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)

3 Comments

  1. Although I’ve written a novel about a Confederate iconic feminist named Belle Boyd (The first woman in American history commissioned an army officer) I am no advocate for The Lost Cause.
    This was a disinformation campaign started by Jubal Early and his colleagues at the Southern Historical Society. The basis was the Southern declaration of separation and war was economic. Slaves were property and therefore credit and money in a rural society where both were scarce. Slavery was going away because it no longer made sense economically. Masters were free slaves to avoid the expense of maintaining them. Slaves were buying their own freedom. In time it would have gone away, but radicals on both sides of the question forced the war.

    This is an excellent analysis which I will recommend to others.

  2. I spent some time today with an octogenarian in a professional setting. He claimed the title of “Tea Bagger”. He told me that the President was illegitimate because of his birth. He then went on to demonize Pelosi and Reid using the usual propaganda that seems to be so well orchestrated by the right. This man is smarter than this. He must see through these lies I thought. Then it hit me. He has a Machiavellian agenda. The ends justify the means. He and his fellow travelers will do anything to put it back the way it was. To move time back where he was comfortable, on top, when things were black and white, literally. Make no mistake The Tea Party movement has strong racial overtones that the right is again trying to harness just as Reagan did in Mississippi in 1980.

  3. The most astonishing thing about the Civil War is the looney teaching of it. How on earth did Jeff Davis and Robert E Lee come out, in many circles, as being kindly men who were against slavery?

    But much more important — how on earth did the main aspect of Civil War history be nearly completely ignored?

    I’ve been reading books BY the South, speeches BY the Southern leaders, documents OF the Southern governments. Over and over and over you see that the most powerful pressure before the Civil War was the South’s almost insane efforts to spread slavery. And you see the SOUTHERN leaders saying so — Toombs yelled “Expand or perish!” Davis claimed the intolerable grievance was Lincoln speaking badly about Dred Scott decision’s ruling that no one could stop the spread of slavery.

    Southern writers were BRAGGING that they would expand slavery — and that if the North dared elect Lincoln, they promised war. Pollard wrote that the entire SOUTH had been warning the North — all through the election — that they would take Linclon’s election as an act of war.

    The governor of FLorida wrote that just stopping the SPREAD of slavery, would be like burning the Southern children to death.

    The South was choking to death on the cancer of slavery — and they knew it. They said so. They hyperabundance of slaves — and the fantastic birth rate of slaves– had the Southern leaders nearly insane with fear and hate.

    Yet this is not even mentioned in schools — even in college history courses.

    Most of the major truths of that period, or either totally ignored, or glossed over. It’s been 150 years. Lets get the truth out there.

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