Part Two – The Lost Cause
Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. – Abraham Lincoln
In 1877, the Reconstruction period ended with a compromise that removed federal troops from the last three occupied Southern states, enabling Democrats to gain complete political control of the South. Northerners, sick of the expensive effort to enforce equality in the South, were only too willing to drop the issue entirely. In exchange, the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes became President.
Soon, whites everywhere colluded in the “Lost Cause” myth. Immediately after the war, in 1866, Edward A. Pollard’s book The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the Confederates portrayed the Old South as a multicultural paradise of racial harmony untouched by the evils of industrial capitalism. It sought to recast the struggle to perpetuate slavery as a noble defense of a traditional way of life, led by gallant gentleman-officers and fought by loyal soldiers in the “War of Northern Aggression”. It even invented stories of Blacks who fought alongside them.
Conspiracy theories: in another parallel to current events, writes Tyler Parry, “nostalgic whites and their descendants believed such stories were being intentionally suppressed” by the Eastern press and liberal academics.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy (founded in 1894), along with the Sons of Confederate Veterans (1896), played a central role in the public vindication of their parent’s wartime experiences. Historian Karen Cox insists that it was mostly women, not men, who shaped the South’s (and the nation’s) memory of the war. They erected 700 monuments and built retirement homes for old soldiers and widows. But their most effective tool was the pro-Southern literature they forced into the region’s schools to educate the young about the just cause of states’ rights.
Textbooks, like the 1908 History of Virginia by Mary Tucker Magill, white-washed slavery: “Generally speaking, the negroes proved a harmless and affectionate race, easily governed, and happy in their condition.” This idea prevailed half a century later in the textbook Virginia: History, Government, Geography, used in seventh-grade classrooms into the 1970s:
Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those for whom they worked.
A high school text went into more fanciful detail about the slave:
He enjoyed long holidays, especially at Christmas. He did not work as hard as the average free laborer since he did not have to worry about losing his job. In fact, the slave enjoyed what we might call collective security. Generally speaking, his food was plentiful, his clothing adequate, his cabin warm, his health protected, his leisure carefree. He did not have to worry about hard times, unemployment, or old age.
These texts were ubiquitous. Greg Huffman estimates that seventy million students were enrolled in the South’s public elementary and secondary schools between 1889, when the government began counting students, and 1969, the height of the segregationist Jim Crow era. All of them were subjected to this false version of U.S. history, since the UDC’s primary focus was on insuring that Southern schools used only those history books that defended slavery, praised the Ku Klux Klan and banned those books that didn’t. And they exerted great influence on Northern book publishers as well, who
…had decisions to make if they wanted to sell books to Southern schools. Go all in with Lost Cause dogma and be able to sell the book only in the South? Or have two versions of the same book — one with carefully worded, watered-down history for the South, and another one with historical facts for everyone else? The latter was often the choice. This also meant that books covering only state history tended to have a local author, a local publisher — and a stronger Lost Cause bias.
Bad history persists, writes Steve Hochstadt, because those in power can enforce it by harassing its critics. In the 1950s,
It was easy for the FBI and conservative organizations to pinpoint those academics, journalists, and film directors who dissented from the Lost Cause ideology. They could then be attacked for their associations with organizations that could be linked to other organizations that could be linked to Communists. These crimes of identification were made easier to concoct because of the leading role played by American leftists in the fight against racism during the long 20th century of Jim Crow.
Mississippi’s public schools used Lost Cause textbooks exclusively until a federal court order forced them stop in 1980. But the textbook situation persists even in the 21st century.
Now, with millions of Republicans consuming the most absurd visions of who they are and what they think they know, the great-great-granddaughters of the Confederacy are having their way. Two weeks before Juneteenth, the Georgia Board of Education (by an 11-2 vote) joined the Red State stampede to rewrite history and keep their public school students (3 out of 5 of whom are children of color) from learning that racism is a real, current problem created by longstanding structural inequality. This move reflected the pernicious influence of right-wing media such as Fox News, which mentioned “critical race theory” 1,300 times over the past three-and-a-half months.
