Rebel Redemption Redux

At a 1917 Confederate veterans' reunion (Harris & Ewing via Library of Congress)

In the winter of his life, the ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass took up arms in fierce rhetorical battle for the collective memory of the Civil War. “Death has no power to change moral qualities,” he admonished a crowd assembled in 1894 at Rochester’s Mt. Hope Cemetery, where, nine months later, he would himself be laid to rest. “What was bad before the war, and during the war, has not been made good since the war. . . . Whatever else I may forget, I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery.” It was a theme he had been sounding for almost thirty years—that national amnesia must not obscure the crimes of the Confederacy, that the spirit of inter-sectional reunion must not blot out the moral dimension of the Civil War, that “there was a right side and a wrong side in the late war which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget.”

Douglass was outraged by the willingness of the victorious to forgive and forget the trespasses of the vanquished. In the years following the Civil War, Northerners seemed completely acquiescent in the face of a vigorous cultural and historical assault against common-sense memory. They permitted Southerners to divest the bloody conflict of its ideological and moral components and to refashion the war as an epic family feud in which Johnny Reb and Billy Yank each fought courageously and honorably, buried the hatchet, and became brothers again. While Douglass vigorously rejected “that school of thinkers which teaches us to let bygones be bygones,” by the late nineteenth century, more Americans chose to treat the 1860s with wistful but selective retrospection. At battlefield reunions, in popular fiction, inscribed on war memorials, a single theme reverberated clearly: the war was over, its cause was moot, and all should be honored.

No wonder that some seventy-five years after the war, William Faulkner’s Colonel Sartoris could honestly respond to the question of why he fought for the Confederacy with “Damned if I ever did know.”

Frederick Douglass’s lament remains apt 135 years after the close of the Civil War. Responses to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) controversial economic boycott of South Carolina—a sanction that remains in effect, pending the removal of the Confederate flag from state capitol grounds in Columbia—demonstrate the lasting influence of a value-neutral interpretation of the conflict that once pervaded both Civil War–era historiography and virtually every medium of popular culture and art. Although few credible sources convey any sympathy in discussing Confederate flag proponents, most objective news sources assail the emblem for its Jim Crow-era connotations, rather than for its original, equally pernicious meaning. Many papers have contented themselves with repeating the worn platitude that the flag is an emotional issue for many white and black southerners alike. As the Atlanta Constitution-Journal editorialized early this year, “people of good will obviously want to find a way out of the impasse—a way that removes the insult felt by African Americans, who see the flag as an emblem of slavery, without denying or insulting the heritage of those white Americans for whom it recalls the honorable aspects of the South’s past.”

Statements like this are as common as they are wrong. They suggest moral equivalency where none exists. More disturbing still, they emanate from apostles of moderation who should know better. To be sure, there lingers on the political fringes a crackpot contingent that vigorously defends the Confederate cause. Witness a letter to the editor from a Georgian whose “ancestors were not traitors to this country just because they resisted a two-faced national government that . . . ordered them to free their slaves without compensation.” Or the forty-seven-year-old secretary who pleads, “We’re not from up there [the North]. . . . Don’t take over our rights,” and the thirty-eight-year-old welder from Greenville who boasts, “South Carolina has a history of resisting tyranny.”

Happily, these are the voices of extremism—citizens practicing their constitutional right to be ludicrous. More disturbing is the tendency of those in the mainstream to place on moral par the sensibilities of blacks who resent the flag and whites who revel in it—and, for that matter, to assume that the Confederate flag should cause pain and insult only to African-Americans. Most of these public figures and journalists mean well. No less a “healer of the racial divide” than Bill Clinton, for instance, says that “as long as waving the symbol of one American’s pride is the shameful symbol of another American’s pain, we still have bridges to cross in our country.” Although he thinks it inappropriate to fly the flag from the South Carolina state capitol, he implies that only the descendants of former slaves might feel revulsion at its sight.

Even such staunch opponents of the Confederate flag as Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen frame their argument in such a way as to validate the spirit of the Old South. “The flag is the bloody shirt of Jim Crow and bullies with too much beer,” according to Cohen, who believes that in its post-Reconstruction context, the stars and bars are “no longer [emphasis added] the proud emblem of a lost cause.” In this sense, the liberal Cohen echoes conservative guru William Bennett in the latter’s cautious posture toward sons and daughters of the Confederate Army. “Although there were great individuals who fought for the Confederacy,” Bennett said earlier this year, “and their individual memory should be honored, what that flag stood for was slavery and the separation of the Union.” To their credit, Bennett and Cohen want the flag lowered. But they miss the larger point: those who fought for the “Lost Cause” should not be honored simply because they displayed intrepidity and prowess on the battlefield. What they fought for, rather than how well they fought for it, should determine the measure of respect accorded Confederate soldiers.


