
Defending the preservation of Confederate statues and monuments is not a defense of history; it is a glorification of white supremacy. In this way, preserving Confederate statues and monuments (including the naming of American military bases after Confederate leaders) is a glorification of the Confederacy and, by extension, white supremacy alongside it. The Southern Poverty Law Center identified 1,747 Confederate statues, monuments, place names, and other symbols across the United States and found that the vast majority were dedicated during two periods: the first between 1900 and 1930 and the second between 1950 and 1970. The first period is notable as it aligns with the enacting of Jim Crow laws and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. The second period is notable as it aligns with the modern civil rights movement (“Whose Heritage?”). The vast majority of these dedications were not made in an effort immediately following the war to commemorate the fallen; rather they were dedicated decades and even a century after the war during times of racial tension and later progress. One might even infer that these dedications were a direct response to this tension and progress: a way for Confederate sympathizers to intimidate African Americans by reminding them of their former legal status and the carnage that had previously unfolded. After all, it is not as if the Confederate leaders wanted such dedications either.
After the end of the war, General Robert E. Lee was invited to a dedication and declined, stating that he believed it would be best for the country if such things as monuments and statues of Confederate soldiers were not dedicated at all, so that the country may heal and move past the pain of the Civil War:
Absence from Lexington has prevented my . . . invitation . . . to attend a meeting of the officers engaged in that battle at Gettysburg, for the purpose of marking upon the ground by enduring memorials of granite the positions and movements of the armies on the field. My engagements will not permit me to be present. I believe if there, I could not add anything material to the information existing on the subject. I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered. Republican Vindicator
Lee makes his view perfectly clear that he finds it unwise to erect monuments to commemorate the Confederacy. He describes his view that erecting such monuments ultimately serves to leave open the wounds of the Civil War, which, in turn, makes it more difficult for the country to truly move forward. Although the General-in-Chief of the Confederacy was against the enduring glorification of the Confederacy, statues, monuments, place names, and symbols are still being dedicated.
Neo-Confederate groups continue to push the Confederate cause in the modern United States, including organizations whose existence has persisted for over a century. The Southern Poverty Law Center labels over twenty-five organizations as so-called neo-Confederate groups based on their self-identified alignment with the culture of the Confederacy. Though the exact number of neo-Confederate groups fluctuates as organizations rise and fall, among those that currently exist are the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. These organizations have existed for over a century and were even mentioned by name in Rutherford’s text document relating to the “measuring rod” used for textbooks in order to “accord full justice to the South” (Rutherford).
Though these organizations have a history unto themselves, both the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans are very much active and continue to spread their message. For example, a chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy is suing a county in Kentucky over the removal and relocation of a Confederate statue. Specifically, they are seeking to permanently prevent the removal of the statue (Guzman). The Georgian chapter of Sons of Confederate Veterans even issued a statement condemning the removing, relocating, renaming, defacing, and destruction of Confederate place names, statues, and monuments saying that, in part, all such acts ought to be seen as “equivalent to the atrocities performed by the Taliban and ISIS to erase the heritage and culture in their region” (Buchanan). Such a comparison appears to dance along the line of outright warmongering with regards to the domestic political dispute between those who would defend symbols of the Confederacy and those who would fight against them. After all, both the Taliban and ISIS have fought on the battlefield against United States soldiers in war. Oddly enough, this is not entirely unlike the Confederates who also fought on the battlefield against United States soldiers in war. Though both organizations are unafraid of entering the political arena to a degree, they are prohibited from formally endorsing any political candidate as a result of their non-profit status (“The Restriction of Political Campaign Intervention”).
Yet this certainly does not mean that members of these organizations are not passionate about politics. Many members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans are supporters of former President Donald J. Trump; some members even believe that Trump has played a significant part in widening the divide in the United States with regards to the topic of the Confederacy (Harte). Likewise, this also does not mean that political players are not members of these organizations. A recent leak of Sons of Confederate Veterans membership data not only revealed that members of the organization participated in and committed acts of violence during the now infamous 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, but also that many held overlapping membership with the aforementioned League of the South and are even employed at various levels of government including as military officers, elected officials, public employees, and even as a national security expert whose CV boasts of “Department of Defense Secret Security Clearance” (Wilson). There was also a member of the Cabinet of the United States with ties to Sons of Confederate Veterans. During his eventually successful nomination process for the position of United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs, then under President Trump, it was revealed that Robert Wilkie was an active member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, even saluting the Confederate Flag during his time as a member of the Bush administration in 2001. In 1993, during a debate surrounding a patent renewal, Wilkie did not appear to hide his view regarding movements seeking to remove Confederate symbols, stating, “What we are seeing is an attempt in the name of political correctness to erase entire blocks of our history. The question is whether we’re going to wipe out the history of millions of Americans who trace their heritage to the losing side” (Coaston). The patent in question just so happened to be the insignia of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (Coaston).
