Is the Confederacy Obsolete?

This article was originally published in Southern Partisan magazine in 1994.

The past—what we believe happened and what we think it means—can be a very slippery customer. Even the recent past can be elusive. In the early 1950s, when I was a student at Johns Hopkins, C. Vann Woodward gave an amusing but provocative talk called “Can We Believe Our History?” He pointed out that what we think we know was true can very suddenly seem to have been not true after all. For example, he reminded us that during the Second World War, then just a few years in the past, Americans knew that the Japanese were Oriental monsters of unspeakable brutality, whereas the Chinese were our little brown brothers. Yet very quickly all that changed. In the wake of the Communists’ victory in China and Chinese intervention in the Korean War, the Chinese became Oriental monsters of unspeakable brutality and the Japanese were now our little brown brothers.

The same thing happened in Europe. During the war against Hitler, the United States Office of War Information described the Soviet Union as our gallant ally and one of the “freedom loving democracies,” whereas Germany was a loathsome tyranny and deadly enemy. Then came the Cold War right on the heels of the hot war, and suddenly the Soviets were a loathesome tyranny and deadly enemy, whereas West Germany, our recent enemy, became our first line of defense against our recent ally, the Soviet Union.

All this is confusing enough, this chameleon-like quality of other nations, but adding to our confusion as the years passed was a growing uncertainty about what kind of nation we were. The Cold War had allowed us to reaffirm our long-standing belief that, as Jefferson and Lincoln had said, we were the last best hope of earth, now become the righteous defenders of the free world against aggressive monolithic Communism. But then came the Vietnam War, riots in our cities, surging violence and crime, the drug epidemic, Watergate, and so forth, until it was a little harder to see ourselves as a unique repository of human virtue. Briefly, of course, Ronald Reagan led us back into dreamland, standing on the bridge of resurrected Second World War battleships and telling us we were still the righteous guardians of mankind this time against the Evil Empire.

But hardly had Mr. Reagan girded up his loins for Armageddon when he got a lesson in the dangers of simplified thinking. The Soviets began to change rapidly, glasnost dawned, and Mr. Reagan visited Moscow. There he was asked if he still believed in the Evil Empire, and he just said “No.”

If it is hard to be sure of what we know of the recent past, how much more difficult it is to be sure of the more remote past, all of which is entirely outside our immediate experience. Of course, not all societies are troubled with such uncertainties. Back in its totalitarian clays, which may or may not be over, the Soviet Union had no problem with history. It was merely a branch of propaganda and was created to serve the regime. However, even the commissars got their lesson when in the wake of the death of “Old Joe” Stalin, whom Mr. Truman briefly had found so likable, the Soviets underwent “deStalinization,” and history changed in the twinkling of an eye. Further alterations in the Soviet image of the past followed the liberation of history under glasnost.

History is also rewritten in non-totalitarian countries such as ours, sometimes with drastic changes in what we think the past was like and thus what meaning it has for the present. Fortunately, in the United States, history has not been handed down by official governmental decree, although (and I will return to this shortly) something disturbingly similar to an official party line has begun to emerge in recent years.

Rewriting history has been particularly conspicuous with respect to the conflict between the North and the South. The side that wins the war usually wins the history, and so for a generation the Northern view of that conflict was dominant, and in a modified form it still is. After the war, the more or less official line in the North was that the Confederacy was the creation of a treasonable set of slaveowning conspirators—Southern monsters of unspeakable brutality—who killed Northern boys by the thousands in their quest to conquer and enslave the whole country. This chilling vision suited the purposes of the ruling Republican party. On the other hand, the Southern minority in post bellum years argued that the real cause of the war was the determination of a Republican-dominated North to overthrow the Constitution so that it could exploit the South at its leisure.

As the years rolled by, wartime passions faded. Nationalistic emotions were stimulated by the war with Spain and our entrance on the world stage as a major power. So now the themes were no longer the greedy and aggressive North and the sinful South, but rather burying old antagonisms and rallying behind a new nationalism. Now it was possible, for a few decades at least, to concede that both sides were brave, both sides were sincere in their convictions.