CONTRARY TO a version of history long honored in textbooks, film, literature, and public memory, recent scholarship suggests that many Confederate soldiers were perfectly cognizant of the ends for which they fought. This new interpretation raises serious questions—about how a contrary historical myth ever came to hold such wide currency; about balancing moral culpability with the sentiments of Confederate descendants who are understandably hesitant to disavow their forebears; and finally, about the message implicit in displaying the rebel emblem anywhere, in any context.

Until recently, historical consensus held that Civil War soldiers were driven by a miscellany of impulses, most of them vague: courage, honor, local ties, combat unity, manly valor. Conspicuously missing from that list were ideological commitments to the preservation or abolition of slavery, to democratic or republican principles, to a perpetual union, or to states’ rights.

Writing in this vein fifty years ago, Bell Irvin Wiley, once the leading authority on Civil War military culture, claimed that “it is doubtful whether many [Southern soldiers] either understood or cared about the Constitutional issues at stake.” The conviction that soldiers from both the North and South fought for reasons entirely disassociated from the larger political questions of the 1850s and 1860s remains fashionable to this day. In 1992, the commander of the New York chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans proudly announced that “it wasn’t because our fathers knew what they were fighting for that they were heroes. They didn’t know what they were fighting for, exactly, and they fought on anyway. That’s what made them heroes.”

This view of Civil War combat motivation relates to a longer historiographical tradition dating back to the 1930s. Writing amid a popular consensus that the First World War had been an avoidable affair, historians such as Avery Craven and James G. Randall deemed the Civil War the product of a “bungling generation” of ambitious, cynical politicians who cared nothing about slavery and who accidentally forced the two sections to the brink of war. These scholars ranked the Civil War an unnecessary conflict, one brought about by individuals, not by ideas.

By the late 1950s and 1960s, the civil rights movement obliged a new generation of historians to re-locate ideology as a compelling cause of the Civil War. Yet it has been far easier for Americans to concede that politicians in the 1850s and 1860s meant what they said, when they defended or opposed the “peculiar institution,” than to allow for the possibility that nine hundred thousand regular Confederate soldiers actively supported—and sacrificed or died for—the preservation of slavery.

The lasting influence of this view finds reinforcement today in the reading public’s intense fascination with military—at the expense of political—history, and it is critical to any understanding of the tepid reaction to South Carolina’s current-day dilemma. As a columnist for the Boston Globe recently argued, “Southerners have every right to be proud of their heritage. . . . Let the South honor its heroes. Race relations aren’t advanced by denigrating a symbol good Americans died for . . . ” The ghost of Colonel Sartoris lives on.


IN TWO slim but expert volumes, Princeton University professor James M. McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize–winning author, responds to these value-neutral accounts and argues that “research in the letters and diaries of Civil War soldiers will soon lead the attentive historian to a contrary conclusion. Ideological motifs almost leap from . . . these documents.” After reading over 25,000 personal letters and 249 journals penned by Union and Confederate troops, McPherson concludes that a “large number of those men in blue and gray were intensely aware of the issues at stake and passionately concerned about them.”

On one level, Southern soldiers unabashedly invoked the term “slavery,” but not as one might expect. According to McPherson, “these soldiers were using the word slavery in the same way that Americans in 1776 had used it to describe their subordination to Britain.” Indeed, the Confederate paper trail is rife with direct references to the imperative of preserving the republican principles of 1776, especially property rights, widely viewed as a defense against political “slavery” and “subjugation.”

Essentially, Southern soldiers in the 1860s borrowed heavily from the political discourse of the American Revolution, when colonial leaders routinely described violations of natural and common law as enslavement. Gradually, as the logical implications of their opposition to metaphorical slavery became clearer to the revolutionaries, many came to believe that actual slavery might be inconsistent with natural law. Bernard Bailyn labeled the ensuing phenomenon “the contagion of liberty”—the widespread, critical re-examination of an institution that seemed in conflict with the theoretical underpinnings of the colonial cause. This ideological development led to the gradual abolition of chattel slavery in the newly formed Northern states. In the South, however, such introspection could not overcome compelling economic and social interests that made slavery essential, either to the preservation of the cash crop system or to the maintenance of social order (read, white supremacy). By the 1860s, when they spoke of slavery, Civil War soldiers fighting for either army were discussing two very different ideas. It was this glaring inconsistency that led Abraham Lincoln to complain of Southerners that “the perfect liberty they sigh for [is] the liberty of making slaves of other people.”

