James W. Loewn has been de-bunking the myths of American History since his terrific book Lies My Teacher Told Me.
In the Washington Post, he turned his talents to explaining how maintaining monuments to traitors in defense of slavery hurts the nation.
The Confederates won with the pen (and the noose) what they could not win on the battlefield: the cause of white supremacy and the dominant understanding of what the war was all about. We are still digging ourselves out from under the misinformation that they spread, which has manifested in both our history books and our public monuments.
Take Kentucky. Kentucky’s legislature voted not to secede, and early in the war, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston ventured through the western part of the state and found “no enthusiasm as we imagined and hoped but hostility … in Kentucky.” Eventually, 90,000 Kentuckians would fight for the United States, while 35,000 fought for the Confederate States. Nevertheless, according to historian Thomas Clark, the state now has 72 Confederate monuments and only two Union ones.
The politics behind the Confederate flag controversy in South Carolina(1:37)
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) announced she supports removing the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds. Here's what you need to know about the history of the flag in the state and what needs to happen to have it removed.
In addition to winning the battle for public monuments, neo-Confederates also managed to rename the war, calling it “the War Between the States.” Nevermind that while it was going on, no one called it that. Even “Jeopardy!” accepts it.
Perhaps most perniciously, neo-Confederates now claim that the South seceded for states’ rights. When each state left the Union, its leaders made clear that they were seceding because they were for slavery and against states’ rights. In its “Declaration Of The Causes Which Impel The State Of Texas To Secede From The Federal Union,” for example, the secession convention of Texas listed the states that had offended them: Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa. These states had in fact exercised states’ rights by passing laws that interfered with the federal government’s attempts to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Some also no longer let slaveowners “transit” through their states with their slaves. “States’ rights” were what Texas was seceding against. Texas also made clear what it was seceding for: white supremacy.We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.
Despite such statements, during and after the Nadir, neo-Confederates put up monuments that flatly lied about the Confederate cause. For example, South Carolina’s monument at Gettysburg, dedicated in 1965, claims to explain why the state seceded: “Abiding faith in the sacredness of states rights provided their creed here.” This tells us nothing about 1863, when abiding opposition to states’ rights as claimed by free states provided South Carolinians’ creed. In 1965, however, its leaders did support states’ rights. Indeed, they were desperately trying to keep the federal government from enforcing school desegregation and civil rights. The one constant was that the leaders of South Carolina in 1860 and 1965 were acting on behalf of white supremacy.
Teaching or implying that the Confederate states seceded for states’ rights is not accurate history. It is white, Confederate-apologist history. It bends — even breaks — the facts of what happened. Like other U.S. history textbooks, “Journey” needs to be de-Confederatized. So does the history test we give to immigrants who want to become U.S. citizens. Item 74 asks, “Name one problem that led to the Civil War.” It then gives three acceptable answers: “slavery, economic reasons, and states’ rights.” If by “economic reasons” it means issues about tariffs and taxes, which most people infer, then two of its three “correct answers” are wrong! No other question on this 100-item test has more than one “right” answer. The reason is not because the history is unclear, but because neo-Confederates still wielded considerable influence in our culture and our Congress until quite recently, when a mass of politicians rushed to declare the Confederate flag unsuitable for display on government grounds.
With our monuments lying about secession, our textbooks obfuscating what the Confederacy was about, and our army honoring its generals, no wonder so many Americans supported the Confederacy until last week. We can literally see the impact Confederate symbols and thinking had on Dylann Roof, but other examples abound. In his mugshot, Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, wore a neo-Confederate T-shirt showing Abraham Lincoln and the words, “Sic semper tyrannis!” When white students in Appleton, Wis., a recovering sundown town that for decades had been “all white” on purpose, had issues with Mexican American students in 1999, they responded by wearing and waving Confederate flags, which they already had at home, at the ready. Across the country, removing slavery from its central role in prompting the Civil War marginalizes African Americans and makes us all stupid.
De-Confederatizing the United States won’t end white supremacy, but it will be a momentous step in that direction.