Thus we went from rancor to reconciliation, because every generation sees the past from the standpoint of present needs. This is true of professional historians, although the conscientious members of that tribe do their level best to be objective, to detach themselves from the influence of their own times and their own antecedents, to recreate the past without reference to the needs of the present. Even the best of them cannot escape such influences entirely, and so for them, as for people generally, the past seems to change. And, unhappily, in our day a growing number of writers who claim to be historians see nothing wrong in manipulating the past for ulterior purposes.

With the advent, of the Civil Rights Movement, the moral interpretation of the Civil War revived. Southerners were compared with fascists and slavery with Nazi concentration camps, and the war was again seen as a necessary part of the eternal struggle of Good against Evil. The first major scholarly revisionist work to appear during these years was Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution (1956), which aimed at overturning Ulrich B. Phillips’ magisterial American Negro Slavery (1918), which had portrayed slavery as relatively humane and the slaves’ yoke as not very burdensome, a view not acceptable to many in the late 1950s.

A parade of revisionist studies then began and still goes on. Sometimes much to their surprise, revisionist scholars came across evidence that ran counter to the idea of any sharp moral division between North and South. The Civil Rights Movement inspired research into Northern racial attitudes and practices before, during, and after the war, research that showed, as Alexis de Tocqueville had observed long before, that racial prejudice was a nationwide phenomenon. A quantitative study by two Northern scholars tended to confirm Phillips’ and undermine Stampp’s view of slavery, producing cries of anguish from those to whom the unmitigated cruelty of slavery had become an article of faith.

To make a long story short, while most historians still tend to award the palm of moral superiority to the North, they have discovered that the story has a complexity beyond the ability of even the most dedicated ideologue to ignore. The simplified “devil theory” of the era, formerly so dear to the hearts of abolitionists and Radical Republicans, can no longer be sustained in the face of accumulated research.

Not to worry, however, for the devil theory is alive and well. With white Southerners as the principal devils, it has been taken up by the champions, self-appointed or otherwise, of the black minority. Doubtless many of the devil theory proponents are sincere. It is also true that many have a vested interest (whether academic, political or professional) in keeping that theory alive. Another reason why the devil theory still has such appeal is that after all the government programs to rectify injustices, after all the policies to eradicate discrimination, many African-Americans still find themselves at the bottom of the heap. This has produced two very human reactions. The first is the search for someone else to blame, for a scapegoat: the second is an attempt to show that even if African-Americans are bringing up the rear, over the years they have achieved many great things that others have been given credit for.

The second reaction has led to efforts to rewrite parts of history, efforts which have been legitimized by government at various levels and which have had significant effects on the educational curriculum from grade school to college. For instance, we have claims that ancient Egypt gave birth to Western civilization and that those Egyptians were black Africans. White scholars are accused of concealing this great truth. It is even said that Napoleon, during his Egyptian campaign, shot the nose off the Sphinx to conceal the fact that the features of this gigantic sculpture were those of a black African. In The Disuniting of America, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.. has called this sort of thing “underdog history.” or “compensatory history,” designed to demonstrate what Bertrand Russell referred to as “the superior virtue of the oppressed.”

The invention of past glories has led to the assertion of innate racial differences, with claims for the superiority of the black race, to say nothing of bizarre conspiracy theories—the devil theory with a vengeance—charging that the twin scourges of AIDS and drugs are the work of whites who are trying to exterminate American blacks.

This new “creative” history can be exculpatory as well as laudatory and accusatory. A major elementary school text explains the awkward fact of African tribes warring on one another to capture prisoners to sell to European traders by saying that the indigenous African slavery was so mild and beneficent that Africans did not realize they were doing a disservice to their black brothers and sisters by selling them to the whites. At a public university in Virginia, when a black professor mentioned the purpose of these tribal wars, his black students accused him of being disloyal to his race, and a black administrator criticized the professor for mentioning the unmentionable.

Other minorities, notably Native Americans, as we are now told to call American Indians, have joined in the new industry of manufacturing history. In New York state, to soothe the sensibilities of the Iroquois, a curriculum guide for the public schools identifies the Iroquois Confederation as one of the three major influences on the Constitutional Convention, to say nothing of its alleged effect on the ideas of John Locke, Voltaire and Montesquieu.