By the 1860s, Confederate soldiers saw no contradiction in claiming, “We are fighting for our liberty against tyrants of the North . . . who are determined to destroy slavery.” Or, as a private in the Fifty-sixth Virginia explained to his wife, “If we should suffer ourselves to be subjugated by the tyrannical government of the North, our property [slaves] would all be confiscated . . . & our people reduced to the most abject bondage and utter degradation.” To white southerners—almost a million of whom served in the armed forces—slavery was a political condition that resulted from the loss of property and vested rights.

A lieutenant in the Mississippi Twenty-eighth declared that “[t]his country without slave labor would be completely worthless.” To another soldier, the war’s objective was equally clear: protecting “rights and property bequeathed to us by our ancestors.” Other Confederates preferred to couch their objectives in language carefully developed over the course of the antebellum period; rather than defend bondage or slavery—terms they seemed implicitly to acknowledge were laden with negative connotations—they instead insisted that the Southern struggle was to defend “the institutions of the whole South,” or “our own social institutions,” and they fiercely resisted, as did one South Carolina planter, the designs of Northern “fanatics to interfere with our domestic affairs.”


ONE ESPECIALLY popular Civil War sophism—often used to immunize the Confederate army against the judgment of history—is that the struggle was a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” Indeed, only one-third of Confederate soldiers were slaveholders or members of slaveholding families, a statistic that leads reasonably to doubts about the pervasiveness of Southern pro-slavery sentiment. But McPherson reminds readers that non-slaveholders also had a commanding property interest in the institution. “That property was their white skins,” he explains, “which put them on a plane of civil equality with slaveholders and far above those who did not possess that property.” McPherson highlights a quirk of Southern social order that would continue to vex the region’s populists and liberals well into the twentieth century. In her famous article, “Two Men and a Bargain,” Lillian E. Smith wrote in 1943 that “[o]nce a time, down South, a rich white made a bargain with a poor white . . . . You boss the nigger, I’ll boss the money.” And so, according to Smith, whites “segregated southern money from the poor white and they. . . segregated the Negro from everything.” Her point was essentially sound: long before anyone in the 1940s could remember, those white Southerners who had nothing to gain and perhaps something to lose from the codification of black inequality were tempted by a self-defeating bargain. Before 1865, slavery—and afterward, Jim Crow—bought poor and middling whites a measure of social status in a region notorious for its rigid class stratification.

Indeed, correspondence and diaries by slaveholding and non-slaveholding soldiers alike reflect a conscious association of the war effort with the preservation of the Southern racial order. “I never want to see the day when a negro is put on an equality with a white person,” wrote a Louisiana artillery man in 1862. “There is too many free niggers . . . now to suit me, let alone having four millions.” Along similar lines, a North Carolina dirt farmer denounced Northern invaders who were “trying to force us to live as the colored race.” Many Confederates also feared the looming specter of miscegenation. “Better, far better! endure all the horrors of civil war,” wrote a Virginia schoolteacher to his father, “than to see the dusky sons of Ham leading the fair daughters of the South to the altar.” Such ruminations may not have been unusual. A Union private in the Twenty-fifth Wisconsin wrote with bewilderment to his family, describing a group of Confederate prisoners of war he had helped capture in Atlanta. “Some of the boys asked them what they were fighting for, and they answered, ‘You Yanks want us to marry our daughters to the niggers.’”

