Parade of Confederate veterans, Jacksonville, Florida, 1914
In the past, although not so much lately, I’ve received comments when writing about issues such as the Civil War that all of this discussion of the past really isn’t that important and why are we wasting time on it. Now, if the Trump administration has convinced everyone of one thing, it’s that historical interpretation is always alive and can be used to terrorize us today when it is used to serve evil forces. There will never be an end to Civil War interpretation and at its core, that interpretation is central to the ground war over how we remember American history and frame the present. Of course, the neo-Confederates have always understood this.
The effort to reeducate the South, indeed the entire nation, by recasting the Civil War as the “Lost Cause” was promoted by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), as James M. McPherson describes in an essay in The Memory Of The Civil War in American Culture. Soon after the group organized in 1895, it created children’s auxiliaries called Children of the Confederacy with the purpose of “telling the Truth to children” — in other words, making sure that children were presented with a version of the still-recent war that placed it within the context of southern romanticism. As McPherson notes, “Children were ubiquitous at parades, rallies, and reunions of the UDC,” and those of its counterpart organization the United Confederate Veterans (UCV).
In addition, the UDC furthered Confederate education by creating a card game which was based on the traditional deck of cards comprising 52 “Confederate officers, political leaders, names of Confederate states, and of victorious battles,” to help sharpen students’ knowledge of the war; in addition, children were provided opportunities to write and recite original poems and speeches that expressed pride in their Confederate heritage. These efforts were aimed to combat what southern leaders viewed as the false history that their children had learned from textbooks overwhelmingly authored and published by northerners. Southerners complained that these texts indoctrinated southern children in a nationalism born out of a Union victory, which relegated their region to a place of dishonor in the national narrative.
During the first decade of the 20th century, the UDC and UCV engaged in a full-scale onslaught against the textbook industry. Each organization had formed its own “Historical Committee,” which, as McPherson notes, was commissioned to “select and designate such proper and truthful history of the United States, to be used in both public and private schools of the South,” and to “put the seal of their condemnation upon such as are not truthful histories.” Hence, the committees focused almost entirely on censoring what was dubbed “long-legged Yankee lies” in textbooks that represented the North as noble defenders of the Union and the South as ignoble rebels.
By 1910, the Historical Committees declared mission accomplished.
They had won, as books that taught the “true” history of the South poured into classrooms throughout the country. Yet these southern educators did not rest on their laurels, believing there was still much work to be done. The committees’ aim was not only to oversee and control the southern narrative as it was taught in southern primary and secondary schools, but also to gain control of the southern narrative in all publications including trade and reference books. The leader of this formidable effort was Mildred L. Rutherford, a Georgia teacher and “historian general” of the UDC.
In 1916, before members of the UDC reunion in San Francisco, the first meeting of the organization held outside of the South, Rutherford delivered an address titled “The Historical Sins of Omission and Commission” in which she explicitly expressed the urgency of the committee’s duty as the official textbook watchdog. She called for subcommittees to be organized in every state to examine “all textbooks not only of American History, but American Literature, as well as geographies and readers for primary and academic grades in our southern schools; and also to inquire into text used in the colleges in the North to which our southern girls and boys are being sent.”
This was tremendously effective., becoming a nearly universally held interpretation among whites for decades And while today, there has been major pushback against it by professional historians in the last half-century, versions of UDC-approved history still floats around. Some of it is hard racism, such as that promoted by people such as John Kelly not to mention his boss. But the sort of 60s-era left “The Civil War was a capitalist war of oppression against anti-capitalists plus the North wasn’t really anti-slavery anyway and Lincoln was a racist” talk of the Civil War that we still see from 1 or 2 commenters is a form of this too. And every time Ken Burns makes the choice to put Kindly Old Shelby Foote in his documentary or Kelly can go on national television and discuss Dunningism without reproach, the racist cause makes a stand, whether the person making the decision was intentionally promoting this or not, as in the case of Burns.
Even today, African-American students rarely take Civil War history, even though it is the central event in the black freedom struggle. This happens because they see it as white conservative history of Confederate apologists and dudes with slight hygiene problems warbling about military formations at Shiloh. Ta-Nehisi Coates has explored this usefully. In popular culture, the Civil War still isn’t seen a black-friendly topic. I’ve probably taught about 300 kids Civil War history over the years at two different schools. I think maybe 2 or 3 have been African-American.
The only way to fight against all of this is to make interpretations of the Civil War a central part of the left agenda. It’s not enough to say that we will move the Lee and Davis statues to cemeteries. They need to be eradicated entirely. We need monuments to John Brown, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass erected where they once stood. The bland statues of a typical Civil War soldier you see in towns through the South (and the North) should be replaced by monuments to slaves. We need to make sure that every textbook used by your children has a proper interpretation of the Civil War and when it doesn’t, to raise hell about it with the teachers and the school board. When conservative white male teachers tell your students that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, they need to face repercussions for that. Again, this is a battle that will never end and it’s part of the larger battle against racism and for genuine freedom and justice in this nation. This isn’t some sideshow of a bunch of historians. It is critical to the future we all share.