The Confederacy’s Lost Cause makeover, the slave trade, and the cinematic version of the South

The Confederacy – the slave owning plantation economy which was militarily defeated in 1865 after its secessionist war – may seem to be relegated to the status of a historical curiosity. What contemporary relevance would that entity have? Plenty, actually. The rehabilitation of the Confederacy will not bring back slavery, but it serves as a necessary buttress for the low-level white supremacist insurgency, which exploded with various political forces on January 6, 2021.

One of the participants in the attempted coup d’état by ultranationalist forces on January 6, Kevin Seefried, was sentenced to three years in prison for carrying the Confederate flag into the Capitol Hill building. Brandishing it in the face of a black police officer, Seefried claimed in his defence that he never intended to spread a message of hate. Unaware of its true meaning, Seefried’s legal defence team argued, he was only upholding what he believed to be his heritage.

Let’s focus on his legal defence; Seefried’s team was taking a position that has been used by apologists for the Confederacy at least since the 1960s – defence of Southern heritage. That is quite baffling, considering the abundance of materials, including declarations by the Southern secessionist states, that explicitly state the preservation of slavery as the main reason for the 1861 secession and subsequent civil war.

In December 1860, South Carolina legislators held a secession congress where they repudiated the US constitution, and clearly stated that they were leaving the Union because they wanted to keep slavery. Other seceding states, such as Mississippi and Texas, followed the same proslavery logic as South Carolina.

Once again, let’s reiterate; the American civil war was not fought over states’ rights. The excuse of states’ rights as a reason for secession arose, not during the crisis of the 1850s and 1860s, but from the 1890s onwards, long after the civil war ended. The 1890s marked an upsurge in white supremacist rebellion, the building of Confederate statues, and the search for anything-but-slavery reasons to excuse the actions of the Confederacy.

The claim of states’ rights is a convenient nonracial refuge from the morally repugnant underlying reason – the preservation of slavery. The Southern slaveholders were actually quite happy with federal authority when it suited their interests. The 1857 Dred Scott decision by the federal court, denying black Americans citizenship and compelling the return of fugitive slaves in the North to their owners in the South, was welcomed by the Southern slave holding oligarchy.

In fact, Southern slaveholders dreamt of an international slave owning empire. The racialised transatlantic slave trade was global in scope and operations. As the American frontier expanded in the 1840s and 50s, and the gold rushes became prominent, Southern plantation owners desired the expansion of slavery into these newly opened indigenous territories. Expanding beyond the borders of the continental United States was a long sought after objective.

Let’s say, for the moment, that Seefried is telling the truth; that leaves us with another question – are there Americans who matriculate from the school system unaware of the true meaning of the Confederate flag? Is the education system solely to blame? There is a deeper sociopolitical process here; America’s wars overseas are creating a climate of racism and militarisation at home. The Confederacy was a militarised, autocratic society, intent on expanding its economic interests.

Imperialist wars overseas create and reinforce a political dynamic of their own. In the immediate aftermath of the Confederacy’s defeat, the southern secessionist whites were marginalised. However, gradually, as the US developed imperial ambitions of its own, the Confederacy gained a cultural and sociopolitical rehabilitation.

These are not just my sentiments, but rather the manifestation of the fraudulent Lost Cause mythology. As the defeated Southern secessionists launched their own low-level campaign of domestic terror aimed at African Americans, indigenous people and ethnic minorities, they also perpetuated a reframing of the Confederacy.

Matthew Rozsa, writing in Salon magazine in October last year, notes that while Lincoln never pledged to abolish slavery, only limit its expansion, his election as President in 1860 triggered the treasonous secession of the slave owning states. No, Lincoln did not cause the civil war. The southern slaveholding class were intent on preserving and expanding their slavocracy.

Lincoln himself was not an abolitionist, but once the Southern slaveholders rebelled, he committed himself to the defeat of the white supremacist insurgency – and such a victory could not be achieved without the emancipation of the slaves. The defeated Southerners, in their quest to revive white supremacy, resorted to a systematic rewriting of history. The Confederate flag became, not a symbol of racism and hatred, but of an innocuous Southern ‘pride.’

The Confederate battle flag, rather than being a neutral expression of cultural pride, is actually a symbol of white insurrection. It found adherents on January 6 2021, including South Vietnamese Saigon loyalists. Lost causes find common ground in a collective longing for a mythical past.

There are still thousands of Confederate statues and memorials across the United States. It is more than time for Americans to come to grips with their own history of civil war and white nationalism. Engaging in a cinematic Lost Cause, engaging a neo-Confederate perspective of the civil war, will only ensure that more would-be insurrectionists like Kevin Seefried are produced.

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