Of course many Southern soldiers didn’t address slavery categorically in their letters and journals. McPherson found that of his sample, over half of all Confederate officers and one-third of enlisted men discussed “ideological themes”—usually general musings about liberty, the Spirit of ‘76, republicanism, Southern traditions, and institutions. Only one out of five actually defended slavery in explicit terms. But even the absence of dialogue tells us something. McPherson notes that “ironically, the proportion of Union soldiers who wrote about the slavery question was greater. . . . Emancipation was a salient issue for Union soldiers because it was controversial. Slavery was less salient for most Confederate soldiers because it was not controversial. They took slavery for granted as one of the Southern ‘rights’ and institutions for which they fought, and did not feel compelled to discuss it.” Whereas McPherson found Northern officers and enlistees engaged in a heated, four-year debate over slavery, “only 20 percent of the [Confederate] soldiers avowed explicit pro-slavery purposes . . . [but] none at all dissented from that view.” Instead, rebel soldiers “preferred to discourse upon liberty, rights, and the horrors of subjugation.” There is another response to the reasonable objection that ordinary soldiers should not be held historically accountable for the political and ideological aims of the Confederate government. Although it is true that the Confederacy instituted a military draft, Columbia University professor Eric Foner reminds his readers that “[i]n large areas of the Southern upcountry”—places like Western Virginia, East Tennessee, West [North] Carolina—“initial enthusiasm for the war was succeeded by disillusionment, draft evasion, and eventually outright resistance to Confederate authority—a civil war within the Civil War.” Above and beyond outright draft evasion, more than a hundred thousand troops, 11 percent of the Southern armed forces, deserted. “In contrast to twentieth-century wars in which most soldiers have been draftees or long-service regulars,” McPherson writes, the armies of the Civil War era were made up mostly of volunteers. With some exceptions, Confederates who fought against the Union did so of their own volition; those who objected wholly or in part to the rebel cause had ample opportunity to evade the Richmond government’s loose draft enforcement. Many did.

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the thorny issues of constitutional revision, civil rights, and impeachment provided the nation with little time to reflect on its shared experience. It was only in the 1880s, with Reconstruction a dead letter and the post-war pandemonium settled, that both sections of the country turned to the task of interpreting and commemorating the war.


HISTORIAN Gaines Foster has traced a critical transition that occurred in this decade, during which the Confederate legacy passed from the hands of what he terms the “Virginia coalition”—a group of hard-line, unreconstructed rebels who had first entrusted themselves with the preservation of official war memory—to veterans representing a new, emergent middle class. The “Virginians,” the first fomenters of Confederate revivalism, included such figures as Jubal Early, B.T. Johnson, Fitz Lee, and W. P. Johnson, most of whom shared aristocratic credentials, nominally distinguished war records, and a venomous hatred of all things Northern. Although their calls for defiant commemoration met with widespread apathy throughout the 1860s and 1870s, and although they were fated to become marginal figures at best, these men ultimately formulated the ideological underpinnings of what would become, under new leadership in the 1880s, the standard Southern interpretation of the Civil War.

The central themes of this historical rendering were veneration of an antebellum South that was both aristocratic and, by implication, better mannered than its avaricious, modernized counterpart (the North); confirmation that secession had been a legal response to incursions against states’ rights, rather than a revolutionary action; and finally, insistence that slavery had been only a remote cause of the war. As Hunter McGuire explained in a historical report for the Grand Camp of Confederate Veterans of Virginia, “however brave” rebel soldiers had been, to acknowledge that they fought to preserve slavery would only “hold us degraded rather than worthy of honor . . . our children, instead of revering their fathers will be secretly, if not openly, ashamed.” With the nettlesome issue of slavery thus disposed of, new officials of the Confederate memory machine could stress more desirable sub-themes of the Lost Cause saga, including Confederate respect for social discipline, Southern womanhood, and private property.

The 1880s and 1890s saw the rapid proliferation of Confederate commemoration, as a new trio of associated organizations—the United Confederate Veterans (UCV), United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and the United Sons of Confederate Veterans (USCV)—institutionalized the related themes of inter-sectional reconciliation and a vague form of Southern pride, rooted in heritage but devoid of overt ideology. These groups appealed to a far wider swath of the white Southern population than their “Virginia coalition” predecessors, in part because their leaders assumed a less elitist posture, but also because they offered a compelling post-war epilogue: according to Foster, they placed “emphasis on reconciliation and the experience of battle,” permitting rank-and-file veterans and their families to be patriotic Americans without repudiating their wartime legacy. The first large-scale manifestation of this new wave of Confederate commemoration occurred in May 1890, when between a hundred thousand and a hundred and fifty thousand onlookers gathered in Richmond for the unveiling of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Throughout the late 1880s and 1890s, hundreds of towns across the South undertook the commission of similar monuments to their heroes and war dead. Unlike the initial wave of graveyard memorials that Southerners unveiled in the 1860s, these structures tended to be placed in town squares and by county courthouses, and in keeping with the new emphasis on comradeship in arms, more often than not they featured statues of Confederate veterans.