In short, in an ever-increasing number of schools and colleges, there are things that must be taught about blacks and other aggrieved groups and things that must not be taught. The party line is laid down not only in written and unwritten policies, but in required textbooks. All this is unnervingly reminiscent of official histories in totalitarian countries, and indeed of George Orwell’s 1984, wherein an axiom of the rulers stated that “who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” By distortion, invention, and excision, the past is to be changed at the behest of the present in order to shape the future.

A recent example of what may be called excisionism occurred last July when Ms. Carol Moseley-Braun, an African-American senator from Illinois, gave an impassioned speech opposing renewal of a patent for the logo of the United Daughters of the Confederacy because it contains a Confederate flag. To her, the flag stands only for slavery. Among many other objections, she protested against the Federal government’s giving its imprimatur to a symbol that, as she said, inflicts on black Americans “the indignity of being reminded time and again that at one point in this country’s history we…were property.” One might observe that, if one were to follow the senator’s reasoning to its logical conclusion and extirpate all reminders that slavery and the Confederacy ever existed, then there will have to be radical alterations in the currency, which is quite infested with portraits of slaveholders. The monumental architecture of Washington, D.C., will undergo massive alteration. The jackhammers will have to purify Mt. Rushmore. And what of those Civil War battlefields where Confederates fought and frequently triumphed? The list goes on and on. Nevertheless, blind to these implications, the Senate supported Ms. Moseley-Braun by a vote of 75 to 25. Has it really been less than two decades since Congress restored citizenship to Lee and Davis, to the accompaniment of remarks about correcting a “glaring injustice?” Another illustration, one might observe, of the quicksilver fluidity of our past.

Even if the historical landscape were cleansed according to the current standards of political correctness, nothing can wipe out the fact that slavery once existed, any more than one can hide the fact of black Africans selling their fellow blacks into the white man’s slavery. Nor can the senator’s reductionist view of the nature and purpose of the Confederacy transform it into the engine of an evil and aggressive slavocracy.

The attack on the U.D.C. logo is only one example of a multitude of demands for the suppression of symbols of the Confederacy—flags, statues, monuments, museum exhibits—demands that are almost always successful. In this acrimonious atmosphere, this banning of the flag, this rewriting of history in accordance with a model of political correctness to which we are told we must conform, this shrill moralizing about our past, this revival of the devil theory—confronted with all this, what can be said about the Confederacy? Has it outlived its role as part of a usable past, other than as an example of the horrid side of American history as seen by the Moseley-Brauns of the world?

And what, in these times, can be the purpose of the Museum of the Confederacy? Of course, in the 1890s when the Museum was born there was no uncertainty about purpose. According to the founders, the Museum was to be a “reliquary.” My dictionary defines “reliquary” as a “coffer or shrine, for keeping or displaying sacred relics,” and a “relic” as “an object of religious veneration.” Those of you who remember the old White House of the Confederacy, when Miss India Thomas was at the door and when the relics were laid out in glass-topped tables for the veneration of the faithful, may agree that “reliquary” hit the nail on the head.

Visiting the old museum is an experience I treasure, one that can never be duplicated, this savoring of the inimitable redolence of the Lost Cause as it was held in the hearts of those ladies who organized the Confederate Memorial Literary Society only 25 years after the surrender at Appomattox. It gave one what the legions of political correctness so signally lack, an understanding of what the Confederacy meant to another generation, a generation that included many who had seen the South go down to bloody defeat, who had lost fathers and brothers and husbands in that War for Southern independence.

For a long time the “reliquary,” the Museum, was a sort of eddy in time, unaffected by events in the mainstream. Then, in comparatively recent years, the Museum in its modern incarnation has looked outward so as to reflect contemporary issues and concerns. A good example of this was its “Before Freedom Came” exhibit, focusing on slavery, which, with all its implications for modern race relations, is the most controversial subject of all. Unlike Senator Moseley-Braun, the program recognized that slavery is part of our history, especially Southern history. It will not go away, anymore for the senator than for Southerners. The question is how one deals with it. Professor Henry Steele Commager of Amherst College, certainly no apologist for the South, observed in his essay, “Should the Historian Sit in Judgment?,” that when slavery comes up, too often “we invoke, almost instinctively,” the vocabulary of morality. “Yet,” he goes on to say, “when we come to pronounce judgment on slavery, we are met at the very threshold with the most intransigent consideration: generation after generation of good, humane, Christian men and women not only accepted it but considered it a blessing. . .Clearly we cannot fall back on the simple explanation that all of these men and women. . .were bad. . .It is absurd for us to pass moral judgment on slaveholders, absurd to indict a whole people or to banish a whole people to some historical purgatory where they can expiate their sins. . .[As Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural], ‘But let us judge not that we be not judged.’ . . .The historian’s task is not to judge but to understand.”

