Confederate History Month and the Politics of Memory

We welcome a guest post today from Anne E. Marshall, author of Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State, which we’ll publish in December 2010. The book traces the development of a Confederate identity in Kentucky between 1865 and 1925 that belied the fact that Kentucky never left the Union and that more Kentuckians fought for the North than for the South. Following the Civil War, the people of Kentucky appeared to forget their Union loyalties, embracing the Democratic politics, racial violence, and Jim Crow laws associated with formerly Confederate states. In this post, Marshall responds to Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell’s declaration of April as Confederate History Month, arguing that his gesture is as much about the present as it is about the past.–ellen

Even though Confederate History Month is now coming to a close, from where I sit—in Mississippi, not Virginia—sometimes it seems like it’s perpetually a time for celebrating the Lost Cause.  Perhaps because of my locale, but certainly because I am a historian of the South, there wasn’t much about Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell’s creation of Confederate History Month that caught me by surprise.  Anyone who has lived south of the Mason-Dixon line or the Ohio River knows that many white southerners are still obsessed by Civil War history and how to remember it.

Of course, for many white southerners, interest in the Confederacy is not academic.  It was with a sense of knowing resignation that I noted, as did so many in the mainstream media and the history blogosphere, that the first version of McDonnell’s proclamation didn’t include any mention of slavery.  My time teaching U.S. history in the deep South has taught me to expect the assertion that southern states seceded in order to defend that noble but vacuous concept: “states’ rights.”  “States’ rights to do what?” goes my tired rejoinder, “To protect their right to own slaves.” I trot out the Declaration of Secession and point to the line where Mississippians admit, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery” and that owning slaves is crucial to the state’s economy because “none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.” Sometimes I even think a few students are convinced.

To most people familiar with the way this memory works, especially scholars, McDonnell’s omission of slavery was expected.  To put a fine point on this southern solidarity, my own governor, Haley Barbour, claimed on CNN that criticism of McDonnell’s comments “don’t amount to diddly.”  What a couple decades of scholarship on historical memory has taught us, however, is that this re-writing of the war’s causes does indeed amount to diddly.  More than diddly, in fact.

As I bet the governors would admit if pressed, this year’s celebration of Confederate History Month has more to do with 2010 than with 1861.  Scratch the surface of McDonnell’s statements about secession and you find that the timing is no mystery.  While his stated justification for renewed interest in Confederate Virginia was that the Civil War sesquicentennial is just around the corner, one cannot miss a deeper meaning in his language.  The governor called on Virginians to remember that his state “joined the Confederate States of America in a four-year war between the states for independence.”  His use of the phrase “war between the states” and even “independence” are particularly resonant in a time when polls show Americans are increasingly fearful and distrustful of the federal government.

Re-branding the Confederate experiment as a Jeffersonian struggle against Washington bureaucracy resonates with the Tea Party’s own language and purpose. Not to mention the fact that setting aside the issues of slavery and race when explaining slaveholding Virginians’ secession 150 years ago may resonate with Americans increasingly upset about the politics of our first black president.

Although it would be easy to see McDonnell’s comments as just another backward-looking, nostalgic view of the past that seeks to write off issues of race or to forget slavery entirely, the governor’s incantation of Civil War memory, like other invocations of the Lost Cause over the last nearly 150 years, is much more complicated than simple romanticism. The Lost Cause celebrations of the twentieth century serve as a reminder that in times of economic stress, white Americans are likely to engage in the politics of memory that are equal parts resentment of “other” people (African American, Latino, impoverished, rich, etc.) who appear to be getting more than they deserve, and nostalgia for the times they believe that members of their racial or demographic group had it better.  Calling on a glorious and empowering history can be a very useful tool for assuaging worry and claiming power in the present.

While the Lost Cause may seem to be a southern phenomenon, its appeal is almost universal. Confederate history month itself may seem only appropriate in states that seceded 150 years ago, but the language of states’ rights that Governor McDonnell employed certainly carries appeal beyond the South.  Tea-partiers in Akron, Moline, and Tucson may not share the same Civil War history as the citizens of Virginia, but they can buy into its values.  This is a scenario that has played out many times in the past.

As I write about in Creating A Confederate Kentucky, white Kentuckians who remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War—and most of them did—embraced the Lost Cause in the decades after the sectional conflict as a way of resisting racial change. More broadly, numerous historians have chronicled how late-nineteenth-century white Americans, amidst their racial and economic anxieties, grew nostalgic for the cultural vestiges of the slave South, which represented a pre-industrial and more clearly racially delineated time.  One hundred years after the Lost Cause emerged as a powerful and effective political message, Ronald Reagan proved that it was still a way to reach voters skeptical of the federal government. At a campaign stop Neshoba County, Mississippi in 1980, where only 16 years earlier and a few miles away three Civil Rights workers had been killed by the Klan and local police, he assured not only southerners, but all voters, that he stood for the return of “states’ rights.”

With next year marking both an important campaign season and the 150th anniversary of secession, there is undoubtedly much more to come.  As conservative candidates across the country continue to employ the states’ rights rhetoric, one wonders if and when they will cut to the chase and start declaring it “American History Month.”

Anne E. Marshall
Mississippi State University
author of Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State (available December 2010)