Why are the Daughters of the Confederacy important now? Because they became the spiritual ancestors of all the right-wing women of the past forty years, from Phyliss Schlafly to Sarah Palin to Michele Bachman to Ann Coulter to Laura Ingraham to Kellyanne Conway to Nikki Haley to Marjory Taylor Greene to the majority of white women who voted twice for a vile misogynist and accused rapist whose policies hurt their own children. Even more than the angry, working-class men we all heard about, white women voted against so many of their interests in favor of fear, privilege and hate. For them, it seems that the South should have won the war.
The end of Reconstruction and falsification of history are mythological issues. Generations of Northern and Southern whites consumed a new creation story that to a great extent replaced those of the Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers: the nation had survived its greatest crisis and experienced a rebirth and unification that would express itself in both further imperial expansion, further inequality and further historical amnesia.
It is no coincidence that nationalism arose in exactly those years that saw massive immigration, unionization, labor strife and huge concentrations of wealth in what came to be known as the Gilded Age.
The myth of a reunited America with a national purpose, along with hugely popular Horatio Alger tales of enterprising young men who prospered on their own merit, was just what the oligarchs of both North and South needed to distract the working classes from uniting. Within two generations, most white Americans remembered the war as one “between brothers.”
The issues that had caused the war faded away (except of course in the minds of Black, Brown, Yellow and Red people), but the long-term psychological wounds in the national character that led white men to erupt in regular expressions of genocidal violence did not. By the turn of the century, American troops (primarily Southerners) in the Philippines were massacring tens of thousands of indigenous people, whom they referred to as “niggers”, precisely when lynching was at its height at home. Later, they would take no Japanese prisoners, refer to Viet Nam as “Indian country” and denigrate Iraqis and Afghanis as “sand niggers” as they carried their Confederate flags into battle.
Actually, the process of fading and forgetting began well before the end of Reconstruction. Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson granted full amnesty to Confederate soldiers in 1868. Prior to that, he had already overturned General Sherman’s offer of “forty acres and a mule” and other programs for the recently emancipated Blacks. Christopher Petrella writes:
Such a juxtaposition is emblematic of the logic of the U.S. racial state: provide civic inclusion for treasonous white confederates and continue a policy of civic exclusion for newly liberated Black children, women, and men. Johnson’s strategic re-birth of the nation – “a country for white men [and] a government for white men,” in his words – helped to alleviate the crisis of whiteness generated by the Civil War and recenter its homogenizing supremacy.
There was a mild degree of land distribution, and by 1910 a quarter of Southern Black farmers (compared to 63% of white farmers) owned 15,000,000 acres, a number that would decrease to 2,000,000 acres by 1997, largely because of long-term racist policies in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But most poor Southerners, Black or White, had few alternatives to working as sharecroppers on the large plantations.
In 1872 Congress passed an amnesty act that returned the right to hold office, as well as their property, to all but five hundred men of the Confederate leadership. A century later, the government restored full citizenship to Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed, “…Congress officially completes the long process of reconciliation that has reunited our people…” This occurred thirty years before it officially apologized to Black people for slavery. Petrella concludes that “the idea of amnesty itself is only legible through a priori claims to civic belonging, a concept itself that is racialized as white.”
Because the nation failed to punish the leaders of the Confederacy, landholding and wealth-holding in the South never changed. Some of these rural areas are still run by the descendants of the people who ran the big plantations.
This new story – this new foundational myth – was based on the acceptance of the South’s number two objective. For generations, the vast majority of whites, North and South, agreed that blacks, though they had been granted legal equality, were not sufficiently evolved to vote, to exercise political authority, or to have their children schooled along with white children.
And this agreement in turn was based upon the fear of miscegenation, or race-mixing. Racism remained the foundation of a political economy predicated upon fear, the constant threat of violence, division of the working class and further refinements of whiteness and white privilege. The white national psyche was so obsessed with racial purity that laws long defined blacks as persons with any African ancestry. The “one-drop rule,” used by no other nation, made one a black person. “Octoroons,” who had seven white great-grandparents out of eight, were considered to be black. German Nazis copied American attitudes, especially in terms of Eugenics. But even for some of them, writes James Q. Whitman, “American race law looked too racist”.
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