Even as someone who has spent his entire life in “the South”, I will never understand the devotion and pride many people exhibit for their Confederate “heritage”. I’m sure that I have ancestors who fought in the War of Northern Aggression who probably fought well and died, if such a thing is possible, with honor for a cause they imagined was just. I cannot and will not fault them for their choices and actions. In today’s United States, however, why are we still seeing the “Stars and Bars” flying in yards? Why are we seeing almost fanatical opposition to removing statues and monuments to the Confederate experiment? I feel that some of this can be traced to the immediate post-Civil War exercise known as Reconstruction and the overall failure to reunite the states of the vanquished Confederacy with those of the victorious North.
The reasons for this failure are myriad, but the absence of a true reconciliation between the sides, I believe, allowed the most odious elements of Southern society to latch onto a mythology that remains potent and even ascendant now more than 150 years later. Because the South was defeated on the battlefield and then left to languish, Southern governors, legislators, powerful families and common citizens were able to embrace a narrative that promised redemption for Dixie and the restoration of the white Southern male as the dominant social and economic force. Antipathy and tacit support from Washington did nothing to stem what might be called the “Silent Rebellion”: the rise of Jim Crow, suppression of the black vote and, most important to this particular meditation, the enduring legend that Confederate history was to be celebrated and preserved.
This argument seeks to separate the “Lost Cause” from the “Peculiar Institution” by
floating the suspect thesis that the Civil War was not about slavery but rather it was an exercise in resistance against oppressive federalism. The South went to war, the story goes, because it was what the Founders would have had them do in the face of perceived tyranny from a central government. In short, the Civil War happened because states’ rights demanded that secession was the only answer to an overreaching federal government. This has been the rallying cry of many a white Southerner for generations. Because the work of reintegrating the rebellious states led to a feeling of resentment and alienation among the suddenly dispossessed white population, they turned their attention to continuing a de jure white supremacist state in a post-slavery reality. This is why I suggest it is impossible to applaud the notions of state sovereignty and limited government expressed by Confederate apologists without also acknowledging that a not insignificant part of that legacy was preserving the right to own human beings. Perhaps protecting slavery was not the raison d’être for the CSA, but it is ignorant and dangerous to say it was not one of the key reasons for secession. Those who accuse the political left of historical revisionism and seeking the destruction of Southern “culture” are themselves practicing a brand of revisionism when they try to divorce the issue of slavery from the comparatively noble mission of securing states’ rights.
Whether the present-day neo-Confederates feel slavery is wrong or that segregation was criminal is immaterial; by embracing the heritage and legacy of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis they are implicitly embracing all the sins of their ancestors. If you are displaying pride in your Southern “way of life” and honoring the blood of those long dead boys in gray, then you are also taking pride in rebellion and honoring one of the most cruel and disgusting conditions ever perpetrated upon a group of people. Whatever that flag and those statutes mean to some, it is impossible, without an astonishing degree of cognitive dissonance, to say the Confederacy materialized out of the vague desire for states’ rights yet slavery played no part of it and so we can and should celebrate Confederate Memorial Day as well as protect by decree and force the stone idols to that still lost cause.