I hadn’t planned to write about Southern identity any time in the immediate future. I decided to do it because of this excellent video by The Cynical Historian. He does interesting work and this one is particularly good.
The video is particularly timely right at the moment, when America is governed seemingly by un-reconstructed Confederates and neo-Nazis. This is not our ancestors’ patriotism.
The basic idea here is that there is a mythology of the South’s Lost Cause, with four important elements:
- Slavery was good for the enslaved.
- The issue in the Civil War was states’ rights, not slavery.
- The North was the aggressor.
- Reconstruction was designed to punish the South.
If you’re a Northerner, or like me a Westerner taught by the modern equivalent of Yankee schoolmarms, you’ve heard it all before and you’re rolling your eyes. If you’re a Southerner, you want to punch someone—or failing that, maybe just vote for Donald Trump again. (Why the South fell in love with a New York City conman is a mystery to us all. No sense of heritage there.)
One of the things I like about this video is that it is not just a partisan hack job. There’s an element of truth in each of the mythological claims. Cypher takes time to explore. For example, it would be hard to see Sherman’s March through Georgia as anything other than total war (“Northern Aggression”) but at the same time we should acknowledge that Gen. Stonewall Jackson on the Southern side advocated total war from the beginning.
I have some cousins who belong to Sons (and Daughters) of the Confederacy. I qualify for membership but I can’t even imagine joining. They say “Heritage Not Hate.” I say “Heritage of Hate.” And, as an old-fashioned Patriot it’s hard for me to imagine any world where someone could celebrate ancestors who committed treason.
My main take-away from this video is the idea that someone I think is eminently reasonable (Cypher) thinks there might be a good rationale for keeping the public statues to the heroes of the Confederacy. The argument seems to be that we don’t need to destroy history even when we disagree with it. I come at it a little differently. I see no reason to maintain public statues and monuments of any kind if they don’t represent a widespread majority of the population there now. I don’t see that we need to maintain statues that represent only a race and class ascendancy from an era when those people could position their views as “normative.”
At one time I believed the rest of the country is just waiting for the old guard to die off so we can all move forward. Now our national politics have shown there must have been a stronger undercurrent of racism than we imagined.
And that brings me to one of my long-held but definitely minority opinions. We didn’t do ourselves any good fighting the Civil War to keep the South. We should have let them go. By forcing them to stay in the Union, we’ve likely sewn the seeds of our own defeat.
- The Cynical Historian. “Understanding the Lost Cause Myth.” YouTube <youtube.com>, Apr. 16, 2020. Retrieved Apr. 20, 2020.