More sweeping still were the annual reunions of state UCV chapters, and the perennial, section-wide UCV meeting, which drew crowds ranging as high as a hundred thousand. Confederate veterans were at the center of these celebrations, reinforcing the UCV’s emphasis on military honor. Naturally, the Confederate battle flag enjoyed a prominent place in the festivities.

Beyond their ability to draw impressive numbers at memorial events, the UCV, UDC, and USCV enjoyed a great deal of political influence in determining how future generations of Southerners would understand the events of the 1860s. During the war, for instance, Confederate soldiers had eagerly embraced the sobriquet “reb,” but the new guardians of Southern memory insisted the term violated their revision of the war’s status from revolution to constitutional conflict. “Was your father a Rebel and a Traitor?” asked a typical chapter leaflet. “Did he fight in the service of the Confederacy for the purpose of defeating the Union, or was he a Patriot, fighting for the liberties granted him under the Constitution, in defense of his native land, and for a cause he knew to be right?” Keeping to this revisionist tendency, rather than propagate undignified titles like “the late war,” (too vague), the “Civil War” (too revolutionary), or “The War of Rebellion” (far too revolutionary), in 1899 and 1890, the UCV and UDC approved resolutions encouraging the conflict’s official designation as “The War Between the States.” Successive generations of Southern school children would learn it as such.


WHILE WHITE Southerners were re-conceptualizing the war’s meaning, many white Northerners acceded to a similar revisionist impulse influenced by a reverence for shared military experiences and progressively hardened racial sensibilities. Military historian Gerald Linderman has found that during the war many ordinary soldiers had grown “to resent unchanging civilian allegiance to the precepts with which the war began. . . . Those who continued to kill one another often felt less estrangement from their victims than those in whose behalf they had gone to fight.” A telling example of this transformation was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.—a scion of Boston’s Brahmin society who began the war as a firebrand abolitionist. After enduring four years of grim combat, Holmes found his faith in causes tempered. Decades later, he reflected, “That faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw his life away in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has little notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.” In effect, action, rather than belief, was the true test of faith and courage. In his intellectual journey from idealist to pragmatist, Holmes may have been similar to other men of the Civil War generation.

Indeed, Gaines Foster has made a compelling argument that toward the close of the nineteenth century, veterans and the public at large came to view the martial achievements of both sections as equally praiseworthy. A powerful combination—of combat-induced identification with the enemy, the passage of time, and the disillusioning experience of Reconstruction—led many Northerners and Southerners alike to revel in shared military glory without dwelling too much on the causes of the conflict itself.

This spirit of reconciliation, and its emphasis on combat over ideology, produced a new vogue in the late 1880s: Blue and Gray reunions. Over the next several decades, veterans and enthusiasts attended hundreds of battlefield and regimental reunions at which standard etiquette held that soldiers from both sides be honored guests. In 1887, for instance, Boston’s Granddaughters of the American Revolution post hosted members of Richmond’s Robert E. Lee Camp of Confederate Veterans, who were treated to a sightseeing tour of the city formerly regarded as the unofficial capital of abolitionism. That same year, the Seventh Connecticut held a reunion at which the honoree was Confederate Colonel Charles Olmsted, whom the regiment had captured during the war. Two years later, the Society of the Army of the Cumberland held a Blue-Gray reunion of a scale that would become increasingly common: twenty-five thousand people gathered at Crawfish Springs, near the Chickamauga Battlefield, for a picnic and public ceremony. The best known of the official Civil War reunions, sponsored by the United States government in 1913, brought surviving Confederate and Union veterans back to Gettysburg on the fiftieth anniversary of the battle. In a now-famous moment, the former combatants re-enacted Pickett’s charge, and the nation went misty-eyed when silver-haired Billy Yanks leapt from behind the stone wall to embrace their rebel assailants.

Reflecting and nourishing the nation’s fascination with all things military, the Century—a popular, wide-circulation magazine—ran an acclaimed series of articles between 1884 and 1887 on “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.” The journal’s editors explained that “[n]o time could be fitter for a publication of this kind than the present, when the passions and prejudices of the Civil War have nearly faded out of politics, and its heroic events are passing into our common history where motives will be weighed without malice, and valor praised without distinction of uniform.”


FURTHER aiding the process of historical revisionism was a highly successful Southern literary assault on public memory.

