When White Americans Whitewashed History

The current brouhaha about the fate of Confederate monuments is a result of the time when white Americans whitewashed a portion of America’s history. In an article for Politico magazine, Joshua Zeitz describes that whitewashing. Here is an excerpt from his article.

“Southerners may have lost the Civil War, but between the 1890s and 1920s they won the first great battle over its official memory. They fought that battle in popular literature, history books and college curricula, but also on hundreds of courthouse steps and city squares, where they erected monuments to Confederate veterans and martyrs. These statues reinforced the romance of reunion.

Now, a century and a half after the Civil War, Americans are finally confronting the propriety of celebrating the lives of men who committed treason in the name of preserving slavery. That these statues even exist is unusual. When armies are defeated on their own soil — particularly when those armies fight to promote racist or genocidal policies — they usually don’t get to keep their symbols and material culture.

. . . In the late 19th century, Southern veterans of the Civil War essentially concluded that it made little sense to persist in their argument that slavery had been a just, benign social and political system. That argument was simply no longer credible in the eyes of most Northerners — many of whom might have conceded the point before the war— or most civilized nations. ‘However brave’ rebel soldiers might have been on the field, argued a report for the Grand Camp of Confederate Veterans of Virginia, tethering the Lost Cause to the memory of slavery would ‘hold [Confederate veterans] degraded rather than worthy of honor … our children, instead of revering their fathers will be secretly, if not openly, ashamed.’

Instead, Confederate organizations — particularly the United Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, whose local chapters funded and organized the construction of many of the monuments that are now in contention — de-emphasized the ideological origins of the war and instead promoted a powerful but vague cult of Southern chivalry, battlefield valor and regional pride. They recast the war as a battle over the principle of states’ rights and Southern honor. Hundreds of cities across the U.S. commissioned monuments to their war dead — statues that were usually situated directly in town squares or by county courthouses, and which paid homage to men who fought and sometimes died to preserve chattel slavery — an institution that [Confederacy] Vice President Alexander Stephens called the ‘cornerstone’ of the Confederacy. Not only did these organizations erase slavery from the narrative. They also brushed over the topics of rebellion and treason.”

The aforementioned brouhaha will persist as long as there are people who insist on embracing a false romantic notion about the Confederacy. The real heritage of the Confederacy is a heritage of anti-black racism, not a heritage of chivalry and honor. There is nothing about that real heritage to be proud of. An American displaying the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia with pride is akin to a German displaying the Nazi flag with pride.

Come to think of it, both of those flags were displayed with pride by white supremacists at that recent infamous rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Gee, I wonder why?

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