By Jeremy Mahr
On a sleepy summer night in mid-August, I watched in amazement from the comfort of my home the destruction of a Confederate memorial. On a streaming YouTube video, protesters in front of a Durham, North Carolina courthouse had curled rope around a Confederate soldier memorial, and proceeded to topple the statue to the ground. The impact of the fall split the statue down the torso, though angry protesters continued to stomp on the fragments for good measure. Opinions on the Internet comments section predictably ran wild. Aside from the usual racist, pro-fascist tirades from edgy teenagers that one would normally find in the gangrenous armpit that passes for online discourse these days, several particular sets of talking points seemed to crystallize. ‘What compelled these left-wing lunatics to commit these acts?’ people complained. ‘Can’t they see that they’re erasing history?’ bemoaned upstanding American citizens.
These accusations of re-writing history are hardly new, and are a familiar staple among pro-Confederate apologists and so-called fence-sitting moderates. Such a statement, however, presupposes that these statues were ever honest attempts at presenting a neutral historical viewpoint to begin with. However, as comedian John Oliver cogently explained in his well-articulated segment, this is far from the case. As Oliver’s sketch shows, not only were these statues erected long after Robert E. Lee’s 1865 surrender to Union troops at Appomattox, they were primarily built in two particular time periods: the 1900s-1920s and the 1950s-1960s. The fact that these two time periods overlapped with the nadir of American race relations, and the height of the Civil Rights movement, respectively, are hardly coincidental. Far from being good-faith representations of the Civil War or harmless symbols of Southern pride, these Confederate statues are, as a whole, heavily ideological assertions of dominance that arose from Southern attempts to address historical meaning from the death and destruction of the war, resulting in a mythical elevation of the Lost Cause and Southern unity that ignored the larger issues of race and class brought about by the conflict.
As the deadliest war in American memory, the Civil War reshaped not only the political and racial landscape, but also the ways in which Americans thought about death and memory. Raised on the concept of ars moriendi, or the Good Death, 19th century Americans believed in death as an art, with ritualized performances surrounding rites such as last words, family witnesses, and the peaceful transition to the afterlife (Faust 10). The ensuing brutality of the Civil War, however, soon came to shatter those basic assumptions about death. As more than 600,000 soldiers became casualties of the Civil War, many of them dying away from home and family, and denied an easy path for ars moriendi, soldiers and civilians alike struggled with appropriate ways of processing the tragedies unfolding around them. Although many civilians turned towards religion, as evidenced by the growing number of postwar Southern churches as well as the popularity of spiritualism, others, particularly in the South, found their faith faltering. They wondered in particular why God would subject the former Confederate citizens to the humiliation and anguish that followed the South’s defeat (Faust 193). Many wondered if the death and suffering ultimately had any meaning. It was in this atmosphere that the cult of the Lost Cause would come into play.
What made this notion of the Lost Cause so appealing was that it pushed back against the dehumanization that was suggested by the mass bloodshed of raw, modern industrial warfare. It asserted that the war was meaningful, that the soldiers who died had fought for a good and meaningful cause. As Faust explains,
“The Cult of the Lost Cause and the celebration of Confederate memory that emerged in the ensuing decades were in no small part an effort to affirm that the hundreds of thousands of young southern lives had not, in fact, been given in vain” (Faust 193).
By offering the notion of a noble South that has been brought low by treacherous Northern carpetbaggers and people of color, this vision united white southerners in solidarity, gave meaning to what seemed to be nothing else but chaotic carnage, and re-affirmed the imagined community that drove Confederate nationalism to begin with. The idea of preserving the “Southern way of life,” against the perceived threat of outside forces, would animate nostalgia for paternalistic Confederate values, the desire for renewal, and hostility against anybody who seemed to stand in its way. The building of Confederate statues as backlash against Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement was just one manifestation of this imagined community, and the othering that it entailed.
