Symbols of the Lost Cause

Recent events in New Orleans surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments and the resulting outcry has prompted me to write an opinion piece that is long overdue.

For context, select the link below to read a transcript of New Orleans Mayor Landrieu’s speech after the removal of the monument to Robert E. Lee, the fourth and final Confederate monument to be removed.

Landrieu’s Speech Transcript

Studying the Civil War was my first love when it comes to American and military history to the extent that I received a special exemption from my alma mater, Rhodes College, to take an adult Meeman Center course on the Civil War at the age of nine. One of my favorite military leaders to study is Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Regrettably, as a native Southerner, I must confess I fell into the subtle emotional and intellectual trap that comprises the “Lost Cause” mythology of the American South and held on to this mythology for some time, well into my mid-20s, which whitewashes the evils of American slavery and the historical ills of the Confederacy.

Southerners like to refer to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression. While it is true the northern states were no paragon of virtue when it came to slavery or race relations in the U.S., before or after the Civil War, and aggressively maneuvered to put the southern states into an untenable political position, leading to their secession, and committed wartime atrocities, this does not absolve the South of its role with regard to slavery in the U.S. nor do these circumstances make its cause particularly virtuous, irrespective of the states rights argument, which I find particularly compelling.

States rights, the limited role of the federal government, and the right of states to choose their political association (ideas dearly held by many of our Founding Fathers which I believe were severely damaged by the Civil War) were all motivated and necessitated in the South by the need to legitimize and maintain an economic and political system constructed around chattel slavery and the subjugation of ethnically black people, which can neither be ignored nor excused. It is also technically true the Civil War began due to the economic conflict between the North and South. However, claiming the Civil War began due to northern economic and political aggression reframes the war to provide victim status to the South while bypassing the fact that slavery was the cornerstone of the economic and political system of the South. The victim status of the South is one of the pillars of “Lost Cause” mythology.

The Civil War cost the lives of approximately 620,000 soldiers from both sides of the conflict and is estimated to have cost roughly $3.4 Billion in property destruction and the loss of human capital with another $3.3 Billion dollars from government expenditures in 1860 dollars according to research performed by Claudia Goldin and Frank Lewis. I’ve long pondered whether it would have been better to have ended slavery peacefully in the U.S., similarly to how slavery was ended in the northern states of the U.S. However, these numbers must be contrasted with the number of individuals who died while in slavery and the 4 million people freed from slavery at the end of the Civil War. Moreover, any peaceful end to slavery would require the willing cooperation of southern political leaders and the white voting population and a complete cultural change, possibly taking decades to achieve. I am aware that cotton field exhaustion leading to a drop in crop yields and the adoption of agricultural mechanization would likely play a significant role in potentially speeding up the end of slavery. However, it must be acknowledged that any delay to the end of slavery means telling, not asking, the millions of slaves suffering from the brutal and demeaning terror and horror of slavery to wait.

Martin Luther King, in his Birmingham jail response to an editorial published by a group of clergymen in the local newspaper, addressed this issue of waiting for injustice to end from the perspective of the oppressed.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “n****r,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

I say all of this to plainly point out that the symbols of the Confederacy that honor, reverence, and cherish the idea and ideals of the Confederacy are not merely aspects of a historical education, especially outside the appropriate confines of a historical battlefield park, but are political and cultural symbols of oppression and injustice that extend far beyond the time of the Civil War. Jim Crow. Segregation. Lynchings. Must I continue?

I love to study history and Shiloh is one of my favorite military parks to visit, but I no longer go there to mourn the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. I go there to witness and reflect on the nature of war, give respect to those who died, and explain to my daughter the significance and importance of the Civil War in our nation’s history; understanding that a tenuously connected group of states who commanded greater allegiance from its citizens than the United States of America emerged from the war to become one nation, bound together in blood and sacrifice.

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