A fearless look at the past, however distasteful some of it may be, is essential to the understanding that Commager held up as the historian’s first responsibility and is equally essential to the Museum’s modern policy of moving with the times. But in what direction should it move? When the Museum looks outward and sees what might be called the Moseley-Braun syndrome becoming ever more prominent in education, politics and moral attitudes, what possible accommodation can it make to this new view of the past? Should it attempt to pacify these new definers of the American soul, who, while damning the Confederate flag as a hate symbol, have themselves hoisted anew the Bloody Shirt of Civil War hate propaganda?

This is, after all, the Museum of the Confederacy. To satisfy the denouncers of the nation which it memorializes it would probably have to become a sort of Southern equivalent of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., a museum to keep alive memories of Southern iniquity, with perhaps a subtitle added to the inscription over the door: “The Museum of the Confederacy: We’re sorry.” Better to bring in the bulldozers than agree to such an Orwellian rewriting of the past.

In my not very humble opinion, there is no concession that can be made to those who pervert history by making it a tool of propaganda that would not ultimately destroy the Museum, as indeed history itself will be destroyed if the propagandists prevail. I believe that this is so because, as I understand it, the purpose of the Museum is to educate. It is an educational institution specializing in the history of the Confederacy, broadly defined, and its purpose can be pursued only by striving conscientiously to see things as they were, irrespective of what conflict this might cause with its contemporaries. To see the Confederacy as it was, as far as human fallibility will permit, and then to impart a dispassionate, non-judgmental understanding of this period of our history: this is the purpose, the mission of the Museum.

Each of us has an agenda for the present and the future. Although history, objectively set forth and dispassionately studied, may affect that agenda, the agenda must never be allowed to affect the history. In the long run, no one’s agenda can be helped by the creation of fictitious history. Possibly black school children may feel better about being black when they are told that their African ancestors founded Western civilization. But what will they feel like when they discover that this is just not true?

I have an agenda which the Museum should help to accomplish. It is my hope that this dispassionate study of Confederate history will promote reconciliation, will help to bring an end to the name-calling, an end to the destructive cycle of hostility, of charge and counter-charge, that has gone on far too long. If the animosities associated with the War of Secession can be softened and even laid to rest, then there may be hope of doing likewise with the animosities arising from what seems to be an endlessly multiplying number of contending factions that are threatening to Balkanize American society.

Given the mounting on all things Confederate, my hope for reconciliation may seem visionary. There are nevertheless some promising signs. For example, a few years ago I attended the annual commemoration at the Virginia Military Institute of the Battle of New Market, honoring the cadets who died on the field of honor. Marching in that ceremony were black cadets—young American black men paying tribute to those young white men who gave their lives for the Confederacy. And a few years after that, I was struck by a photograph in the Richmond Times-Dispatch showing the 54th Massachusetts, a black reenacter unit, participating in a Memorial Day Grand Reunion parade of Union and Confederate regiments, with the Lee monument in the background. The next year, 1991, a member of the 54th Massachusetts, Tim Moore, visited the Museum of the Confederacy to take part in a living history program about United States Colored Troops and their contribution to the Union cause. Mr. Moore said in a letter to the newspaper, “The thrill was that. . .I had the opportunity to represent [the blacks who fought for the Union] to the visitors at the Museum of the Confederacy and that your efforts meant that their sacrifices were appreciated.” And he expressed his thanks for what he called “real Southern hospitality.”

To give one more example of why there may be hope for my agenda, a few weeks ago there was a story in the press about Rudolph Young, a black Vietnam veteran and amateur historian who has been investigating the subject of blacks who supported the Confederacy. He has spoken about his research to the congregations of black churches and to meetings of Sons of Confederate Veterans camps. “…This is part of our shared history,” he said. “I am part of that history. I am a Southerner.” As to the flag he remarked, “The Confederate flag per se does not offend me. It stands for what the person holding it wants it to. If I see it at a KKK rally, I know it’s a hate flag. If I see it at a Confederate veterans organization, it’s a patriotic flag. It it’s on the back of a pickup truck, it’s being trivialized.”