These neo-Confederate organizations are very much active and while their members may not always openly identify themselves, they most certainly exist. Because their members are present across various levels of military and government, they can sometimes have access to sensitive information and powerful political stages on a national level. In this way, it should come as no surprise that the issue of the Confederacy is currently a significant political issue for many and incredibly divisive for the country as well.
Today, the Confederacy’s role in American history is used to justify the glorification of racism. Members of the Confederacy are not labeled traitors and their fundamental cause of the preservation of slavery is ignored in the name of Southern heritage, Southern pride, and free speech. And though some may argue that it is a Southern issue and not an American issue, I disagree on the basis that in the summer of 2020 the President of the United States reiterated these exact points in defense of Confederate symbols and names. During an interview with journalist Chris Wallace of Fox News, Trump was asked about whether the Confederate Flag was offensive and gave this response:
TRUMP: When people–when people proudly have their Confederate flags, they’re not talking about racism. They love their flag, it represents the South, they like the South. People right now like the South. I’d say it’s freedom of, of, of many things, but it’s freedom of speech… And you know, the whole thing with cancel culture, we can’t cancel our whole history. We can’t forget that the North and the South fought. We have to remember that, otherwise we’ll end up fighting again.
Here, President Trump defends the Confederate Flag on the basis that it is not directly tied to racism, represents the South, and represents freedom of speech while also implying that taking issue with the Confederate Flag presents the issue of cancelling history. He seems to imply that “canceling” the Confederate Flag would lead to an escalation of temperaments between the North and South. Such an implication comes off as a threat, a message that the relative domestic peace currently present in the United States is fragile and that the cause of the South may not be fully abandoned.
This type of message, as delivered by the then-President of the United States, seems eerily similar to the messaging spread by organizations such as the League of the South. When asked by Fox News about his plans to veto a bill with bipartisan congressional and military support on the basis that the bill would rename army bases named for Confederate generals, President Trump responded:
TRUMP: Because I think that Fort Bragg, Fort Robert E. Lee, all of these forts that have been named that way for a long time, decades and decades… Go to that community where Fort Bragg is, in a great state, I love that state, go to the community, say how do you like the idea of renaming Fort Bragg, and then what are we going to name it… We’re going to name it after the Reverend Al Sharpton? What are you going to name it, Chris, tell me what you’re going to name it? So there’s a whole thing here. We won two World Wars, two World Wars, beautiful World Wars that were vicious and horrible, and we won them out of Fort Bragg, we won out of all of these forts that now they want to throw those names away… We won World Wars out of these military bases. No, I’m not going to go changing them, I’m not going to go changing them.
Even putting aside his choice to mock the idea of renaming military bases after the Reverend Al Sharpton, President Trump seemingly does not even attempt to pose a nuanced defense of the Confederate names whatsoever. Rather, his argument against changing them seems to be rooted in a resistance to changing the status quo. Once again, that is the President of the United States of America deciding to veto a bipartisan, military-backed bill in order to keep American military bases named after generals who defected from the United States, actively fought a war against the United States, and sought the preservation of slavery. If the Confederacy is not an issue concerning the present moment and the United States as a whole, someone forgot to tell the Commander-in-Chief.
Although it has been over 150 years since the defeat of the Confederacy, it is crucial to take action in the present day to counter Confederate propagandist narratives in order to work towards truly healing the deep divisions present in the modern American political discourse. After all, the tense debate surrounding Confederate monuments and the existence of groups such as League of the South were both ultimately a part of what led to three deaths and over a dozen injuries at Charlottesville (Haynes; Anti-Defamation League).
