Recently my family stopped at the Civil War battlefield at Vicksburg, Miss., to take a walk and soak in some history. Near the monument to Louisiana’s troops stood a young boy, about 8 or 9, with his mom and dad. The boy was dressed up as a gray-clad Confederate soldier. The combination of the outfit and the Confederate flag sticker on his family’s car told me something important about this boy.
It told me that he was a lot like me at that age.
I grew up in Texas, and the Confederacy was one of my first loves. I don’t recall learning this. Unlike the boy at Vicksburg, not a bit of it came from my parents. They were (to my shame) transplanted Yankees from Iowa. Love of the Confederacy was simply in the air and the water. It was received wisdom.
A favorite game among my neighborhood friends was to play Rebels and Yankees. Nobody wanted to be Yankees, the bad guys. So we went around shooting phantom bluebellies. In our own first-grade way, we were true to the myth of the Lost Cause. We won all the battles while still losing the war. Not our fault, we told ourselves. The Yankees fought underhanded and they had lots more men.
I’ve often wondered where life would have led me if I’d stayed with this line of thinking. It might have led me to downtown Montgomery, Ala., this weekend. That’s where the Sons of Confederate Veterans plan to mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War Saturday. The celebrations will include a reenactment of the swearing in of Jefferson Davis as the first president of the Confederacy. Cannons will be fired. Dixie will be sung.
For the uninitiated, the Sons of Confederate Veterans is a southern heritage group carrying some ugly racial baggage, including past leaders with ties to white supremacists. The group’s email about the mock inauguration stressed that “it is IMPERATIVE that this event be well attended. We must show the world that we will not permit the History and Heritage of the Confederacy to be forgotten and unobserved during the Sesquicentennial. It is up to us to see that this history is remembered and portrayed the right way.”
As a former fan of the Confederacy, I can vouch that this is important. When history is not portrayed the “right way” from a Confederate point of view, unpleasant questions and issues come up. For me, those questions centered around slavery, which I was learning about in elementary school. Naturally, I had no idea what cognitive dissonance was then. But I found it harder and harder to reconcile my worship of Robert E. Lee’s exploits with the “peculiar institution” he was defending. Finally, by fifth grade I realized I had to make a choice. Either my gray-clad heroes were right or ending slavery was right. I could not admire both.
Robert E. Lee is of course the messiah figure in the religion of the Lost Cause. But there are many angels in the Confederate firmament, and none darker than Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. Unquestionably brilliant on the battlefield, Forrest was also unapologetically vicious toward black people. He viewed them as commodities, selling them as a slave trader before the war, murdering them as POWs during the war, and terrorizing them as the Ku Klux Klan’s first grand wizard after the war.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans now wish to commemorate Forrest on Mississippi license plates. That’s not likely to happen. In fact, this effort very much resembles one of Forrest’s own raids—guaranteed to make a splash but largely empty of strategy.
But the Confederacy’s modern defenders more and more resemble the Confederacy itself in its dying days. They are desperate and willing to defend their cause with anything that comes to hand. Let me give another small example. Recently, I was taken aback by a bumper sticker I saw near my home in Alabama. It showed a big Confederate battle flag next to the words “We fought the first war against terrorism.” Yeah, right—you and the grand wizard.
Most neo-Confederates try to ennoble the southern war effort by more traditional means, like tying it firmly to states rights. (Of course, the chief “states right” in question was the right to own slaves, but never mind.) Or, they try to prettify it with Gone With the Wind-type pageantry, like the mock Jeff Davis inaugural.
Unfortunately for neo-Confederates, there is a stubbornly long record of first-hand sources pointing to the centrality of slavery in the southern cause. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,” the state of Mississippi declared when it left the Union. And as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens put it, the southern government’s “foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and moral condition.”
I doubt the boy I saw at Vicksburg will hear these words anytime soon. They’re corrosive to worship of the Confederacy. But schools must make sure that students do hear them often during the next four years. Each 150th anniversary event is sure to bring out southern activists who will argue that the Confederacy is being maligned by being tied to slavery. Perhaps this strikes you as an impossible argument to make. But never underestimate neo-Confederates. By definition, they’re suckers for a lost cause.
Price is managing editor of Teaching Tolerance.