Monuments aren’t just a “Southern problem”
IN LATE August, the Associated Press ran an article titled "Civil War lessons often depend on where the classroom is" by Will Weissert. The main argument of the article is that the states of the Confederacy do a poorer job of presenting the Civil War accurately compared to everywhere else because of the effects of the "Lost Cause" movement.
The "Lost Cause" movement has attempted to redefine the purpose and reasons for the Civil War taking place. It moved away from, or tried to downplay, the role of slavery in the war because it obviously became a losing political issue to defend. Instead, the movement promoted the role of leading Confederate officials as heroes defending a literal "lost cause."
Based on the effects of the Lost Cause being much more obvious in the South, with the leadership of the Confederacy getting a much more prominent role in the region's cultural and political identity, Weissert's claim would appear to be true--but he ignores how the movement and its blending into the legacy of white supremacy affects the rest of the nation.
The argument that the article flirts with is a much better than one it ends up presenting. The difference of the presentation of the Civil War often has much more to do with the community than the overall geographic region it exists in.
For example, the example of Texas giving a poor representation of the Civil War is a bit of a problem. Texas is, along with California, one of the main definers of what goes into textbooks due to their large market. If Texas approves a U.S. history textbook, that means that Michigan or Ohio might get stuck with the same book, even if it doesn't "agree" with the message.
Weissert also cites a Pew Research poll that is problematic. When asked what the main cause of the Civil War was, the difference between Southern and non-Southern whites was 1 percent (49 percent to 48 percent)--nationally, 48 percent of Americans believe that the Civil War was about states' rights, compared with 38 percent who said its main cause was slavery.
In other words, something is very wrong with how the Civil War is taught and viewed throughout the U.S., not just in the South.
THE "LOST Cause" argument is often viewed as an entirely Southern problem that managed to bury the reasons for the Civil War, but this isn't really correct.
The Lost Cause argument only works if the idea is accepted that the Southern gentry went to war for vague reasons. What this does is remove the history of the war and its causes, and elevate a mythic story of heroism.
This creates a problem with understanding Reconstruction and the attempt to move forward from the effects of slavery and racism. If the Civil War wasn't about slavery, you no longer have to answer for what to do about its legacy. This is a position that was increasingly easy to hold after 1877 and the end of the federal government's imposition of Reconstruction policies in the former Confederacy.
The idea of including Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson in the pantheon of American heroes can seem extremely odd to some people. But in the end is it really?
Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 41 owned slaves. What does this mean for the accepted idea that the founding fathers were supposedly great believers in "freedom?" Is the forced removal and genocide of Native Americans before 1861 and after 1865 really that far detached from the complete disregard of Black Americans as people?
Weissert's article touches on this contradiction by hinting that some of the states' rights rhetoric used by Jefferson Davis to defend slavery is the same used by modern conservatives to bury modern injustice under vague legalism. Ignoring one legacy of racism and suffering allows others to do the same, even though some of the political language isn't exactly the same.
The fact that the U.S. South has a complicated history shouldn't be downplayed, but it should not be presented as entirely unique in a "cleaned-up" version of U.S. history. The state with the most active hate groups is California, for example--the one with the most hate groups per capita is Montana, followed by Idaho. This further points to the idea that racism is a national issue and not a regional one.
THE RENEWED debate around the Civil War has come to a head around the issue of what to do with the monuments to the Confederacy. As multiple articles have pointed out, the vast majority of these statues and monuments were built well after the Civil War and during times of increased racial tensions, with the largest surge coming between the late 1890s and the 1920s.
This period saw the birth of the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, which emerged as a national organization. The largest state branch of this renewed Klan was in Indiana, a state that never seceded or legally allowed slaves since it became a state.
The other oddity is that the majority of these monuments are not to the actual soldiers or dead of the Confederacy, but to its leaders who frequently re-entered politics as opponents of Reconstruction and as "Redeemer" Democrats who finally ended it.
The issue of history might be involved if the removal of statues involved Confederate veterans, but this is extremely rare (to the point of being non-existent) in the majority of states that have Confederate monuments.
The imagery and legacy of the Confederacy immediately after the Civil War was perceived as awkward and painful at best, and at worst as a reminder that the people attempting to the undermine the multiracial populist movements forming in the South were the same ones who brought immense destruction and death to the region only years before.
As a result, the monuments are not actually memorials, but entirely intentional political statements to mark public spaces for white supremacy.
The central and public locations of these monuments mean that they very frequently are directly connected to the legacy of racism and slavery. For instance in Asheville, North Carolina, the monument to Zebulon Vance--the state's "redeemer Democrat" governor after the end of Reconstruction--is placed in what was the "general market," which was the main slave market for western North Carolina.
The more complicated legacy of the original "founders" of America has also come into debate as a response by the right wing to undermine the movement against Confederate monuments.
The complication is that the "founders" for the most part avoided the issue of abolition of slavery that had arisen as a discussion by the end of the 18th century in order to preserve the U.S. as a nation that included slave and free labor.
On this point, some liberals end up in a very odd position, attempting to claim that the slave-owning founders who were influenced by liberal ideas to varying degrees are somehow incredibly different than their sometimes literal descendants a half-century later, who more or less believed the same things.
For example, Robert E. Lee's father Henry Lee was a military commander in the American Revolution--the Confederate general was also related to Richard Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Monuments to America's founders should also be subject to criticism and possible removal if their legacy is deemed unacceptable. In the end, how different really is Lee to Jefferson or Washington?
Dean Imholz, Asheville, North Carolina