Beginning in the 1880s, a host of Southern writers—most notably Joel Chandler Harris, John Easton Cooke, Thomas Nelson Page, and Sara Pryor—flooded the nation’s mass-circulation fiction market with local-color stories depicting the antebellum South’s refinement and civilization. To court Northern readers (something they did exceedingly well), these writers scrupulously avoided topics that might rekindle old political flames and instead wove tales replete with beautiful plantation belles, dashing cavaliers, and dull-witted but cheerful black slaves. One study finds that between 1875 and 1900, Northern magazine fiction most commonly described black freedmen as “simple,” “fervent,” or “good-humored,” qualities that harmonized with Page’s stock story line: out-of-town traveler (often from the North) meets “old retainer” (a former slave remaining in his master’s service) who, after a great deal of prodding, reminisces wistfully of a bygone age when “nuttin warn too good for the niggers.”

Above all, these writers celebrated the Southern heritage without dwelling on the nagging questions of slavery and treason. “[F]or those who knew the old Country as it was then,” reads one of Page’s novels, “and can contrast it with what it has become since, no wonder it seems that even the moonlight was richer and mellower ‘before the war’ than it is now.” Such sentimentality and romance played well with Northern audiences, whose memory of slavery and capacity for race liberalism had evaporated considerably since Reconstruction. Over were the days when Uncle Tom’s Cabin could enrage a nation of readers with its depiction of slavery’s violent assault on the cherished institutions of family and Christianity.

Among the most successful and enduring artistic apologies for antebellum Southern culture were Thomas Dixon’s trilogy (The Leopard’s Spots, 1902; The Clansman, 1905; The Traitor, 1907)—adapted by director D. W. Griffith into the popular film Birth of a Nation—and Margaret Mitchell’s classic, Gone With the Wind, 1936, which sold a remarkable 3.5 million copies in less than a decade and was made into an enormously popular movie. Dixon didn’t stop at glorifying the antebellum South. His explicitly avowed purpose in writing The Clansman was to recount “the bold attempt of Thaddeus Stevens [a radical Republican congressman] to Africanize the ten great states of the American Union.” Mitchell’s work, though more subtle and certainly less ferocious, nevertheless whitewashes the antebellum South and conveniently ignores the misery and indignity suffered by four million enslaved people on the eve of the war.

The lasting acclaim each author enjoyed, and the conspicuous absence of a literary counter-assault, underscores the extent to which trends like Social Darwinism and mass immigration had, by the early twentieth century, eroded what little Northern commitment to race liberalism survived Reconstruction.

“I’d be with my people, right or wrong,” Shelby Foote proclaims. “If I was against slavery, I’d still be with the South. I’m a man, my society needs me, here I am.” Foote is living proof that many Americans—especially those who are most interested in the Civil War—remain under the spell of a century-old tendency to mystify the Confederacy’s martial glory at the expense of recalling the intense ideological purpose associated with its cause.

Of all people, Foote should know better. He is not merely the author of three especially popular volumes about the war. He is also the descendent, on his mother’s side, of East European Jews. If parallels between slavery and shoah have ever occurred to him, he gives little indication of it. The Confederate flag, he explains, “stood for law, honor, love of country.” It was only later that “the good ol’ boys in the pickup trucks” misappropriated the banner and altered its meaning. One suspects that Foote would not agree that the swastika was once a perfectly respectable symbol of law, honor, and national pride, before it was lamentably hijacked by skinheads in the 1960s and 1970s.

Shelby Foote is living testimony to the failure of many Civil War enthusiasts and public figures to disavow the American army that fought under the rebel banner. As a nation, we remain very much under the spell of Robert E. Lee, even as we decry slavery and its legacy.

When state and municipal governments accord the rebel flag honor or recognition, they sanction all that the flag stood for: treason, slavery, and a race state. When the rest of us soft–pedal that official endorsement, when we hem and haw in deference to the memory of the ordinary Confederate soldier, we demonstrate a blissful ignorance of history.

The clamor over the Confederate flag is sure to continue. The NAACP has pledged to press forward with its boycott until the banner is removed from South Carolina’s statehouse grounds, and other states, like Mississippi, can expect a protracted battle to remove the emblem from their state flags. We have a unique opportunity to reconsider our national love affair with the Lost Cause and examine in a more thoughtful way the ideological dimensions of the Civil War.


Joshua Michael Zeitz is a doctoral candidate in American history at Brown University.

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