In September this year, the 12-tonne statue of Confederate general and racist traitor, Robert E Lee, in Richmond Virginia, was taken down by the authorities. In its place, a statue commemorating the emancipation of slaves was erected. This measure, undertaken by the Virginia state government, reignited a debate about memorialising the Confederacy, and the persistent myth of the Lost Cause.
Let’s examine why this is not only a historical issue, but compellingly relevant for today’s politics.
The Lost Cause, a propaganda campaign developed over several decades after the end of the Civil War, downplays the importance of slavery and racism in driving the Southern states to secede. Instead, the partisans of Lost Cause mythology posit several, seemingly legitimate reasons for secession – states rights, preserving the ‘Southern way of life’, and hostility to ostensibly greedy Northern interests. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), a pressure group formed after the Civil War, promoted public activities to rehabilitate the Confederacy.
By denying the role of slavery – and its aggressive promotion by the slave owning states – the Lost Cause myth absolves the Confederacy of its racism, and recasts the Southern states as historical patriots. The Lost Cause – advocated by ex-Confederate generals and soldiers – is a counter factual reading of history, removing the stain of white supremacy from the Confederate cause.
Fighting for ‘states rights’ against a supposedly overbearing federal authority sounds like a ‘noble’ motivation. Fighting for the expansion of slavery to benefit white Southern landowners and politicians sounds more materialistic in intent.
The naming of streets, statues, military bases and public spaces after Confederate generals is not a matter of simply adhering to historical veracity. They are public tributes to segregationist traitors and slave-owning racists, and promote the claim that white supremacist ideology is something to be normalised. After the Civil War, Confederate apologists worked tirelessly to deny the expressly stated intention of the secessionist states – slavery, and the white supremacy upon which it was based.
Repurposing the Confederate cause as one of defending ‘cultural heritage’ has a cynical and perverse consequence – uniting whites from the Southern and Northern states into one racialised block against the African American community. Disguising the role of the Southern landowning aristocratic class in instigating the Civil War serves to break down interethnic bonds between poor whites and black Americans.
The UDC, and similar Confederate advocacy organisations, monitored school textbooks and evaluated the history sections, ensuring that a Southern-sympathetic point of view was included. As the decades after the end of the Civil War proceeded, and the veterans of that conflict passed on, a concerted effort was made to ensure that succeeding generations learned the repackaged Lost Cause myth of the Civil War.
From the 1880s onwards, numerous projects to erect statues to Confederate generals were undertaken. As Reconstruction was wound back, new ways of enforcing racial segregation were explored – resulting in extensive Jim Crow legislation. Public rallies, children’s activities, ceremonies honouring the bravery of Southern soldiers, renaming military bases after Confederate generals – and the growing white supremacist vigilante insurgency by the KKK – all these events helped to reintegrate the Confederate cause into the public consciousness.
The Lost Cause advocates have never tired of recycling an old falsehood – the myth of the loyal slave. While slave owning was downplayed by neo-Confederates, the pernicious distortion of the happy black slave has been promoted in books and films. Indeed, the Lost Cause contends that these ‘loyal slaves’ even took up arms for the Confederacy. Former US President Donald Trump recycled this myth in his frequent outbursts defending the old South.
That claim is interesting, because the Confederacy – even when the tide of the Civil War turned against the South – the ‘happy slaves’ were never armed by the ‘non racist’ slave owners. In fact, the Southern aristocratic class were constantly terrified of slave uprisings, escapes and rebellions. This unending anxiety was not confined to the Confederacy; throughout the slave owning colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean, slave owners were terrified of the growing number of – and possible uprisings by – the African slaves.
The Emancipation proclamation only heightened the fears of the Confederate slave owners that the erstwhile slaves would escape to the North for freedom – which they did. Black persons were employed by the Confederate armies – as servants. Armed black slaves was the last thing the Confederacy wanted; a situation which undermines the claim that racism was not a factor in secession.
Are we being too harsh, with the benefit of hindsight, to judge our forebears and their actions? In our everyday world, that makes sense. However, Confederate statues were not constructed as public artefacts to commemorate history. They were erected as part of a toxic campaign of white nationalist resentment, not for any innocuous cause of states rights. By removing these memorials to white supremacy, we can see the racist history of American capitalism more clearly.