The attitude toward the past displayed by Henry Commager and Tim Moore and Rudolph Young surely leads down the road to reconciliation. The process works in both directions: an openness to reconciliation will just as surely promote a constructive attitude toward our history. If men who fought and suffered in the war could bury the passions it engendered, can we do less? There are many striking instances that could be cited. One I have always found very moving is the conduct of Joshua L. Chamberlain at Appomattox. This distinguished Union commander and his division were picked by Grant to receive the capitulation of the Army of Northern Virginia. When Chamberlain saw the pathetic and half-starved remnants of that army approaching in a formal surrender parade to give up their arms and colors, when he saw, as he wrote, “that great army which ours had been created to confront for all that death can do for life. . .the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now, thin, worn, famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours. . .”—when he saw that, he had his bugler sound the call for “carry arms,” the marching salute, honoring the defeated enemy. “On our part,” he wrote, “not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, . . .but an awed stillness. . .as if it were the passing of the dead.”

The skeleton divisions come up one after another, face into line, stack arms, then, as Chamberlain said, “lastly, reluctantly, with agony of expression, they fold their flags, battle-worn, bloodstained, heart-holding colors, and lay them down; some…rushing from the ranks, kneeling over them, clinging to them, pressing them to their lips. . .How could we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying God to pity and forgive us all.”

On its side, the Confederacy can offer as its champion of reconciliation Robert E. Lee. The war was a great personal tragedy for Lee. He had opposed secession and believed that slavery was, as he said, “a great moral and political evil.” Yet his sense of duty left him no choice but to go with his state. After leading his men through years of suffering and sacrifice, Lee at the end was utterly defeated. When the last attempt to break through Union lines at Appomattox had failed, Lee said from the depths of his despair, “Then there is nothing for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.” And a little later, as if speaking to himself, “How easily I could be rid of all this, and be at rest! I have only to ride along the line and all will be over.” But, he added, “it is our duty to live.”

After the war, still haunted by the misery it had brought, Lee did what he could to help the South recover by dedicating his few remaining years to the education of its youth. He refused to do anything or to say anything whatever that would rekindle the embers of sectional hostility. He shocked many Southerners when, to set an example of reconciliation, he applied for a presidential pardon. He told a widow who had lost her husband in the war that “we are all one country now. Dismiss from your mind all sectional feeling and bring [your children] up as Americans.” This was the kind of advice he gave over and over again, whenever opportunity offered.

One last example: In 1913 surviving veterans of Gettysburg gathered to commemorate the battle’s 50th anniversary. The culminating event came when the old men in gray, now with painful steps and aching bones, once more advanced across the fields toward Cemetery Ridge. But before they could reach the crest, they were met by the old men in blue, who came hobbling down the slope to embrace them.

Let me reassure you on one point. The dispassionate examination of our history does not require the abandonment of bred-in-the-bone loyalties. It does not mean that Tim Moore cannot hold closest to his heart the memory of that gallant assault by the 54th Massachusetts on the ramparts of Battery Wagner, July 18, 1863. It does not mean that I will not often remember with a soul-wrenching pity those Southern soldiers and their great leader at Appomattox, with a profound admiration for their indomitable courage and devotion to duty. And I hope that neither Tim Moore nor I would ever begrudge one another these borrowed memories that echo and reecho down the years, but will instead understand and sympathize with the deep emotions they arouse.

The Confederacy is not obsolete. This storm-cradled nation has much to teach us—as does the terrible war by which it lived and died—this war that grips the imagination of Americans as no other part of their history, perhaps because it is such a riveting panorama of human nature, with all its weakness and nobility; with its betrayals and greed, but much more loyalty and selflessness; with its cowardice, but much more valor; with its cruelty, but much more compassion; and above all with its overwhelming tale of agony, death, and bereavement.

No wonder it appeals so compellingly to our common humanity, North and South, black and white, transcending race and section, appeals so compellingly that we might well ask, as Joshua Chamberlain asked at Appomattox, “How can we help falling on our knees, all of us together, and praying God to pity and forgive us all!”

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