Revising Confederate history
“We went to war on account of the thing we quarreled with the North about. I never heard of any other cause of quarrel than slavery. Men fight from sentiment. After the fight is over they invent some fanciful theory on which they imagine that they fought.” — Confederate Col. John S. Mosby
Ten years ago, I received an e-mail from a reader who signed him or herself “J.D.” “I am a white racist,” wrote J.D., “a white supremacist and I do not deny it.”
From that, you’d suspect J.D. had nothing of value to say. You’d be mistaken. J.D. wrote in response to a column documenting the fact that preservation of slavery was the prime directive of the southern confederacy. “I was most pleased to see you write what we both know to be the truth,” the e-mail said. “I never cease to be amazed at the Sons of Confederate Veterans and similar ‘heritage not hate’ groups who are constantly whining that the Confederacy was not a white, racist government …”
That argument, noted J.D. with wry amusement, plays well with “white people who want to be Confederates without any controversy.”
It was an astute observation, the truth of which was deftly illustrated recently by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. Seems he issued a proclamation declaring April Confederate History Month in the commonwealth. Said proclamation contained not the barest mention that the confederacy went to war to preserve slavery, an omission that got the governor pilloried in the court of public opinion.
So McDonnell apologized and tried again, inserting into his proclamation a paragraph observing that this Confederacy we are invited to commemorate was built upon an “evil” and “inhumane” practice. That little bit of cognitive dissonance neatly accomplished, the proclamation was duly reissued.
But there’s still a flaw in it. Namely in a line that speaks of how “the people of Virginia joined the Confederate States of America.” See, no one asked half a million of “the people of Virginia” about joining any Confederacy. As they were owned by their fellow citizens, they had no say in the matter.
And so it goes in the ongoing effort by apologists for the Confederacy to convince the rest of us that an act of high treason committed in the name of preserving human bondage somehow deserves honor and respect. It’s a case that cannot be made on its own dubious merits, so they are obliged to pretend the cause wasn’t what it was, to write slaves and slavery out of the story.
McDonnell is hardly the first. Indeed, the practice is nearly as old as the Civil War itself. Confederate President Jefferson Davis once flatly cited “the labor of African slaves” as the cause of the rebellion. After the war, with that cause repudiated, he wrote, “Slavery was in no wise the cause of the conflict.” It’s a straight line from Davis’ amnesia to McDonnell’s omission.
The governor seeks to render the Confederacy harmless, to be a Confederate without controversy. He seeks to validate the vestigial southern impulse which insists, contrary to logic, that the tragic suffering and incontestable bravery of Confederate forebears must somehow redeem the awful cause for which they fought. But the simple truth is, they do not. Nor can they until or unless we agree to murder memory, to kill recollection of our greatest national trauma, to enter into a conspiracy of romantic lies.
Confederate hero John Mosby, quoted above, understood this. Even J.D., the unrepentant racist, did.
It is past time the entire remnant of the Confederacy, all its apologists and battle flag fetishists, understood it, too. The alternative is to continue insisting upon sophistry as truth, and to periodically embarrass themselves and mystify the rest of us with their stubborn fealty to the stinking corpse of a long lost cause. It is to learn for the umpteen-millionth time what the governor was just taught.
Memory dies hard.
— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com. firstname.lastname@example.org