But what is also disturbing about the glorification of and misinformation about the Confederacy is that it sets forth a blueprint for how to undermine the bedrock of a thriving democracy: an educated population. This state, often called the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, is not dangerous in that it is a disagreement based upon principles, rather it is dangerous in that it is a sometimes hateful and violent call to action based upon falsehoods and propaganda. And such falsehoods, especially in the age of the Internet, can be easily created and disseminated to people across the globe.
This poses a very serious threat on the international stage, particularly given U.S. intelligence reports alleging that Russia, China, and Iran are actively interfering in American elections by spreading falsehoods and propaganda online (Sanger). This also poses a very serious threat on the domestic stage. One such example of this comes in the form of the misinformation and conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 United States presidential election. The tactics used by former President Trump and his supporters with regards to the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election eerily mimic that of the Lost Cause, including alleging unfairness, claiming that the opponent aims to destroy others’ heritage, and a firm rejection of all dissenters (Janney). It is no wonder that tensions ultimately led to the January 6 riots at the Capitol, which caused five deaths (Healy). This connection also seems to be apparent to President Biden, who said during a speech in Philadelphia regarding voting rights:
It gives me no pleasure to say this. I never thought in my entire career I’d ever have to say it. But I swore an oath to you, to God–to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. And that’s an oath that forms a sacred trust to defend America against all threats both foreign and domestic. (Applause.)
The assault on free and fair elections is just such a threat, literally. I’ve said it before: We’re facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War. That’s not hyperbole. Since the Civil War. The Confederates back then never breached the Capitol as insurrectionists did on January the 6th.ABC News
It is true that the Confederate flag, as an act of insurrection, had never made its way into the United States Capitol until January 6, 2021 (Cramer). The spirit of the traitorous, insurrectionist, slave-holding Confederates is very much present in the modern United States.
And all of this makes it all the more absurd to see the state of Florida recognize Confederate Memorial Day, Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ birthday, and Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s birthday all as state-sanctioned holidays before Juneteenth was given such a distinction (Orlando Sentinel; Florida Senate). It becomes even more alarming that many were not even aware of the events of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre until HBO’s limited-series Watchmen depicted the carnage in its pilot episode (Tulsa Historical Society & Museum; Phillips). It becomes even more unsurprising to see Trump-era delays, misinformation, and forceful opposition to Harriet Tubman being added to the twenty-dollar bill (U.S. Department of the Treasury; White; Zeballos-Roig). The issue of the Confederacy is a crucial one to confront, not simply to prevent carnage at home, but also to prevent foreign adversaries such as China and Russia from successfully spreading misinformation.
Taking down Confederate flags and statues is a worthwhile first step, but there is more to be done to combat the threat to democracy posed by the Lost Cause and pseudo-historical ideological movements like it. Just like defenders of the Confederacy take up what they believe to be their call to action, those who would stand against the propaganda of the Lost Cause must use fact, reason, and empathy to rewrite the narrative painted by organizations such as United Daughters of the Confederacy. Thankfully, many have taken such action, which is why the plan to add Harriet Tubman, civil rights pioneers, and suffragettes to paper currency has been restarted, why the horrors of the Tulsa Race Massacre were recognized by the White House, and why Juneteenth is now a national holiday (Feingold; “A Proclamation on Day of Remembrance”; “A Proclamation on Juneteenth Day of Observance, 2021”). All of these projects are the result of sustained efforts to counter the propagandist Confederate and Lost Cause narratives, and they will only succeed long-term if such efforts continue to be carried out.
However, perhaps most importantly to note is that all these projects make sure that history is remembered. These projects do not erase history in any way, they simply expand it. They make sure that the abolitionist, civil rights, and women’s suffrage movements are all remembered as intrinsic parts of the history of the United States in addition to the legacy of the Founding Fathers. One would think that this should be lauded by any American who wants to remember their full history.
Ultimately, the issue of the Confederacy is one intrinsically connected to the broader issue of modern racism. The attitude many Americans have had since the end of the Civil War with regards to the Confederacy has both led to distortions of the truth throughout history and fostered an acceptance of racism and white supremacy based on precedence. If we want to begin dismantling systemic racism, strongly condemning the Confederacy on a national scale once and for all would be an important place to start.
This is not an issue of history or heritage; this is an issue of racism and white supremacy. This is not a Southern issue; this is an American issue. This is not an issue of the past; this is an issue of the present and the future. And we need to do something about it now if we want to avoid the potential reality of history repeating itself. There is always hope, and there is always the possibility in a democracy for change through action.
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