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The Real Confederacy

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It doesn’t really need to be repeated here I suppose. But it is always worth remembering that all the myths about the Confederacy being this anti-capitalist state is trash and a particularly rancid form of garbage that remained quite salient with the anti-capitalist left well into the 1980s and has occasionally come up in comments here with older white radicals. The actual Confederacy wasn’t just a slave state. It was an anti-democratic reactionary proto-fascist state. Historian Stephanie McCurry:

The Confederates built an explicitly white-supremacist, pro-slavery, and antidemocratic nation-state, dedicated to the principle that all men are not created equal. Emboldened by what they saw as the failure of emancipation in other parts of the world, buoyed by the new science of race, and convinced that the American vision of the people had been terribly betrayed, they sought the kind of future for human slavery and conservative republican government that was no longer possible within the United States. This is the cause that the statues honor.

McCurry goes on to describe the fact that all you have to do to know that the South committed treason in defense of slavery is read anything they wrote before April 1865. But it’s really more than that.

The war brought a terrible reckoning for the Confederate States of America, subjecting it to the military test of the Union armies and the political judgment of its own people. The C.S.A. was a nation built on a slim foundation of democratic consent: Of its total population of 9 million, only about 1.5 million were white men of voting and military age; the rest—white women and the enslaved—formed the vast ranks of the politically dispossessed. Political consent, and popular support for the war effort, were accordingly shallow.

The C.S.A. was a fraction of the size of its enemy. The Union had 10 times its manufacturing capacity, and its population of 22 million dwarfed that of the Confederacy. It quickly became clear what such imbalances meant: The Confederacy had to exert unsupportable demands on its population, and to build up a powerful central-state government to do what the private sector could not.

After one year of war, the Davis administration was forced to adopt the first conscription act in American history. Because enslaved men were not available for military service, it was forced to mobilize a far higher proportion of white men. By the end of the war, a staggering 75 to 85 percent of white men ages 15 to 55 had served. Combined with the exemptions the government was forced to make for slaveholders, conscription quickly gave rise to charges that it was a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.”

The C.S.A.’s level of military mobilization was unsupportable in an agrarian society. By 1863, the government faced a starvation crisis and a wave of food riots organized by white soldiers’ wives protesting the government’s military policies. The Confederacy adopted a series of highly intrusive taxes, labor regulations, and impressment policies. Nobody loved Jefferson Davis when they had to live under his government. The modern embrace of the C.S.A. as a symbol of states’-rights government is particularly ironic in light of its history.

Like the far right today, all the talk about states’ rights and local control was hooey designed to serve a rhetorical campaign rather than a political point. Rather, this was a war designed not only to keep Black people in slavery–which it very much was–but also to keep a particular class of whites in permanent power. It not only rejected abolitionism. It rejected the growing white democratic movements in the North and in Europe. It was an explicitly reactionary class of elites who wanted to turn the clock back to an imagined past while using the most modern ideas about race science to justify their positions.

In other words, all similarities between the Confederacy and the modern Republican Party are strictly intentional.

In a related story, watching the white South try to deal with the changes happening underfoot is fascinating. I mean, Tennessee’s extraordinarily conservative governor is calling for the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue in Memphis to come down! In Fayetteville, North Carolina, Civil War fanatics are trying to create a new museum next to some Confederate ruins. And they don’t know what to do now that the Black people are winning the culture wars.

The first phase of the project, the renovation of three pre-Civil war buildings known as the History Village, is almost done, and museum organizers are awaiting a certificate of occupancy.

Two of the buildings will soon be available for use as classrooms to teach high school and college students about the Civil War and Reconstruction period. Equipment in one of the studio classrooms will provide online Civil War history lessons to students across the state.

But when state and local officials will dole out the money to build the main campus of the project — a 60,000-square-foot history center — is unknown as governments deal not only with financial challenges of the coronavirus pandemic but also the rise of the racial justice movement, officials said.

As part of that movement in the wake of the death of George Floyd, Confederate statues and monuments — including several in Fayetteville — are being moved across the country.

History center organizers say they have turned down offers to have Civil War statues and monuments transferred to the property, pointing out that the center will be an educational facility, not a museum with artifacts glorifying the Confederacy.

“We were offered statues from the state and we said, ‘No,’” said David Winslow, a senior consultant for the history center. “We said, ‘That’s not who we are.’”

Also as part of the justice movement, some Black people want to eliminate what they consider the painful reminders of the Confederacy, making the project a tough sell at this time, Fayetteville Mayor Mitch Colvin said.

“You have a national movement to turn the page on Confederate representation,” Colvin said.

The project is estimated to cost a total of $80 million, and the city and Cumberland County have pledged $7.5 million each. The city is supposed to be given a $900,000 credit for land it donated for the History Village.

“If you go back to my concerns before all of this, I always felt that this is a difficult climate,” Colvin said. “Race relations were not ready for that in Fayetteville.”

“History village.” Really? Ugh.

Anyway, the obvious answer is to make the museum an explicitly anti-racist place that welcomes and centers the concerns and history of Black people. But when “race relations were not ready for that in Fayetteville,” what that really means is that whites don’t want to hear it. But hear it they must, again and again.

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