This notion of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, however, was also fundamentally flawed. As suggested above, the imagined community of white Southerners relied on the simultaneous exclusion and marginalization of others, especially black Americans. Much of this treatment was along racial lines, and under further critical review, one would find the entire racial attitude to be contradictory. It required a disavowal that the Civil War had anything to do with slavery, while also embracing patently racist elements that tacitly or openly warned blacks to stay in their place.
Over the course of postwar memory, the deaths and sacrifices of the war became increasingly fetishized, even as people stopped thinking about what exactly these soldiers were dying and sacrificing for. As Frederick Douglass would declare,
“death has no power to change moral qualities…. I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty, and those who fought for slavery” (Faust 269).
Those who fought for liberty included runaway slaves who would end up joining the Union Army. Those black soldiers in many cases received the brunt of Confederate brutality through incidents such as the Fort Pillow Massacre, and so were denied the same ars moriendi that white Americans were incessantly preoccupied with. In putting up statues that celebrate Confederate soldiers and officers, Confederate apologists willfully ignore the institution of slavery over which the South fought for, and the promise of freedom that the war brought for enslaved blacks. In accusing others of re-writing history, supporters of the status quo forget that the Confederate statues have already done the same, effectively re-writing blacks out of their own history.
Nor were blacks the only group to suffer this treatment. In downplaying the slavery aspects of the Civil War, the Cult of the Lost Cause also ignored the class issues that plagued the Confederacy. Far from being a unified Southern bulwark against Northern aggression, the Confederate secessionists were plagued from the onset about the problem of convincing poor whites to fight against their economic interests, in favor of propping up a system of slavery that enriched the planter elite against the interests of the many. Although white supremacist propaganda worked to an extent, by the end of the war many working-class whites had come to reject Confederate ideology, under the belief that they were being taken advantage of by the slave-owning elites. Yeomen farmers may have constituted the bulk of the Confederate military, but they also made up the bulk of deserters and draft resisters as well (Zimmer). Pro-Union Southerners were also ruthlessly suppressed under the Confederacy. As Eric Foner states,
“Throughout the upcountry, Unionists abandoned their homes to hide from conscription officers and Confederate sheriffs, who hunted them, as they had once hunted runaway slaves, with bloodhounds; some found refuge in the very mountain caves that had once sheltered fugitives from bondage” (Zimmer).
Clearly, these pro-Unionist Southerners defy the supposed solidarity among white Southerners that the Lost Cause demands. Because of their refusal to conform to elite demands, these white dissidents were marginalized from the Confederate imagined community, having also been written out of their own history alongside African Americans.
The Confederate statues, like all statues, do not exist to record history, but to celebrate it: to celebrate the Great Men, ideals, and mythos of the Conquered South. In doing so, they present a false, Disney-fied version of history in which a united South fought back against northern tyranny, while ignoring the race and class antagonisms that defined the Southern experiment in secession.
So what do we make of the statues, and the ideas of the Lost Cause that underpin them? Despite the protestations of Confederate apologists, opposition to Confederate statues and memorials is not an act of rewriting history, so much as it is a correction to a history that has become distorted in public memory due to years of nostalgia and a need to validate seemingly-senseless wartime violence. It is a reaction to an ideological system that presents an erroneous vision of a unified South, historically undergirded systems of white supremacy and elite domination, and sidelined the impact of blacks and dissident, working-class whites. Whether the correct course of action is to remove all Confederate statues, or to put up more statues celebrating black figures, or any combination of actions, I do not know, and I invite people who are more learned than me to offer solutions. All I ask is that fence-sitting centrists examine more closely these statues, and the historical baggage and revisionism that comes with them, and ask themselves this: ‘which side is really rewriting history?’
Faust, D.G. (2008). This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Oliver, J. [LastWeekTonight]. (Oct 8, 2017). Confederacy: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5b_-TZwQ0I&t
Zimmer, T. (Aug 16, 2017). Tear Down the Confederates’ Symbols. Jacobin. Retrieved from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/08/confederate-statue-durham-flag-civil-war-slavery-planters-poor-whites