With the United States on the verge of a second civil war, it is appropriate that one of the things that divide us today is our interpretation of the first one. It seems that, though the Confederate States of America lost the American Civil War, it won the peace that followed.
In 1865, slavery was abolished, the Union was restored, and the eleven rebel states were under military occupation. By 1870, though southern home rule was restored, state governments were still dominated by a combination of northern immigrants (carpetbaggers), supportive southern whites (scalawags) and newly-freed, newly-enfranchised Black men. Confederate veterans like Nathan Bedford Forrest, their former leadership roles now held by Blacks – Mississippi’s Hiram Revels was appointed to the Senate seat once held by Confederate President Jefferson Davis - formed the first Ku Klux Klan (1865-1871) to terrorize former slaves and keep them from voting.
Unfortunately, American Reconstruction, which sought to provide equal rights and opportunities to African-Americans in the South, did not last long. By the end of the 19th Century, white Confederate veterans and their children were once again in full control of the South. Though they could not restore slavery, they made Blacks second class citizens, drastically reducing their right to vote and establishing a system of apartheid that we know as Jim Crow.
They also imposed their interpretation of history upon both north and south, one which interpreted the War Between the States as a heroic attempt by southern whites to preserve their way of life. According to proponents of the “Lost Cause,” the antebellum South was a golden age of chivalry, a land of elegant ladies and gallant gentlemen ruling over posh plantations and mostly contented slaves.
This golden age, we are told, ended with a war that killed a generation of southern white men, ravaged the South, and enfranchised freed Blacks who, according to Lost Cause proponents, were inferior to whites.
The “Lost Cause” view of history dominated interpretations of the Civil War and Reconstruction during the first half of the 20th Century; in history books like Claude G. Bowers’s “The Tragic Era” (1929) and in novels like Stark Young’s “So Red the Rose” (1934) and Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” (1936), both later made into movies. Though the Civil Rights Movement and progressive historians like Eric Foner have since changed scholarly interpretations of the Civil War and Reconstruction, there are still many who believe in the Lost Cause.
As memorials to the Lost Cause, southern whites and others erected monuments to glorify the Confederacy and the men who led it. These monuments were dedicated decades after the Civil War, as justifications for Jim Crow or as big middle fingers aimed at the Civil Rights Movement and those who support it.
According to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are at 1,503 symbols of the Confederacy in public spaces across the United States, including monuments and statues, flags, holidays and other observances, and the names of schools, roads, parks, bridges, counties, cities, lakes, dams, military bases, and other public works.
The most famous of these monuments is the Confederate Memorial Carving in Stone Mountain, Georgia. The largest bas-relief sculpture in the world, it depicts Confederate President Davis, General Robert E. Lee and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on horseback. By the way, Stone Mountain is also the site of another day that lives in infamy. On November 25, 2015 a group of white men gathered on Stone Mountain to create a second Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a terrorist organization devoted to the Lost Cause.
Recently a movement began to remove these monuments to a lost, and totally discredited, cause. Many view these Confederate memorials as what they really are: as monuments to racism and white supremacy. Not surprisingly, these monuments are being defended by those who still believe in the Lost Cause: members of the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and those who seem to share their views (like Donald Trump).
Though removing the monuments - especially the really monumental ones, like the carving on Stone Mountain – will take time, this is a cause worth pursuing. For too long, white southern racists have dominated historical interpretations of the American Civil War. It time for them to admit that they lost the War: then, now and forever more.